Fire on the Fourth!

The Farming Daughter: Fire on the Fourth (

35 years ago today marks a Fourth of July my family will never forget. While other families were enjoying the usual Independence Day festivities, my family was experiencing fireworks of a different sort.

The day before, July 3rd, had been good weather, and my dad, Grandpa, Grandma, and Uncle Chuck were busy making hay. By day’s end, they had finished filling the barn hay mow completely full. This is what the farm looked like then:

The Farming Daughter: Fire on the Fourth 1 (
An aerial photograph of our farm before the fire

The next day started like normal, with everyone helping to do morning chores and milking together. Back then we milked our cows in stanchions, which meant that each cow stood in her own stall and the milking machine was brought to her. At 7:30 am the first group of cows had finished being milked and had been let out to pasture.  Just before the second group of cows was let into the milking stalls, someone, either Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Chuck, or Dad, noticed a red glow radiating from the hay mow chute. With a sinking feeling, they all realized what it was. It was one of the worst things a farm can every experience…fire!

Our farm would look idyllic, if it wasn't for the cloud of smoke pouring from our barn
Our farm would look idyllic, if it wasn’t for the cloud of smoke pouring from the barn.

The first thing a farmer thinks of in a situation like that is his cows. The men immediately shooed all of the milking cows out of the barn, and as many of the heifers as they could. Grandma, in the urgency of the situation, forgot there was a telephone in the barn, and dashed to the house to call 911.

I asked my grandparents how long it took for the fire trucks to arrive and they told me it felt like an eternity. The actual time was probably 15-20 minutes, and soon eight fire companies were working hard to put out the blaze.

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The fire trucks pumped water from our pond to put out the flames:

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My dad was 15 years old at the time of the fire and I asked him if he was scared. He said there was too much to do to have time to be afraid.

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Thankfully, all of the milking cows made it out of the barn and all but 4 of the heifers. While it’s heartbreaking that we lost those 4 girls, in truth we were very blessed to have lost so few.

The cows stand in the pasture, completely unaffected by the drama happening behind them.
The cows stand in the pasture,  unaffected by the drama happening behind them.

Whenever I hear the story of the fire what stands out the most to me is the number of people that showed up. Dad tells me how literally hundreds of people came to help. In this photo you can see the barn burning and the dozens of cars lining our road and stretching around the corner:

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At 1:30 pm, while the barn was still burning, bulldozers and pay loaders began tearing down the wreckage and loading it into dump trucks. The rubble was hauled down the road and dumped behind a generous neighbor’s barn in a pile. A fire truck had to be stationed by the pile to hose the smoking debris so it wouldn’t start on fire again.

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Not only is it sad for me to see the destroyed barn, but also the piles of burned hay that had just been stacked in the mow the day before.

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Of course just because the barn was on fire didn’t mean the cows didn’t need milked anymore. Don Beck, Inc. came and started putting in a new milking pipeline in an undamaged part of the barn, while the rest of the barn was still burning and and being hauled away. By 7 pm half of the cows were taken to a neighbor’s farm and the other half were being milked in our barn. In the midst of a fire we were milking cows again, without having missed a single milking.

Bec's equipment vans showed up to put in a new milk pipeline
Beck’s equipment vans showed up to put in a new milk pipeline

We never found out for sure what caused the fire. Some speculate a “hot spot” in the new hay or a spark from the hay conveyor could have been the cause. In one day we lost an entire barn, a mow full of hay, 61 stalls, a milk pipeline, and 4 animals. 3 months later the barn was completely built back.

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The old barn and the new

To me the story of our barn fire illustrates some of the core values of the farming community: the courage of the firefighters that risked their lives to save the rest of our barns and our house, the neighbors that came from miles to lend a helping hand, the generosity of fellow farmers offering their barns and equipment, and the indomitable spirit of my uncle, grandparents, and father when they chose not to accept defeat, but to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

The Fourth of July barn fire is just a small part of my family’s story, but the lessons it taught are not. What have you learned from your family history?


