The dairy industry’s climate has been far from pleasant lately, and a heavy March snowstorm only added to the trouble. 

As the snow began accumulating, a portion of a dairy barn roof collapsed in the afternoon of March 9 at Union Dairy, located west of Sauk Centre. By 8:30 p.m., another section of a different roof caved in, and as crews were cleaning up the rubble, a second portion gave way March 11.

“We didn’t anticipate this, and maybe that’s the mistake we made,” Steven Landwehr said. “With the warm and cold temperatures, the snow compressed and it became heavier than what it appeared to be.”

Landwehr is the general manager at Union Dairy, and one of the dairy enterprise’s managing partners. 

Last weekend’s snowfall arrived amidst warm temperatures, which caused the precipitation to become wet and heavy. It was not long before accumulation became dangerous for the dairy farm.

“An employee was bringing the cows into the parlor when he heard a cracking noise,” Landwehr said. “Seconds later the roof gave way.”

There were no previous signs of stress on the housing structure, but with the heavy, wet precipitation, the snow shifted and compressed in one spot and created an increasingly unbearable load.

The first part of the roof to collapse was three 12-foot sections. This portion of the barn had about 18-24 inches of snow accumulated on the south side of the barn roof with another 20 inches of snow at the peak and none on the north side of the building. 

With a mix of rain and snow, the snow atop the barn shifted and created a mound along the eave. 

“It was about 2:30 p.m. when the weight of the snow became too much and the roof collapsed,” Landwehr said. “We knew there was snow up on the eave and about halfway down the roof, but, honestly, we didn’t think it was going to be that bad.”

As the crew hastily worked to clean up the debris, the 40-foot center section of the north barn gave way where it connects to the breezeway that leads to the milking parlor. 

Within a half hour of the second collapse, Union Dairy had 12 managers and employees on-site to help with cleanup. They also called in seasonal workers who typically only help with fieldwork. 

“We worked as safely as we could, getting the cows in the parlor and into other pens,” Landwehr said. “We kept clearing the barn until we were exhausted.”

By early Sunday morning, semi trucks were at the farm and loaded 180 milking cows away to two dairies in southern Minnesota. The dairy also dried up 100 cows earlier than planned.

“That relieved the pressure [of overcrowding] and got the cows out of harm’s way,” Landwehr said.

Three cows were lost – one from a broken leg and two that were trapped near the feed lanes. Landwehr and one employee were also injured as they cleared rubble. 

On the afternoon of March 11, another 48-foot section of the north barn fell in. 

“Unfortunately, there wasn’t much we could do to prevent the damage,” Landwehr said. “We looked at the roof before the storm came, and it was deceiving to know how deep the snow was up there. And, we didn’t want to expose our employees to the risk of clearing the roofs.”

Last weekend’s snowfall came shortly after a damaging blizzard hit the state and caused hundreds of barn collapses.

For Landwehr and his business partners, this is a sight they are too familiar with. In the midst of a spring snowstorm last year, a roof on one of their dairy barns in southern Minnesota was damaged. 

“We have a little bit of experience with these types of emergencies,” Landwehr said. 

The wreck at Union Dairy is being assessed by insurance, and Landwehr has already been in contact with a construction company to rebuild the portions that fell in. 

“Luckily, we’re still able to safely manage some parts of the facility, and we’re going to get to work [rebuilding] as soon as we can,” Landwehr said. “Until then, this is going to affect every part of our operation.”