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Clean Slate: The Van Dyk family gets a new beginning

Jenny Binversie for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 September 2016
Chris Van Dyk looks at the damage


Chris and Rikki Van Dyk and Chris’ parents, John and Eileen, of West Croix Genetics near New Richmond, Wisconsin, started the afternoon on Aug. 4, 2015, with such a shout.



Their longtime employee, Lexi DuSell, had just finished tying up the elite herd of 60 Jersey and Holstein cows when she noticed a blaze coming from the haymow vents. She screamed, “FIRE!” and their lives forever changed.

Van Dyk family

“I looked up and saw the fire above my head,” Chris says. “My first instinct was to get the cows out.”

Chris and Lexi worked fast while John was outside unloading straw into the mow. He was unaware of the fire until his conveyor stopped working. “I looked up and saw smoke coming from the haymow,” John says. “I immediately ran into the barn to help.”

Rikki, a registered nurse, had just returned home from work; however, she had a gut instinct to go back outside. “I saw the smoke, and I rushed into the barn still in my work clothes,” Rikki says.


“We got all the cows out, and then Lexi and I went to the show heifer barn to get them out while Chris got the calves out. By that time, the cows were trying to get back in the barn, which was full of flames. We had to really fight to keep them back.”

A nearby neighbor saw the blaze from a distance and had already called for help. The paramedics were the first to arrive, followed by four local fire departments with 18 loads of water. The dairy barn, show heifer barn, milk house, office and feed room could not be saved though, nor could their six feeder pigs.

“It is still hard to look at pictures from that day,” Rikki says.

The Van Dyk family were able to save all of their cattle

With help from many neighbors and friends, the cows were corralled and hauled to a neighboring farm. The calves and yearlings were able to stay home, as the Van Dyks had a heifer shed that did not succumb to the fire.

Due to their insurance policy, the Van Dyks were instructed to hire a clean-up crew. “It took those folks about a week to clean up the aftermath,” Chris adds. “During that time, we started meeting with contractors about a possible rebuild.


It eventually came down to who could work with us in our given time frame. We wanted the barn to go up soon, as winter was approaching.”

With sheer will and determination, the Van Dyks got all their “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed and were given a clean slate to begin a rebuild. Chris drew up a basic plan, and construction began in mid-October. The cows returned home in mid-January.

“The cows are really enjoying the new barn,” Chris says. “We are very happy with how the cows are adjusting.”

This past summer, the Van Dyk family was part of a dairy modernization tour facilitated by the St. Croix County University of Wisconsin Extension office. They showcased their new barn to more than 100 neighbors, family and friends alike. It was a tour of new beginnings, encouragement and continuing on with their passion after heartache.

“It’s tough. You have that initial shock, and where do you go with the cows?” John said during the tour. “Then you gotta rebuild. That’s what we do.”

Total property damage

We lost the entire dairy barn, show heifer barn and the haymow full of 4,000 straw bales. We lost everything in our feed room and milk house, as well as our office, which contained 30 years’ worth of trophies and ribbons. Our bulk tank was also half-full, which we had to discard.

Injury or losses to cattle; number of animals

We lost six feeder pigs, but we were able to get all the cattle out of the barns. All the cattle survived, and there were no injuries.



What did the disaster take away that you will never be able to replace?

Our old-style barn; we hold a lot of memories in that barn. We had been milking in that barn since 1999.

Name at least three improvements you have been able to make by having to rebuild.

One of silver linings is they were able to improve the cow comfort

Better cow comfort, wider feed mangers and box stalls. For the increased cow comfort, we now have two different sizes of stalls: 4-foot-by-6-foot for the Jerseys and 5-foot-by-6-foot for the Holsteins. The barn now holds 72 stalls, and they feature the same type of mats as before, but we added another layer of foam padding for extra cushion.

The stalls have more lunging room, and there are no pipes attached to the ground for the cows to rub against. Our eight tunnel fans also keep our cows comfortable. The fans produce a 5-mile-per-hour breeze, and each fan has its own thermostat. Previously, we had six fans with only one thermostat. Our feed mangers are 4 feet wider, which allows us to easily maneuver the large bales around for feeding.

The barn is 224 feet long and 42 feet wide. The center aisle is narrower at 8 feet, which cuts down on travel time between milking. We also have five big box stalls at the far end of the barn instead of two.

Name one thing the disaster took away but now that it has been replaced or restored, you’re not sorry it was lost or damaged in the first place.

The old stalls and mattresses. The mattresses were 15 years old, and we had planned to replace them, but with the low corn prices, we had put it off.

What did you learn about insurance through working with your insurance company to recover your losses?

That you need to have every “i” dotted and all “t’s” crossed and every receipt. We had most of our receipts, but it took a lot of digging and paperwork.

How would you insure yourself differently now having gone through this experience?

We would have insured for replacement cost instead of what the value was assessed at.

Is there anything you have done already or will do in the future to protect against this happening to you again?

All the wiring is now in conduit, and there are no more little squares of straw or a haymow. The fire started in the haymow, and it burned fast. The barn was in flames before the fire trucks arrived.

Any advice you might have for producers who may be at risk for a similar situation?

Read over obfuscation policy with a private adjuster to make sure what is/isn’t covered on the current policy.

What outside support did you receive that helped you through this situation?

Many friends and neighbors came to help. They were here with trailers, as well as a load of gates, by the time the fire trucks arrived. We made a corral with the gates, and since more than half of the cows were show animals, they were fairly easy to halter up and lead onto the trailers. We hauled everything to the neighboring farm.

Eventually, we moved our cows among five farms in order to spread out the extra labor and costs. We were able to keep our calves at our farm in a heifer shed that did not get damaged. Our new barn took 12 weeks to build, and everyone worked well together. We are very thankful for our family, friends and community.  end mark

Jenny Binversie is a freelance writer from Wisconsin

PHOTO 1: Chris Van Dyk looks over the damage from the fire.

PHOTO 2: The Van Dyk family: L-R: Eileen, Chris, John, Landon (7), Rikki, Tyler (17), and Lane (7). Not pictured is Derek (12).

PHOTO 3: The Van Dyk family was able to save all of their cattle, though they did lose six pigs to the fire.

PHOTO 4: One of the silver linings about the fire was that the Van Dyk family was able to replace the stalls and mattresses for their herd, resulting in better cow comfort. Photos provided by Van Dyk family and Jenny Binversie.