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Tornado Hits Wells Co. Dairy Farm

by Kim MacMillan

Published: Friday, June 7, 2019

It was a typical Memorial Day in northeastern Indiana—warm and partly sunny, but with a chance of thunderstorms in the evening. A parade in Fort Wayne to honor those who died while serving in the U.S. military had ended mid-day at the Allen Country War Memorial Coliseum. In the state capital, the Indy 500 Race had run without hindrance from precipitation and the winner, Simon Pagenaud, drank from the traditional bottle of milk produced this year by the Kuehnert Farm in Fort Wayne and then doused himself with the remainder. 

A little over 40 miles to the south of Fort Wayne, the Kris and Ann Frauhiger family was enjoying the holiday. Three generations of Frauhigers are involved in the family farming operation called Frauhiger Livestock, which is located near Montpelier in southwestern Wells County and about half a mile north of the Blackford County line. The Frauhigers have four sons (Travis, Tyson, Bill and Bart), a daughter (Tanya), four daughters-in-law (Jenna, Amanda, Tara and Bethany), one son-in-law (Ben) and a number of grandchildren. Most of the children and their spouses still work for Frauhiger Livestock, but even those who work off the farm have a deep affinity for the family dairy and agriculture.

Their farming enterprises include operating a large dairy, custom rearing of dairy heifers for other farms, the sale of mulch and compost for landscaping and gardening, and custom greenchopping and draglining of liquid waste. The family farm totals about 500 acres spread over several properties. They produce hay, grain and green-chopped forage for their herd of around 1,850 cows and young stock (about 950 milking and dry cows housed at the main dairy and 900 young animals located at three other locations). The young cattle they custom raise for another farm is in addition to these numbers.

Frauhiger Livestock uses almost all Holsteins, but they do keep a few Jerseys and some crosses of the two breeds as well. They milk three times a day and market their milk through Prairie Farms' most of it goes to either Anderson or Fort Wayne.

On Memorial Day, the oldest Frauhiger son, Travis, and his wife Jenna, were entertaining guests in their home a few miles from their main dairy operation.

"It was Memorial Day night and most of our family had plans," Travis said. "We were at home with company and they broadcast the storm warning, so we all took cover in our basement. Then, our company left after it blew over and I told my wife that I was going to go check the farm and the generator and make sure everything is OK.

"But before I left one of my employees called me and said, 'Hey, it is serious down here; the farm is leveled.' I thought he was exaggerating a little bit and maybe just a roof blew off or something. Then, when I pulled into the farm, I thought, 'Wow, he was right on the button!'"

Frauhiger said that when he arrived at the farm his first task was to check on all of the employees. The storm hit during a break between two 12-hour milking shifts and most of the employees had gone to their trailers to have dinner. One of those trailers was blown away by the storm and two of the employees were sucked out. One sustained some cracked ribs, a punctured lung and a concussion requiring an overnight hospital stay, but he is home now and recovering. The other employee was bruised and sore but otherwise OK.

According to the National Weather Service Office in Northeast Indiana, the area where the farm is located, near the little village of Roll, was hit by an F3 tornado with multiple vortices and winds estimated up to 150 miles per hour at around 9 p.m. that evening. The twister was estimated to be around 1,200 yards wide and was active for 12.8 miles.

Looking at the path of the storm, as indicated by the destruction leading to the farm from the west, it looked as if the Frauhiger Farm was ground zero for the tornado touching down at peak wind speeds. The woods to the east of the farm was also heavily damaged, as was a neighbor's farm building on the other side of the woods, but after that it looked as though the funnel must have lifted again.

After checking on the welfare of the farm's employees, Frauhiger said that he and the remaining farm workers turned their attention to dealing with some leaking propane tanks, shutting off the electrical power and looking at the livestock and figuring out a way to safely move them out of the wreckage. Then people started showing up to help.

"There were about 20 or 30 people here just 'boom,'" said Frauhiger. "The (official emergency) first responders were here right away. They made sure the people were accounted for and sent the one man to the hospital. And they made sure there were no hazards; that the gas and power were shut off and that no fire had started. Then they left to take care of other people in the area."

He continued about the volunteers who showed up that evening.

"They were all saying to me, 'What can we do?' and I said, 'I don't know; where we are going to put all of these animals?' So, we started digging out gates and creating some make-shift pens out of what little structure was left. A lot of people got out there and started clearing paths through the rubble. Then we started trying to move the cows through the paths as best we could and loading them out. Everybody was recording [cow] numbers and then the trucks and trailers showed up and semi loading docks started showing up."

Frauhiger said although he isn't completely sure how the word of their disaster spread, he thought that their friends who had been over visiting called a few people and then the people they had called notified a few more people starting a phone tree that spread the news quickly. Friends from their church, the Apostolic Christian Church in Bluffton, neighbors and area farmers were among those who joined the Frauhigers and their staff that night to secure the site and move out the cattle to six different farms, one located as far as 75 miles away.