-The Farming Daughter

Caring for Cows in the Winter

Caring for Cows in the Winter (

Whenever I talk about our farm during the winter, the first question I get asked is, “How do cows do with the cold?” Actually, cows tend to prefer cold weather over hot. Their thick hides (7x thicker than human skin on average), hair, and unique heat-producing digestion mean that a cow’s favorite temperature is between 40° and 65° F.  Of course, it gets colder than that during the winter and we want to make sure our cows are safe and comfortable even if a blizzard is blowing outside. So how do we do that?

One of the most critical things is proper housing. A cow needs a clean, dry environment that shelters her from wind and snow. Our cows are housed in a “free-stall” barn and can choose to walk around, eat, drink, lay down, or socialize whenever they want. During the winter, curtains on the side of the barn are raised to block the wind, but on milder days they can be lowered to let in some fresh air. Keeping the cows in the barn during winter ensures the cows never get wet or chilled and protects them from possibly slipping and injuring themselves outside.

Caring for Cows in the Winter: Our Free-Stall Barn (
A few of the girls resting in their freshly groomed stalls.

It is also important that a cow is receiving plenty of high quality feed. A cow’s largest stomach compartment is her rumen, which she uses to ferment her feed for digestion. This fermentation produces heat and, “is beneficial by helping dairy cows prevent a decline in body temperature” (Cooperative Extension, University of California, Davis). We feed our cows a special diet of grass, silage, straw, and grain using a recipe that our dairy nutritionist formulates for us. This ensures that our cows are getting the perfect amount of energy, protein, fiber, and nutrients that they need.

Caring for Cows in the Winter: Feeding the cows (
Eating breakfast

While adult cows handle the cold well, our baby calves require special attention. Since a calf’s surface area to body mass ratio is higher it’s easier for them to lose heat. Like the cows, our calves are housed in a barn with a curtain that can be raised or lowered depending on the temperature. Our newborn and small calves are each kept in their own pen so we can monitor them individually and make sure they are eating properly. We feed our calves two times a day, and the milk is warmed before we serve it. We also use warm water for them to drink.

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Drinking warm milk

Each calf wears an insulated blanket or coat that helps keep them warm.

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Twice a day we add fresh bedding to the pens so the calves stay clean and dry. We also put fluffy straw in the little calves’ pens so they can snuggle down and nest in it.

Caring for Cows in the Winter: Adding fresh bedding (
Addison adding fresh straw to the calf pens

Looks like she went a little overboard on this one…

Caring for Cows in the Winter: Extra bedding (

The older calves are housed together in group pens.  We feed grain twice a day with free access hay and water.

Caring for Cows in the Winter: Our calf group pens (
Mason bedding the group pens

It’s important to us that our cows are warm and comfortable, even in the middle of a western NY winter!

I took a short video of one of our calves playing in the bedding we added to her pen. You can watch it here.

To learn more about winter cow care here’s a short article about How Cows Stay Warm in the Winter.

-The Farming Daughter

I Met Dairy Carrie!

Meeting Dairy Carrie - The Farming Daughter

Addison and I attended a Young Cooperators meeting Thursday. These “YC” meetings, hosted by our milk co-op, are always a great learning and leadership-building opportunity for those of us in the 40 and younger crowd. This time was no exception! We were talking about social media and using it as a tool to reach out to our consumers. It really inspired me to start posting more about our farm and cows, I am the Farming Daughter after all!

My favorite part of the meeting was listening (and getting to talk to!!) our special guest speaker Carrie Mess. Carrie blogs over at The Adventures of Dairy Carrie and writes about farming on a 100 cow dairy in Southern Wisconsin. She had some great advice about “telling our story” and gave us the challenge (which I’m going to try) of posting at least once a week.

If you’ve never read her blog I suggest you check it out!

The Adventures of Dairy Carrie

Here are a few of my personal favorite posts:

Just the (dairy) facts: 29 facts about dairy!

A new baby, now what?

Sometimes we are mean to our cows


-The Farming Daughter