Surviving Nature’s Wrath
As published in the January 2018 Brown Swiss Bulletin, used with permission by Purebred Publishing and the Rucks Family.
Milking R Dairy is a fourth-generation family farm located in the heart of Florida in Okeechobee. It is a 1,200-acre dairy that is home to 1,200 milking cows which consist of mostly commercial Holsteins and the Rad-ical Genetics registered Brown Swiss. The farm is owned by
the Rucks Family, Sutton, Kris, Lindsey and Garrett. Lindsey’s fiancé Buck also has an active role on the farm. Milking R leases an additional 4,000 acres for beef cattle and another 350 acres for row crops. The farm is a recipient of the Commissioners Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award in 2014 as well as home to multiple All-American Swiss cattle.
On August 30th ,Irma, the ninth named storm, and first Category 5 hurricane of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, formed. It created widespread and catastrophic damage throughout its long lifetime until September 16th. Over 130 fatalities occurred and the damage caused surpassed the $66.77 billion mark.
Those of us that are friends on social media with folks in Irma’s path watched with fascination and horror as Irma unleashed her power, especially on our fellow dairymen in those regions. Kris and Lindsey Rucks were often posting on their Milking-R Dairy Facebook page taking us through much of their preparations and the immediate aftermath. We’ve asked Kris to walk us through those days and more specifically the hours of Irma’s rage and aftermath. She has graciously agreed. Surviving nature’s fury is not an easy feat and the aftermath is still being felt, but as Kris states, they continue to move forward and as the north endures winter’s cold blast, they work toward preparing for next season.
“We began preparing for Hurricane Irma about a week before it actually hit,” she wrote, “once they (forecasters) knew we were in her path or "cone of error." We made sure all of the roofs were as secure as we could make them, removed all mineral boxes, shade cloths, and any other objects in pastures that could have been picked up, carried away or become flying missiles. We lined the side of buildings such as the calf barn with semi-trailers or tractors to keep the wind and rain off of the calves. Of course, shutters were put up on houses and an insane amount of water and non-perishable foods were purchased. All employees that lived in house trailers stayed in our farm office, which is a concrete block house, until it was safe to leave. Our key employees stayed with us at our house so that they would be readily available to check things out once it was safe. We were not under a mandatory evacuation, although they were encouraging all people in our area to leave. Of course, we could not do so, but we did not tell our employees that they could not go. Most of them sent their families out of state, but never once did any of them say they were leaving. They all knew the importance of staying to take care of the animals, and to be available when it was time and possible to start milking again. With the amountof people that left the state, it would take days for all of them to be able to get back in.
We milked the cows around the clock 24 hours before the estimated time of Irma's landfall was expected. On Sunday, September 10th, we milked until Sutton felt it was no longer safe for any of us to be outside, which was around 5 p.m. We all went to our respected shelters and waited it out. Those hours were eerie and quite scary. We lost power about 9 p.m. and sat in silence as we listened to the wind howl and heard all kinds of noises and we could not imagine what they were. We had never heard wind like that. They estimate the winds peaked at about 115 to 120 mph. We ended up being 35 miles from the East side of the eye wall of the hurricane. Around 11:30 p.m., Sutton could not sit in the house any longer and ventured out to check on things (not very smart, I might add). He went to the calf barn to check on the calves and found them all running around and wondering who turned their milk supply off! He started the generator and the automatic feeders were back in business, and the calves never missed a beat! Finally, around 3:30 a.m., Sutton, Garrett, Buck, and a few key employees went out to look for down power lines and to start moving objects to make a clear pathway for the cows to come to the barn. We got the other employees out around 5 a.m. and started milking with the aid of the generator. The wind had gone down some, but you could definitely still feel Irma's presence.
We were without power on the farm for five days following the hurricane. It was the longest 5 days ever! All of the cows made it through the actual hurricane unscathed, but we knew they would as long as none of the roofs came down in the free stalls, which they didn't (thank goodness). They are rated for 140 mph winds, and they held up fairly well except for some missing tin. Once the hurricane finally left us, we were back to our typicalFlorida weather of extreme heat and humidity. We received between 13 to 15 inches of rain from Irma, and there was not a dry spot around. We had a path right behind our house where a tornado went through. Lost some trees and fences, but it could have been much worse. We all just pitched in and started cleaning up and did what we had to do. Lindsey and I cooked three meals a day for our employees with the help of a small generator at our house until everyone got power back (it was a total of a week or more before some off farm employees received power). Fuel was another concern because there was no fuel coming into Florida and our fuel supply was running low with the constant use of generators. Another challenge was getting feed. Due to the fact that we rail in most of our feed, we were getting concerned about running out of feed. The train tracks in north Florida were blocked with down trees and trains could not get through. With a lot of phone calls and some fast action from the Florida Department of Ag, the tracks were given top priority to get debris removed from them so that feed for the cows could be delivered. Our local extension office brought around water and RTE meals from FEMA for the employees and their families. The heat and humidity and the fact there was no power in the free stalls to run the fans to keep the cows cool, was without a doubt, the hardest part. Cows were extremely hot and did not want to eat. Production dropped 10 pounds per cow, our mastitis cases increased, we lost cows to Ecoli, and had many cows abort due to the heat stress. Had we gone any longer without power, we would have started losing cows due to over-heating.
Our milk co-op, Southeast Milk, was able to resume picking up our milk early Monday morning. Unfortunately though, our milk and most of the milk in Okeechobee goes to Miami for processing and the plants were not up and running yet. Most of their employees had evacuated and they had no way to run the plants. Most of the milk in South Florida that could not be redirected North had to be dumped for many days until the plants were taking milk again. It was so heart sickening because people were complaining that there was no milk on the store shelves and we all knew that good wholesome milk was being dumped due to lack of processing abilities. We are still feeling the effects of this in our milk check three months later. With no federal aid to help absorb the cost of the lost milk, Southeast Milk still paid the producers for the milk that was lost.
Fast forward almost 3 months, and things are slowly getting back to "normal". If there is such a thing in the dairy business! We are in the process of dealing with the insurance, putting pivots that were mangled back up, replacing numerous lost fans that were damaged, and getting new roofs on all the farm houses and the main barn. Almost everything is fixed, but we are forever finding roof shingles and other objects here and there. There are some things we are missing, not sure where they ended up, and I bet we will never know! Our focus now is on what we need to do before the next hurricane season rolls around. Generators for all the free stall barns to run the fans, misters, and recycle water pumps are top priority along with some other small changes. As much as our northern friends loathe winter, we are using this time to enjoy the dairy business and dreading summer rolling back around!