Frauhiger grew a bit emotional when he spoke of how much he and his family appreciate the volunteers who have shown up so far offering their time and expertise.

"It's really amazing how certain people have certain gifts and how their gifts come to light. There' are people who are computer savvy; there are people who are good cooks, and there are people who are good babysitters. Some guys are helping get our

Internet back up. Others said that they are really good in the office and they are helping us with the insurance stuff. There are people like this man here who is a good delegator and organizer," he said, referring to a neighbor, Tom Neuenschwander, who has been designated as their volunteer coordinator.

"All these people, they want to help, and it can be a bit overwhelming. So, they are going to him now. Or if they want to volunteer machinery, he tells them what we need."

Neuenschwander, who is a retired dairyman and has organized church missions to Haiti, explained that he called Ann Frauhiger and left her a message saying that he understood she was organizing the volunteers and what could he do? She shared, "At that moment what I really needed was someone to organize all of the people who were calling to help. But what I took his message to mean was that he was saying he was a half-way decent organizer and what could he do to help? I asked one of my sons what he thought of asking Tom to do this and my son said he couldn't think of anyone he'd rather have."

One of the volunteers who helped move cattle the night of the storm and took 35 cows back to his Sunny Park Dairy in Bluffton was Travis' cousin, Krent Frauhiger. He said he started toward the farm at about 10:30 p.m. with his truck and trailer and took an initial load of eight cows back to his farm. After that, other volunteers hauled the rest of the 35 cattle to his farm. He explained that he helped load cattle on other trailers the first half of the night while other drivers used his truck and trailer to haul cattle to another farm. He commented on the volunteers who showed up to help.

"It was a pretty overwhelming response. At the end of the day I was hauling the last load of dry cows out, and I was taking Travis back to the barn. We passed a guy driving another trailer by the front barn and I asked Travis who the guy was and he didn't know. But I know that guy had been there all night. When there's a need and you've got that experience and the equipment, it's pretty easy to go and volunteer."

Prairie Farms has also been very supportive, according to Travis Frauhiger. He explained that they brought out a refrigerator truck full of milk and that his family and staff are also allowed to use the truck to keep their animal vaccines and the food that people have been bringing out cold. He said that they have also been accommodating in that they have waived the limits on how much milk the farms fostering the Frauhiger cattle can send to the cooperative for marketing (each farm is normally allotted only a certain amount of milk they can send to the Prairie Farms).

The damage assessment after the storm was grim. All of the farm's buildings were badly damaged or completely destroyed. According to Frauhiger, there were initially about 20 cows that were killed by the storm or were injured enough that they had to be put down. Frauhiger estimated another 300 of their cows now fostered by other farms have cuts and other injuries that have caused infections and swelling and he thinks that number will probably climb even higher. Those cows will probably have to be sold for slaughter.

So, what's next for Frauhiger Livestock? For now, the cows will continue being milked at the other six farms. Frauhiger said it was too early in the process to know whether or not the cows will ever come back to their dairy. He said that if they do rebuild it will likely take at least two years to complete the process and it may be better to sell the cows he has now because of that. He added that they do have the things they need to care for the young stock at their other farms, at least for the time being.

The insurance adjusters have been to the farm and Frauhiger is optimistic that their insurance company will work to support them.

"You hear all of the horror stories about insurance, but my initial feeling is that this is a contract we have and the contract with insurance is to make you whole again and that is their goal."

As to their other revenue streams, their farming equipment was heavily damaged by the storm. Their local machinery dealer, Troxel Equipment, has indicated that they will work with the Frauhigers to get things fixed, but some of the specialty equipment, such as the forage harvester, will be more difficult to repair. The prolonged spring rains have made it too wet to effectively work the compost, plus debris from the storm damage will have to be sorted out of the compost and mulch before marketing.

The cleanup and salvage is ongoing by the family, staff and an army of volunteers. But, as the weather dries up and the area farmers who are currently volunteering need to start planting their own fields, new volunteers may be needed and will be welcomed. People wishing to volunteer their time and talent or equipment are asked to contact Neuenschwander at 260/307-6026 before coming out to the farm. Each volunteer is asked to sign in every time they go to the farm and to sign a liability waiver on their first visit.

To get to know the Frauhiger family, go to their web site at where you can see a photos of the family in the "About" section, and an aerial view of the farm before the storm and a drone video of the farm after the storm in the "Blog" section. You can also watch a video about the family and their farm. Updates on the status of their recovery and decisions as to what is next should be posted there.

Thankfully, all of the Frauhiger family and staff survived the storm. And, other than the employee housing at the dairy, all of the Frauhiger family homes sustained only minor storm damage and their other farm locations, where the young stock and cows waiting to calve are housed, are in good shape.

To drive home that fact that life goes on, a new calf was born at one of their other farms during the storm. The Frauhiger grandkids named it "Tornado" and helped with the chore of feeding the calf colostrum that night. Visiting with the Frauhiger family it becomes obvious that faith, family and friends are sustaining them through this difficult time.

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