EDMONTON – Massive amounts of accumulated snow caused a barn in central Alberta to collapse on Monday, killing several dairy cows.
Monday morning, the Simmelink family was in their barn near Rocky Mountain House milking cattle. Shortly after 8 a.m., they took a break for breakfast. That’s when they heard a crack outside.
“Dad stuck his head out to look, and the barn was down,” recalls Devon Simmelink, a third generation dairy farmer.
There were 102 cows inside the barn at the time.
Devon says he jumped up, ran out to the collapsed barn, and called the veterinarian and the fire department.
“I figured there were 40 or 50 cows dead,” he says, “and you know, my heart sank.”
“We got all the cows out we could and started digging.”
Help began to pour in. Three volunteer fire departments, a vet, workers from a local oil company, neighbours, relatives, friends, and every other dairy farmer in the county showed up.
“We moved the cows out -moved the ones we could – and then started digging through the rubble and were surprised to find most of them were alive,” says Devon, “only ended up losing the six cows and the five calves.”
Four cows were seriously injured.
Still, Devon admits the situation could have been much worse. In fact, he says he feels “really blessed.”
“If I’d been in, if that had happened 20 minutes earlier, that roof is going to… who knows, right?”
“All things considered, if it had to collapse, this is the best case scenario.”
Devon and his father David have been overwhelmed by how the community has come together to support them.
“People are stopping by with coffee, offering a hand, brought supper for the crews,” says Devon. “Firefighters were here 14-15 hours, vet was here 14-15 hours.”
“Other farmers brought trailers,” he adds. “There were more stock trailers than we had room to deal with. We had to send some home because they were just plugging up the driveway. There were 50 to 100 guys here most of the day. Couldn’t have asked for better support.”
“It’s amazing, the volunteer spirit,” shares David. “The work the volunteer firefighters did in this community is amazing.”
It was also amazing how many animals survived the collapse, the Simmelinks say.
“We just reached in and we picked up the pile to get at another cow, and another one we didn’t even know was there just jumped up and ran out of the barn,” recalls Devon. “It had been in there for over 12 hours at that point.”
“Suddenly, she pops out of there like a jack-in-the-box and she walks right out of the debris field and hops on the trailer,” adds Clearwater County Fire Chief Cammie Laird. “She was ready to leave, she’d had enough.”
“We didn’t expect to see any cows in the central part where it was collapsed… So as we slowly, meticulously pulled the snow weight and the debris from the construction collapse, oh my, it became a cow Easter Egg hunt.”
“We were finding cows, and they were doing OK.”
The Simmelinks’ farm isn’t the first to collapse this season.
“There are a lot of shops that have gone down, garages that have fallen over from the snow,” says Devon. “This is the tenth dairy in Central Alberta that’s had a collapse, so it’s definitely not just us.”
The area has seen roughly three times more snowfall than it normally gets.
Laird says the amount of snowfall in the area is “very concerning.”
“What a resilient community, but it is a concern. We’ve still got two more months of winter.”
“I can’t remember a year like this,” adds David. “There have been years you get snow, but you get a Chinook, and it’ll slide off. It wouldn’t accumulate like it has this year.”
While their cows are being cared for by neighbouring dairy farmers, the Simmelinks will assess the damage and figure out how to move forward.
“Most of the structure that is still standing has to come down,” says Devon. “Then we’ll price things out and see what we can afford to build.”
The farm’s insurance company says it doesn’t cover snow pack collapses for buildings more than 15 years old. The family estimates there could be about $1 million in damages.
Still, the Simmelinks are trying to stay positive – acknowledging things could have been worse.
“Grateful, glad,” says Devon. “Grateful for community supports. Grateful I wasn’t standing in there.”
“I love working with the cows. To see them come out, it just put a smile on my face, every one that came out of the rubble.”
With files from Fletcher Kent, Global News