Herd largely spared as tornado moves dairy barn

Family grateful for support of friends and neighbours as barn will have to be rebuilt

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A potentially “overwhelming situation,” was eased significantly by an outpouring of community support, after a tornado ripped through a Belmont-area dairy farm on June 10.

“The first couple days were full of phone calls, emails and texts from companies and individuals offering assistance,” said farm co-owner Suzanne Pettit. She said the response showed “the strength and support of our rural community.”

Assistance included dropped-off meals, fixed fences, relocated animals, and “load after load” of picked-up and removed brush and pieces of a freestall dairy barn “that were strewn all over the nearby fields.”

Why it matters: Community support during tough times is a hallmark that continues to keep farmers going.

Thanks to that support and the resilience of the brother-sister-and-families team at Mistyglen Holsteins, the 52-head herd is being housed and milked at a neighbouring farm, and reconstruction plans have been solidified for an almost-identical replacement structure.

Initial news reports stated the 8:15 p.m. storm caused no injuries to livestock, however, Pettit provided the unfortunate update that one milking cow and one calf succumbed to injuries related to the tornado in the few days following June 10.

The barn at Mistyglen Holsteins was still standing after the tornado but damage to all its walls will require it to be demolished.
photo: Courtesy Suzanne Pettit

Residents across the region received emergency cellphone notifications about potential storm activity that evening. For the Mistyglen team, however, those warnings only arrived 20 minutes after the funnel cloud had torn through a neighbour’s bean field on a path toward their farm. Drone footage posted on Facebook by Pettit a few days later, showed how remarkable it was that the neighbour’s house was spared – although there was scattered damage elsewhere in the vicinity.

“I was in my house, and my brother and his family were in their home across the road,” she recalled. “My niece noticed the tornado as it ripped through the trees surrounding our neighbour’s home.”

Within minutes, concerned community members arrived. Calves were rounded up from numerous scattered and overturned hutches. Fencing around the heifer pasture was knocked down, so those animals were also herded into makeshift pens in the still-intact old dairy barn.

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Within an hour, their construction company arrived to assess damage to the 2012 barn. “From the road, the barn appears to be fine,” Pettit explained, “until you get up close and realize there is not one square wall left.”

Investigators eventually identified it as an EF1 category storm, meaning wind speeds between 138 km/h and 177 km/h, and the potential to cause “moderate damage.” Aside from the barn and calf hutches, Mistyglen also saw four forage wagons destroyed, a few other implements damaged, and some trees and windrows twisted and torn.

As for the cows inside the barn, “I don’t know what happened to them in the moments (the storm) passed through, but they were remarkably calm afterward given the circumstances.” All 52 are now being milked at the nearby Verhoef family farm – close enough for Pettit’s nieces to visit and help with milking, and also close enough for Mistyglen to deliver corn silage, thereby assisting those who are assisting them.

Through it all, Pettit found time each day to share the farm’s experiences on the Mistyglen Facebook page – a page she has maintained since 2011, when she saw it as a way to document, for the farm’s own purposes, the construction of the new robot barn. Since then, the page has garnered 5,600 followers, and a follow-up effort to establish an Instagram presence has an even stronger reach at 9,300 followers.

Work is ongoing to tear down the barn at Mistyglen Holsteins. It will then be rebuilt on the same foundation.
photo: Courtesy Suzanne Pettit

All told, Pettit believes her initial post about the tornado touching down reached 86,000 people. And in the days and weeks that followed, those social media acquaintances had an inside view as Mistyglen worked through the recovery process.

“Today was surreal,” Pettit wrote on June 11. “When things seem overwhelming, the support of friends and community cannot be measured . . . The shock of an empty barn began to set in, but we are so grateful.”

In a recent interview with Farmtario, she offered some insight gained through nearly a month of the process. “Lean on those that offer to help,” she advised. “There is only so much you can do yourself. It will be physically and mentally taxing, but rural communities unite in circumstances like these.”

Pettit also emphasized the importance of being properly insured.

Due to the twisted frame and trusses, the barn will have to be torn down to the cement and rebuilt. “There are a few unknowns so it is hard to determine how long it will take before the cows can come home,” she explained. But “our goal is to be back up and running normally by the end of October.”

About the author

Contributor

Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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