Support buoys Johnson Creek family after fire destroys milk parlor

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

JOHNSON CREEK - The outpouring of help since an early morning fire on Jan. 13 destroyed the milking parlor at Dettmann Dairy has left the family speechless. 

From loading and hauling the farm's 500 milking cows to two other farms, to people who showed up with food all day long to help feed the cold, hungry people at the fire.

"The support has been unbelievable, it really has," said Mike Dettmann. 

Firefighters from 13 departments assisted the Johnson Creek Fire Department as they fought a blaze at Dettmann Dairy in the town of Milford on Jan. 13. Sub zero temperatures caused problems with icing.

Mike is the fourth generation farming Dettmann Dairy, which started in 1902. Mike runs the farm on Highway N with his dad Tim. 


Mike was jolted awake around 3 a.m. on Jan. 13, when the morning milking crew arrived at the farm, discovered the fire in the office area and called him.

"We found it quickly to be our dryers," Mike said. "We use cloth towels for the milking procedures and one of the dryers had lit on fire." 

Flames leap from the milking parlor at Dettmann Dairy as firefighters work in sub zero weather to extinguish the blaze on Jan. 13 in Johnson Creek.

By the time Mike got to the farm and grabbed a fire extinguisher, the bathroom and laundry area were completely engulfed in flames and spreading to the office and break room. 

"There was nothing much I could do at that point," Mike recalled. "I did manage to grab my computer out of the office before we left, so I saved our cow records, but everything else is pretty much lost."

Johnson Creek Fire Chief Jim Wolf estimated damage to the 40-by-100-foot building to be about $250,000 to $300,000, not including the parlor equipment. 

Thirteen fire departments responded to assist Johnson Creek in battling the fire, Wolf said. Temperatures below zero added challenges for fire crews as hydrants and tenders kept freezing and ice formed from water runoff. 

Firefighters dig through rubble after extinguishing a fire at Dettmann Dairy in the town of Milford on Jan. 13. The fire caused and estimated $250,000 - $300,000 in damage, not including the parlor equipment.

By the time fire crews arrived, the fire was already spreading to the attic of the parlor and to the holding area. Besides being hampered by the extreme cold, with the steel structure of the parlor still standing, they couldn't directly access the flames. 

"My dad hopped in our payloader and was able to tear off some of the steel in the front of the building so we could start to get water into the attic," Mike added.

But it wasn't until the milking parlor roof collapsed that firefighters were able to gain access to get more water directly on the flames. 

Firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to the milkhouse and to the freestall facility where the 500 cows waited for milking. The cows were moved away from the center of the building, out of the smoke and out of harm's way, Mike pointed out. 

Steel roofing hangs in the holding area of the Dettmann Dairy milking parlor after an earlly morning fire on Jan. 13 destroyed the parlor, bathroom/laundry room, kitchen and office area at the farm. The fire was started by an industrial dryer.

"Thankfully they were able to get the fire stopped so we only lost the milking facility and not the barn itself," Mike said. 


As fire crews battled flames and cold, Mike set to work finding temporary homes for the cows. With the help of Jordan Matthews at Rosy Lane Holsteins in Watertown, they started contacting farms.

"As luck would have it, we had two farms not too far from here that recently had completed expansions and weren't full," said Mike. "So our thanks go out to the Griswold family in Ixonia and the McFarland family in Watertown. They opened their doors to us no questions asked and before the fire was out, we had a home for our cows lined up."

Cattle trailers arrive to move 500 cows from Dettmann Dairy after a fire destroyed the milking parlor early Saturday morning, Jan. 13.

And then the trucks and trailers started rolling in - from as far away as Dane County.

"It was unreal," Mike said. "We had pretty much every friend and neighbor we knew of showed up and friends of theirs that we didn't even know were here."

With one semi load of cows, the rest were hauled using trucks and trailers, with most trailers able to hold about nine full-grown cows, Mike's wife Sue posted on the farm's Facebook page. 

"We moved 500 cows in, I think, about five hours," Mike added.

Icicles hang from parlor equipment after an early morning fire on Jan. 13 destroyed the milking parlor at Dettmann Dairy in Johnson Creek.

Neighbors helped load the trailers making loading and handling the cattle as smooth and easy "as can be expected under those conditions, just because of all the help," said Mike.

And then there was the food.

"We had more food here than we knew what to do with," Mike said. "Everybody that was here got to have something to eat that day thanks to everybody that came."

Mike's stepmom, Amy, called it "incredible."People would come to the farm and drop off food all day long. 

"We can't thank everybody enough," said Mike. "Obviously with the industry we are in we all try to help each other out when we need it. It's not the easiest job to have, but it was unreal."

Bad luck

This isn't the first time the Dettmann family has dealt with a major farm fire. They've had four major fires in 15 years. 

"Our stretch of bad luck continues here," Mike pointed out.

It started in 2004 with a fire at the original dairy barn. 

"That was after this expansion, so the facility at that time was being used for heifers and dry cows," Mike explained. "We were able to get the animals out. We didn't lose anybody there."

Snow blankets the debris from a Jan. 13 fire at Dettmann Dairy. No animals or people were injured in the fire, which destroyed the bathroom/laundry room, kitchen, office, and holding area and milking parlor. The fire was started by an industrial dryer.

A year and a half later, a machine shed that was part of the original farm was lost as well. In 2012, a new machine shed and everything inside was lost due to a fire started by spontaneous combustions in bales stored in the shed. 

"Now this one here in 2018," Mike added. "We're getting very tired of talking about fires around here, that's for sure."

The freestall barn sits eerily quiet now as clean up is set to start on Jan. 17. Mike said they will be meeting with builders and engineers to decide how to rebuild, "and get our girls back home," Sue posted on Facebook. 

"The plan is definitely to rebuild and get the cows home," said Mike. "It's our farm. This is what we do."