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Clean Slate: Kentucky dairyman finds purpose in midst of tragedies

Tim Thornberry Published on 11 September 2014

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Event: Tornado

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Total property damage:Rock lost four barn structures, all of which were used in the dairy operation.He estimated that the insurance fell short $70,000 from replacing everything.

Injury or losses to cattle:Loss of cattle totaled 32 animals. However, not all were lost instantly. Rock points out that little injuries not noticeable at first showed up weeks later, forcing him to sell the animals, and insurance will not cover the value of an animal unless it perishes.

He estimates a total cattle loss between $12,000 and $15,000. He also says his loss of income from the milking operation during the time of rebuilding totaled about $30,000. He insisted the people who took the cows to milk keep that income for their efforts.

Insured: Yes. The farm had insurance coverage, and rebuilding was possible to an extent. But Rock figures he was insured for only about 50 percent of the losses he incurred. He was, however, without any medical insurance at the time of the tractor accident.

Total covered losses: Not disclosed.

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Regardless of one’s religious preference, Gary Rock, a farmer and dairy producer from Larue County, Kentucky, has much in common with the biblical Job.

The Book of Job tells the story of unimaginable hardships that fell upon the main character in the book and how he maintained his faith despite those hardships.

Rock could easily be compared, and while his circumstances and sufferings are different, the events that changed his life were just as devastating and his faith just as unwavering.

Within the course of a year, Rock lost his father and lost most of his dairy operation due to a tornado, but perhaps most devastating of all, he lost both legs in a farming accident.

Rock’s trials began in May of 2013 with the passing of his father. Next – just weeks later – came a devastating tornado on June 26.

The storm – packing winds of 135 miles per hour, according to information from the National Weather Service – swept through the farm between 10 and 10:30 p.m., recalled Rock. Before it ended, most of his dairy operation was destroyed.

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“It only left the milking parlor. The area where we milked the cows, it was the only thing left,” he says. “At the time I had 113 cows and was milking 90.”

As devastating as the tornado and the loss of his father were to Rock, the worst was yet to come. On August 29, while cutting corn silage, the chopper became clogged, something that had happened many times before and something Rock had always quickly remedied. This day would be different, however.

“The mistake I made I had probably done 1,000 times. Sometimes when you’re chopping silage the stalks don’t feed in correctly, so you have to get off the machine and feed in or get in the position that it would feed in,” Rock says. “Rather than me turning the machine off, I left it running, and while doing so, I was straddled over the corn head, which is the attachment to the self-propelled chopper that chops the corn.”

In a moment’s notice, the machine grabbed Rock and, in his words, he couldn’t believe what he saw when he looked down. His body was being swept into the machine.

“At that point, I was facing death in a matter of seconds with a cutter blade that would have massacred me,” he says. “I knew I had to make a spur-of-the-moment decision, so I chose to take my hands and thrust myself away from that machine. Eventually, I was able to do so, and I rolled off the machine. I then realized I had lost one leg totally and the other leg had been damaged so much that I was going to lose it.”

Miraculously, Rock maintained his composure, and he says the situation would have gotten much worse were he to have panicked.

A call from his cell phone to his son-in-law, who happened to be at the farm, brought help to try and save his life.

“I should have died, but I didn’t. I realized that not only was it a miracle that my life was spared, it told me there was a purpose that I hadn’t accomplished,” Rock says. “There is God that is higher than we as humans are on this earth, and God himself spared me for another purpose.”

Since the accident, Rock has shared his story of faith after hardship with many churches and other groups, including the Kentucky Dairy Development Council. He has been learning to use his prosthetic legs with the help of some great physical therapists and can now walk with the help of a walker.

Gary Rock

Though he says long distances are difficult right now, he believes that in another year he will be walking on his own or only with the help of a cane. From a farming aspect, Rock says his son-in-law and daughter are currently coordinating the dairy along with two employees, one of which has been with him for many years.

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

So far, Rock has not replaced all of the structures that were lost due to the tornado. Since the accident, plans to move forward have been slowed.

“At the time before the tornado, I had the capabilities of milking 150 cows. But at this point, I have only replaced two of the four structures that were destroyed,” he says.

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

“Up until the storm, my cows were housed in freestalls with low ceilings and ventilation that wasn’t quite adequate under heat-stressed times. So the new structure is a pack barn bedded with sawdust that is tilled each morning and night. This helps the breakdown of bacteria and in turn results in less infections of udders and less infection with cows that suffer injuries.”

Rock says since the newer facility has been in use, his somatic cell count numbers have improved from 300,000 to 190,000; the barn has a better ventilation system and milk production has improved.

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.
Rock says the newer barn facility is likely something he would not have built had it not been for the storm and had the tornado not left the milking barn intact.

“Because of the tornado occurring, and because it did not destroy the milking barn, it gave the opportunity to rebuild that I would have never had,” he says.

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

“For a small premium, you can take out insurance that will give you a revenue income during the time you are rebuilding, which is real essential for cash flows for individuals that are in the dairy industry,” Rock says.

He also learned that insuring replacement costs can be worth the extra premium.

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

“Whatever is very critical in your operation, you would always want to consider to keep insurance up for the replacement of it rather than what it was insured for many years ago,” Rock says. “I would advise anybody dealing with insurance companies to hopefully know someone in the industry that could verify that we cannot assess the total damage of the animals until a month later.”

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

He recommends farmers check into getting coverage if it is available to them. He also says that in talking to insurance agents, many policies only cover 50 percent of the cost to rebuild, and when choosing insurance coverage, consider the replacement costs.

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

Rock pointed out that many people were willing to step up and lend a hand. Initially, when the storm had passed, he thought about what measures to take to get his cows milked.

“In the early ’70s there were 80 dairies around here, but when this occurred, we only had five dairies in the county including myself,” he says. “I knew there wasn’t just any one neighbor that could take all the cows I had to get me through the situation, nor could I really say I would want to burden those neighbors.”

But Rock did accept the help of the owner of the Smith Groves Stock Yards who instantly agreed to take the cows until Rock could rebuild.

“That was probably one of the greatest blessings I could have had at that time, that I knew somebody who was willing to take all the animals at one time,” he says. “By lunch the next day, we had the cattle moved.”

In terms of his accident, Rock says he didn’t realize just how many people were willing to help and credited the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation Office for helping him utilize services available. PD

Tim Thornberry is a freelance writer based in Frankfort, Kentucky.

PHOTO:Photo courtesy of Gary Rock.

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