Oncken: Texas tragedy raises questions

John Oncken
Smoke fills the sky after an explosion and fire at the Southfork Dairy Farms near Dimmitt, Texas, on Monday, April 10, 2023. The explosion at the dairy farm in the Texas Panhandle that critically injured one person and killed an estimated 18,000 head of cattle is the deadliest barn fire recorded since the Animal Welfare Institute began tracking the fires.

The Texas Fire Marshal is investigating what caused the huge fire at the South Fork Dairy in Dimmitt, Texas, earlier this week. However, industry and dairy experts say current information from officials indicate it was an accident.

The reported explosion occurred at South Fork Dairy, located just southeast of Dimmitt. According to Castro County Sheriff Sal Rivera, the explosion occurred around 7:20 p.m. on Monday, April 10. There are unconfirmed reports of how many cows died from the fire, but officials believe it’s close to 18,000. Rivera says the ongoing investigation will work to nail down what caused the fire to become so big and spread so quickly.

The fire started Monday night on April 10 at South Fork Dairy Farm in Dimmitt, about 66 miles south of Amarillo.

Rivera told media that a preliminary investigations shows that overheated equipment - manure handling equipment - is likely to have caused the fire. He said methane may have "ignited and then spread out with the explosion and the fire," and that fire marshals need to investigate further to confirm.

The Roof 

Based on the current information from officials, and aerial video that shows a charred roof evenly across the barn, sources say if the explosion was big enough to ignite any part of non-fire-resistant insulation, it would spread like wildfire across the entire building, approximately 2,136,973-square feet or nearly 40 acres.

A screen shot of Blake Bednarz' twitter account notes that the burned out barn is approx. 2,136,973 sq ft and is deemed a total loss.

That would also explain why the fire didn’t last long, because once the insulation was all burned, then the fuel to the fire would also be gone. Insulation not being fireproof would also explain why the building had so much black smoke.

My questions

Where were the employees during the fire that apparently spread extremely fast over the 2,000 foot length of the barn? That size herd would require 50 plus workers for milking, feeding bedding etc. Luckily they got out! The fire was at 7:20 p.m. and with 18,000 cows milking would be a 24 hour process and no empty barn time.

Someone erred if the insulation was non-fire-resistant. Who? What caused the original explosion – if it was some kind of tractor or mechanical vehicle there had to be a driver or operator. What happened to that person? What are they going to do with that many dead cows?

My guess is that a long investigation is coming. There are hundreds of dairies with cross ventilated barns housing lots of cows across the land who will want to know what caused the fire and why.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller released this statement: “The cause of the fire remains under investigation, and we all want to know what the facts are. There are lessons to be learned and the impact of this fire may influence the immediate area and the industry itself. Once we know the cause and the facts surrounding this tragedy, we will make sure the public is fully informed - so tragedies like this can be avoided in the future.”

Ponds formed by rainwater in farm fields come and go.

Water, water everywhere and who controls it?

The waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) discussion seems to have been going on forever with the defination of what the “waters” actually are.

The latest WOTUS definition ‒ put into motion by the Biden administration on March 20 ‒ was met with a wave of backlash from the ag industry for its “overreaching” jurisdiction. That opposition was validated on Wednesday when a North Dakota, U.S. District Court Judge, Daniel Hovland,  granted an injunction that blocks enforcement of the WOTUS rule in 24 states.

Under the current rule, the following bodies of water are considered WOTUS and therefore subject to federal regulation: 

  • Traditional navigable waters
  • Tributaries that contribute perennial or intermittent flow to such waters
  • Certain ditches that meet specific criteria related to flow and function
  • Certain lakes and ponds
  • Impoundments of otherwise jurisdictional waters
  • Wetlands that are adjacent to jurisdictional waters

So, what makes EPA’s final WOTUS rule “unlawful” and worthy of an injunction? Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs at NCBA, says it comes down to bureaucracy. He says the EPA’s WOTUS “patchwork” of words like “certain lakes and ponds” has carved-out room for discretion. He says this discretion will rob policymakers and landowners of time and money. “An injunction at this early stage can avoid the massive waste of resources and delayed projects in pursuit of permits that may soon be legally irrelevant,” Judge Daniel Hovland wrote in his ruling. 

I'm sure the discussion will continue until the government gets control of the half-acre seasonal pond in the far corner of the pasture.

Contact John F. Oncken at