Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, was shaping up to be a quiet day at Pebble Knolls Dairy near Brandon, Wis. It was raining, so nobody was able to chop hay or corn silage.
“Thunderstorms were predicted again, but there had already been three or four storms in the previous week, so we didn’t really think anything would happen,” says Eric Wetzel, co-owner and general manager of the 760-cow dairy farm.
Eric’s mother, Gail, had left earlier that afternoon to go to Appleton with Eric’s two oldest daughters, Karsyn, 20, and Liz, 17, to watch a movie — “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.” Eric’s father, Dick, was at his and Gail’s home in nearby Waupun. It was shift change at the farm. Fifteen employees were all in the milking parlor where cows were being milked. Nobody was in either freestall barn.
Eric, his wife, Danielle, and their youngest daughter, Kendal, 6, were at their house across the road and about a quarter mile west of the dairy barns and milking parlor.
At 4:14 p.m., Eric and Danielle say it began to pour and it became extremely windy.
“We heard a tree hit our house,” Eric recalls. “As we ran to the basement, the power went out and I looked outside, and I could see there were already trees uprooted in the yard.”
While in the basement, Eric figured he would have to go to the farm and get the generator started so they could milk the cows since the power was off. A few minutes later, he climbed the basement stairs and went outside. He looked around the corner of the house and down the road toward the dairy barns — and he could see the barns had been ripped to shreds by a tornado.
The 44-year-old hopped on an ATV and raced to the parlor. The storm had all but destroyed both freestall barns that housed the milking herd, a machine shed and a heifer barn, but the milking parlor was still pretty much intact. The holding pen and its roof were gone, but there was little damage in the parlor where the 15 employees were. If the storm had hit a few minutes earlier or later, some employees would have been in the freestall barns feeding, moving cows and scraping alleys.
“Fortunately, nobody got hurt or killed, which was amazing,” Eric says.
About a half hour into the movie, Gail, Karsyn and Liz heard there was a tornado near Brandon.
“I texted my parents to see if they were OK and neither of them answered,” Liz says. “I got my dad on the phone long enough for him to tell me, ‘All of our barns are gone.’” They headed for home.
Within minutes, farmers with trailers, livestock truckers, veterinarians from Waupun Veterinary Service, and dozens of friends and family members showed up to help get cattle sorted, loaded and hauled to eight area dairy farms.
With no paper in sight, Eric began writing on his hand the names of the farms where the cows were going and the number each took. But his main focus was to get the cows loaded on the trailers and on their way as quickly as possible.
“Eighty-five percent of the cows were gone by 7:30 p.m., and they were all gone by 11 p.m.,” Eric says.
Seven cows died within the first 24 hours. “We shipped another 75 cows because of injuries or stress,” he says.
The cows went as far south as 40 miles to Crave Brothers Farm in Waterloo and 15 miles north to Rosendale Dairy, and as close as the Daane farm just a couple of miles down the road.
That afternoon, a series of tornadoes destroyed or damaged four other farms and dozens of homes in the Waupun and Alto townships in western Fond du Lac County. The storms went east, damaging buildings in eastern Fond du Lac and Dodge counties, as well.
Picking up the pieces
After the first night, Eric says, “The reality of what happened started sinking in.”
The next morning, dozens of volunteers whom the Wetzels knew and hundreds more they didn’t know showed up to help pick up the pieces after the storm.
“The unsolicited help that we received from all of these people was incredible,” Gail says.
“There were hundreds of people here,” Danielle adds. “We were just speechless.”
The generosity of the community did not stop there.
“One guy went to Pizza Ranch in Waupun and ordered a bunch of pizzas, and when he went to pay for the pizzas, they asked where the pizzas were going and he told them, and Pizza Ranch wouldn’t let him pay for them,” Gail says.
Throughout the next week, as volunteers helped with the cleanup, lots of people dropped off beverages, coffee, donuts, pizzas, hamburgers, sandwiches and desserts.
“Tony from Tony’s Pizza in Waupun brought out pizzas for everyone,” Liz adds.
Zoetis gave the Wetzels free drugs for the cows, and STgenetics donated a new semen tank.
“All of the companies who we do business with have been absolutely great,” Eric says. “All of them told us they will work with us.”
Local groups held fundraisers and divided the proceeds among the area farms damaged by the storm.
“There were two little girls who had birthday parties who donated the money to us that would have gone for presents for them,” Karsyn says. “And Melissa Daane started a GoFundMe page that raised $2,700.”
“Chrome Angelz [The Sapphires] in Oshkosh, a group of biker chicks, did a fundraiser and we got over $1,000 from them,” Danielle adds.
In less than a week, the debris was cleaned up and hauled away. The Wetzels knew immediately that they wanted to rebuild.
“I have farmed my whole life and I love farming — that’s all I have ever done, and it’s all I want to do,” Eric says.
The Wetzels met with their banker from BMO Harris and their insurance company. Because they had insurance, they didn’t qualify for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but they were able to get a low-interest disaster loan from the government to cover what their insurance didn’t pay for. In November, they received approval for the loan from their bank, and Bayland Buildings broke ground on the new barns at the end of November.
As heifers began to freshen in October, the Wetzels started milking some cows at a nearby farm owned by the Leahys. By April 1, they were milking 160 cows there.
They moved one barn full of cows back to the farm on April 5. The end of April, the rest of the cows came home.
“It is so good to have them back,” Danielle says. “It wasn’t normal. I missed the smell of manure.”
Eric says the cows left the farm milking more than 90 pounds per cow and returned milking an average of 70 pounds.
“They’ve had a helluva year, and they’ve been through a lot,” Eric says. “Those that have freshened since spring are doing great.”
The Wetzels are grateful 14 of their 15 employees are back working at the farm.
“We had some employees go to the other places and come back,” Gail says. “We only lost one employee.”
Both of Eric’s older daughters, Karsyn and Liz, are working full time on the farm.
Since the tornado, Eric says they have raised their operating insurance so they have more coverage, and he advises other farmers to do that as well.
“We maxed out the amount of money we could receive for loss of income,” he says.
Eric hopes nobody ever has to go through what they went through this past year. “But if this happens to anyone else, I want to be there to help,” he says. “We want to pay it forward. This experience has strengthened our desire to farm. As long as we can pay the bills, I want to keep farming.”
Open house planned Aug. 25
The Wetzels are planning to hold an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. on Aug. 25 at their farm.
“We want to say thank you to the community and to let everyone see that we are back in business,” Eric says. “We’ve had a lot going on this year.”
The Wetzel farm is located at W12139 Hemp Road, Brandon, just east of Highway 49 between Waupun and Brandon.
Check out the slideshow to see photos of the damage and the family today.