A look at the dairy barn fire in Texas

By Leisa Boley Hellwarth

On Monday, April 10, 2023, at around 7 p.m., South Fork Dairy suffered an explosion and fire that seriously injured one female worker and killed around 18,000 dairy cows. It was likely the deadliest dairy fire in our nation’s history, according to several news reports. South Fork Dairy had only been operating at this elevated level for about three years. It is located just southeast of Dimmitt, in Castro County, in the Texas Panhandle. I cannot imagine the shock and pain the owners and employees are experiencing.

            I’ve been to Dimmitt, Texas, more than once. This was years ago when I worked for the Texas Department of Agriculture. I will never forget driving towards Dimmitt. The land is flat, open prairie. Population is sparse. You could see the lights of Dimmitt 40 miles away. And Dimmitt is not a big town, population of approximately 4,300.

            At that time, Dimmitt and all of Castro County were known for fertile soil and lush, irrigated crops. These days, the aquifers are running low and the cost to irrigate is too high to be feasible. The area is now home for many big dairies.

            In fact, Texas ranks fourth nationally in milk production. And Castro County ranked second statewide in milk production. Fifteen dairies produce 148 million pounds of milk a month, according to USDA.

            A Dimmitt accountant tells the story of a California dairyman who moved his large herd to Texas. He literally milked his cows in California in the morning, and then milked his cows in Texas that evening. The cows were relocated by plane.

            Dairy sales people love to relay the following adage. What is the difference between a California dairyman and a New York dairyman? The New York dairyman says I never missed a milking. The California dairyman says I never missed a cow.

            It appears that the automation that made super-sized dairies possible is the likely cause of the fire. Sal Rivera, Sheriff of Castro County, reported that a honey vac truck that sucks water and manure out of the barns probably overheated. This led to a fire and an explosion of methane gas. There are also reports that the insulation in the 40-acre barn was not fire retardant. The Texas Fire Marshall is still investigating. The fire appears to have been an accident.

            Since we cannot turn back time and stop the fire that claimed 26 football fields of cows, we need to examine what can be done to prevent another catastrophe. History need not repeat itself.

            Industries that use cattle define what constitutes humane husbandry. State legislatures usually exempt cattle from animal cruelty laws or codify the industry standards into law.

            In Ohio, we have Ohio Livestock Care Standards and Regulations that are rules for the care of livestock in the state. The Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board consists of farmers, food safety experts, farm organizations, veterinarians, ag college dean, consumers and county humane society representatives.

            On April 18, 2023, The Dairy Reporter published an article that asked if dairy is doing enough to prevent barn fires. There are no federal laws that specifically protect farm animals from barn fires. Some states adopt the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities Code, known as NFPA 150. The standard details fire protection and fire safety mitigation measures which can be used in a variety of settings and environments, including barns, stables, animal shelters, veterinary facilities, etc. Texas was not one of the states that embraced NFPA 150.

            The legal status of a dairy cow is that of property. The legal definition of property is anything that can be owned by a person or entity. Property is the most complete right to something the owner can possess, use, transfer or dispose of. 

                        A cow, however, is cow is not a widget. Nor is a pig or a goat or a sheep or a chicken. They are living creatures that feel and see and live and should be treated accordingly. It seems fitting to conclude with an observation of Mahatma Gandhi. The greatness of a nation and the moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

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