Farm recovery from April's blizzard will take months
As piles of snow diminish, gaping holes in the roofs of many barns across the state remain, evidence of the historic snowstorm that dumped record amounts of snow on Wisconsin April 13-16.
As Secretary of Agriculture Sheila Harsdorf toured devastated farms on April 24, the damage she saw goes beyond crumpled barns and gaping holes in roofs. Losses include lower milk production from stressed cows, aborted pregnancies and injuries that show up months down the road.
“It’s hard to believe the destruction,” said Sheila Harsdorf, Wisconsin’s secretary of agriculture. “It’s something we’ve probably never seen in our lifetime. If one operation has a disaster, other farms can pitch in and help take care of animals, and allow it to be rebuilt, but in this case, there’s so many structures that are damaged.”
Harsdorf, who took the top post in November 2017, on Tuesday visited JJ&S Sunrise Dairy Farm southeast of Shawano and O’Harrow Family Farms northeast of Oconto Falls.
Harsdorf joined Gov. Scott Walker on April 25 as he visited Birlings Bovines in Black Creek and Sievert Farms in Sobeiski to assess damage from the April snowstorm.
“Farmers were hit hard by the recent blizzard, and we want all farmers impacted to know that we hear you,” said Governor Walker. “On top of reporting losses to their insurance companies, we encourage farmers who suffered damage from the blizzard to document it and report it to their local FSA office as they could be eligible for certain federal disaster assistance.”
Harsdorf urged all farmers to report damage from the storm to local Farm Service Agency office. That will allow officials to determine if there is enough damage to declare the region a disaster area, which could trigger some federal assistance.
"There are a number of concerns, not only in getting the operations back in line, but how much the insurance companies are going to cover in the damages," Harsdorf told media during the tour. "In some cases we have portions of the barn where the roofs have collapsed, and those that have not, still are not structurally sound."
Jay Vomastic, owner of JJ&S Sunrise Dairy Farm, in Shawano, lost five cows when snow collapsed a barn on his farm, trapping cows in a "V" under trusses, Vomastic told WFRV-TV.
"It's sad to see you know, years of work ... my grandfather, father and everybody built things up to be where it was at — one freak snowstorm and everything is wiped away," Vomastic said in an interview.
Vomastic, who is looking at $300,000 worth of damage, according to media reports, said after clean up, they would get contractors in to look at rebuilding.
"Is it going to be easy? Probably not, but the way the farming economy was struggling already, this is another backbreaker for the community that they didn't need," Vomastic said in an interview.
At O'Harrow Family Farm in Oconto County, where the main barn holds about 1,100 - 1,200 cows, the center section of the barn collapsed in a period of 24 hours from April 15 - 16, Tim O'Harrow said.
"There was no loss of human life. None of our employees were injured — those are all the positive things," said O'Harrow. "We did lose some cows."
Many of the cows were moved to another building, resulting in crowded conditions. Milking went from three times a day to one and a half times a day, but cows were back to a normal milking schedule within a few days.
However, as they wait for answers from the insurance company, and any other emergency funds that may be available, they start piecing through the damage and watching the herd for long-term ramifications from the storm.
The storm was more than a five day, or two week event, O'Harrow pointed out. "This is more like a six to 12 month event."
O'Harrow said they know some cows that were 45 to 60 days pregnant are already aborting. There has been loss in milk production from the change in the milking schedule.
"Cows, like people, are used to routines, so when you change their schedule from three times a day to one and a half, that is a severe altercation in their normal life," said O'Harrow.
Milk production was also affected by the crowded conditions resulting from the collapse. Cows weren't able to get "all the feed they are used to getting."
"There is more mastitis than normal, that will affect milk flow," O'Harrow explained. "There are cows in late lactation that will not come back to full production, so that milk is gone."
And there may be some cows — "we don't know how many, that is the tricky part" — that were injured but not showing injury at this time.
O'Harrow said he talked with a farmer in the central part of the state that had a collapse more than two years ago.
"He said some of the injuries you will see at a later time were like a bruised backbone and all of a sudden the cow can’t walk or stand because of that injury that took time to show up," O'Harrow explained.
There may be cuts and abrasions that could cause infection.
"So there is a time lag in what we are going to experience," said O'Harrow. "There are some things we will see six months out. All of that is going to factor into the challenges ahead of us."
O'Harrow pointed out that many producers in the state have been caught "in the crosshairs of the storm," and are waiting to find out what insurance will cover and if government agencies will provide any assistance.
