Just over a week after a fire destroyed a nearly 200-year-old milking barn at Hardy’s Holsteins, the Hardy family and their employees are dealing with the blaze’s aftermath.
“All of our supplies were burned up. All of our computer records for the robots are gone. All of our equipment… everything (is) gone,” owner Gregg Hardy said. “And you don’t realize how many of these little things you use. I have four legal pad pages (with) every single-spaced line (with) items that are now gone. Just the littlest things that you need.”
At the same time, authorities search for a cause of the Dec. 19 fire.
“The fire is still under investigation,” Jesse Knick, deputy fire chief of Sand Lake Fire Department, said. “We don’t have any reason to suspect it was arson though.”
The renovated historic milking barn contained two state-of-the-art robotic milking machines that automatically milk, clean, feed and monitor the health of each cow as they line up and take turns milking themselves as needed.
“It collects a huge amount of data,” Hardy said. “The cow comes in, it weighs her, it washes her, it identifies who she is, how much feed she is supposed to get, the lasers identify where her teats are.
It measures the milk, measures how much feed she ate, it then takes her temperature, takes the quality of the milk, weighs the milk and weighs the cow on a real-time basis.”
The machine also is capable of alerting staff when something goes wrong, contacting those responsible for its maintenance on their cell phones.
At approximately 11:56 p.m., Parker Hardy — Gregg’s son, who lives in the farm’s original homestead directly across from the dairy barn at Munger Road and Wisner Highway — was awakened by a call from the robotic milking machine indicating a problem. Parker said there had been a similar call earlier that week that was not urgent and, being tired from the busy holiday season, he dozed off. He was awakened a second time less than five minutes later by another call, this time from his mother, Shelly, who told him someone driving past the barn noticed it was on fire.
He ran outside and immediately called 911 at 12:03 a.m.
Parker said he opened the gates of the barns to let farm’s 175 dairy cows out into the pastures — about 130 cows were inside the barn that was on fire. Parker then went into the farm’s business office and began removing computers and servers, loading them into vehicles.
A few of the cows tried to wander back inside the barns and Gregg locked the barn gates to prevent them from reentering. Still, three cows sustained injuries from the fire, requiring two to be put down.
According to Knick, the fire was under control in about 11⁄2 hours, but firefighters from Sand Lake, Madison, Cambridge, Adrian and Raisin townships, Manchester, Clinton and Tecumseh continued putting out hotspots for eight hours. Parts of the barn were torn apart to get at smoldering straw. Family members, neighbors, as well as a current and former employee helped.
“We were pulling pieces of the barn and the hay out with the excavator, pulling it back and it would combust when it got air,” Parker said. “They had to actually throw water onto the excavator window to keep it from melting. That’s how hot it was.”
The hipped roof barn, which had served the family for six generations, was a total loss, but the firefighters successfully prevented the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings.
″(The) barns are all attached to each other so we were able to save a portion of where the offices were, some of the other barns around it, the silos and everything around it. But the actual barn that the fire started in was a loss,” Knick said.
The Hardy’s said they are thankful for the many people who came to help. Some, like the Whelan family from the neighboring Whelan Farms, were there for nearly the entire duration and have volunteered to milk some cows that recently gave birth.
Since the fire, other families, friends and industry members have reached out to offer much-needed help.
“The key thing that people don’t recognize is all those cows had to go get milked somewhere. So we had to call on our resources, people we know in the industry, to find somewhere to take them,” Gregg said. “You just don’t say, ‘O.K. Stand over here and we’ll milk you.’ We had nothing left to milk them with. So we were able to get friends in two different locations, immediately.”
The next day, Parker transported 96 cows to Homestead Dairy in Plymouth, Ind., which has 36 newly installed robotic milking machines. An additional 25 were transported to family friends on a farm in Nashville, Mich. Special needs cows were left on the property in the undamaged barns.
“You’ve got to take care of the animals. They have to be milked. Can’t wait,” Gregg said.
Meanwhile, the Hardys have been assessing the damage and consultanting with their insurance company, taking stock of what was lost and adjusting staff and employees to a new system of operations. By Wednesday, they only just had begun to think about how they were going to rebuild. At retirement age, Gregg said he was letting his son take the lead and make the rebuilding decisions.
“It was a very old setup and a very old system,” Parker said. “The dairy industry has (evolved) in so many different ways now.
“Our concept would never change. If anything, we’ll only get better.”
The Hardys estimate it will be at least five to six months to get back to normal operation levels.