“I think what is trying to be conveyed to state officials, FSA (Farm Service Agency) and DATCP (Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection), is that there are many of us that are not looking for a handout, what we're looking for is a hand up," O’Harrow said. “That’s important for a lot of different-sized operations.”
John Jacobs, of Green Valley Dairy, in Shawano County, said government agencies “to their credit, (are) trying to figure this out,” with widespread damage through several counties.
Damages are "considerable" at Jacobs' farm where they milk 3,200 cows. The south sides of their barn roofs were compromised when the snow piled up several feet high, causing roofs to sag and some to crack and collapse.
No people or cattle were injured there. Cattle were doubled up in the north pens, and a neighbor is housing some cows for them.
“If you go by the barns, some are patched already, and … it doesn’t look that bad,” he said. “But the integrity of the roof is shot.”
Jacobs sought help from the Morgan/Green Valley Fire Department, which came out after the storm to spray snow off the roof so there weren’t further collapses.
For Heather and Jay Jauquet, near Pulaski, they are back to normal operations on their farm where they milk 350 cows three times a day, but are "anxiously watching the weather for any precipitation because we have probably a 40 by 40 foot hole in the roof" over a set of freestalls and a manger.
"I would have to say we are feeling very, very fortunate compared to how some other farms have fared," Heather Jauquet said.
The worst part of the storm for them was between 2 a.m., April 15 and 7 a.m., April 16 before builders showed up with a load of lumber, a full crew and two lifts to erect support beams around the collapsed area of roof in their freestall barn.
With no way to remove the heavy load of snow and no place else to put the cows, they knew "it was a very dangerous situation."
"For that period of time, we didn't even allow our employees in the barn to do any of the work out there," said Jauquet. "My husband and I did everything because we were just terrified."
While there could be some abortions because cows were stressed, Jauquet was pleasantly surprised with how their calves came through the storm. The calves were in hutches, some of which were buried in snowbanks.
"We had some issues with the calves in the days following," said Jauquet.
But neighbors trudged through waist deep snow to help shovel out and rebed the hutches.
"It was quite a weekend," Jauquet added. "I hope I never have to do it again."
Report losses, damage
Farmers are being encouraged to report livestock losses and structural damages to their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office.
"It’s still early, and it may be some time before we know the extent of the damage," State Executive Director, USDA FSA Wisconsin office, Sandy Chalmers said in an email. "It’s important that farmers document livestock losses by taking photos or by keeping veterinarian records, rendering truck receipts, or similar documents. FSA county office staff is available to answer questions."
Oconto County FSA Farm Loan Manager Dan Schott has spoken with several loan customers that suffered damages and losses from the storm. Most have reported structural damages with minimal death losses to cattle, but some have been injured and may need to be culled.
"I encourage all producers whom have been impacted by the storm to keep track of the cattle that were lost (sold and/or death losses), milk production that may have been lost and to start working closely with their insurance companies to figure just what amount of coverage they may have" Schott said in an email. "Once they have determined the extent of the damages, they will need to start getting estimates as to what it will cost to replace/repair the damaged structures."
Schott said losses may be higher than they originally thought and some buildings may have been structurally compromised.
"With the current economic conditions and tight cash flow projections I am very concerned how most of the producers are going to be able to repay the loans needed to rebuild their facilities," Schott added.
DATCP has been in contact with the FSA state office since the storm, according to a news release.
“It is critical that farmers document and report any damage to their local FSA office because they may be eligible for disaster assistance programs. If farmers haven’t already contacted their insurers, they need to do that as well,” said DATCP Secretary Sheila Harsdorf.
Assistance may be available to farmers who lost livestock, grazing land and fences. There are also safety net programs, including the Livestock Indemnity Program and the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish program.
In addition, the FSA uses loss reports to determine whether to seek a disaster designation from the USDA Secretary. A disaster designation makes farmers in the county eligible for low-interest loans if they cannot access private financing.
A directory of county FSA offices is available at offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app?state=wi&agency=fsa.
Even before the storm, farmers were stressed because of low commodity prices and a late planting season, Harsdorf noted. She reminded farmers that the Wisconsin Farm Center is available to help with lender mediation and to help them deal with financial and emotional stress. The hotline number is 1-800-942-2474. Staff are available 7:45 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. weekdays, and a voicemail system will take messages over the weekend.
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter Kent Tempus contributed to this article.