Fire extinguished. Help, hope ignited.

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2013 Photo: Chuck and Vanessa Worden

By Sherry Bunting, Reprinted from Farmshine, Jan. 20, 2017

CASSVILLE, N.Y. — On Saturday evening, January 14, the entire Worden family was together at the dining room table celebrating Chuck and Vanessa’s birthdays, including daughter Lindsey who was home visiting from Vermont.

By daybreak Sunday, the family was facing an uncertain future, but was lifted forward by friends and neighbors showing up when news spread quickly of the fire at Wormont Dairy, Cassville, New York.

“I had just walked through the cows and done a little clipping that night, so proud of how the whole herd looked and how well they were responding to the changes we had been making in the ration and fresh cow protocols,” Lindsey Worden reflected. “Less than four hours later, I was calling 911.”

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Photo from Kate Worden

Wayne and Mark Worden, who live off the farm but nearby, were throwing on clothes to come down and join their father Chuck and brother Eric in rescuing calves and heifers penned in the box stall barn adjoining their parlor/holding area and office, which was totally engulfed in flames.

Their mother Vanessa had gotten up in the middle of the night and saw the flames from the window.

“Just as Eric was carrying out the last calf, the fire trucks arrived and the barn was totally filled with smoke and starting to catch fire as well,” Lindsey reported. “Volunteer firefighters, friends and neighbors were pouring in. We managed to wrangle all the baby calves and young heifers into a bay of our machine shed, and got the older show heifers into our heifer freestall, while dad and the boys were helping the firefighters.”

Amazingly, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction of its usual course – sparing the main freestall barn and Wormont Dairy’s 270 milking cows from damage.

By 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning, “It was quiet,” Lindsey shares. “At daybreak we met to try and figure out a game plan for how to get 275 cows milked on a farm with no milking equipment.”

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Photo provided by Lindsey Worden

Not one person or animal was harmed, and the family was so thankful, but reality was sinking in. Now what?

“It was amazing,” said Vanessa. “There are no words for the way people just showed up and lifted us up.”

Chuck said a neighbor started the ball rolling to place the cows, and people came with trucks and trailers lining the farm lane. “I didn’t make one call, people just came,” he said.

As Wayne and Mark noted, “It was humbling.”

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Photo provided by Lindsey Worden

Before long, with the help of some awesome neighbors, the Wordens had figured out two farms that could take the majority of their milking cows (heifers and dry cows are staying), and a short while later, cattle trailers started showing up, as did more friends and neighbors to help get them loaded.

“At one point, we had at least 10 cattle trailers lined up out the driveway, and we got animals relocated more efficiently than I would have ever imagined possible,” Lindsey reflects. “We are so thankful to the friends and first responders who showed up at 1:00 a.m. on Sunday morning to help get our immediate emergency under control.”

Friends and neighbors came from near and far – bringing trailers, helping to get cattle loaded and moved, helping to get scared cows milked off site.

“People brought enough food to feed an army for a week,” said Vanessa.

“At 7 a.m., my first thought is that we were probably just have to sell everything, but then as neighbors showed up, and connections were made, and trucks started moving cows, you start to feel how hope can change the whole outlook,” said Vanessa. “By 3:00 p.m., our friends and neighbors had given us hope that we can do this. I was actually happy yesterday. There is no way I could be sad after all that everyone has done, after all the hope they have given us.”

Each member of the family has so much gratitude for the dairies that opened their barns and took in cows. The 270 cows were moved to three locations by 3 p.m. Sunday.

“What an incredibly humbling day,” Wayne shared Sunday evening. “There are no words to describe the support we received and are still receiving with the cows. Thank you is not enough to say about what we were all able to accomplish today. What an incredible community the dairy industry is.”

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2013 photo Wayne, Mark, Eric and Chuck Worden

Electricians worked all day Sunday to restore power – light, heat and water. “And companies worked with us quickly to help us with things like restoring our DairyComp records on a new computer, getting basic medical and breeding supplies and all those little things that we need to keep the wheels on the bus this week,” Lindsey observes. “It is a really strange feeling to literally have none of those everyday supplies like calf bottles, navel dip, ear tags, IV kits, etc.

Everyone who reached out with suggestions for help or just kind words, prayers and encouragement, by call, text message, email, and facebook, or dropping by in person. We are so very grateful.”

Eric shared how “truly overwhelmed” he was by the amount of support received from farmers across the state following the fire. “Thank you for making the day go easier,” he said. “This is a tough blow for my family, but we will come back stronger than ever.”

Adds Lindsey, “By some miracle, not a single animal was lost, not even our lone barn cat!”

While there is no question, “we’ve got a tough road to hoe to get back on our feet over the next several months,” said Lindsey, “with some luck and the attitude everyone in the family has maintained over the last two days, I have no question we will come out on the other side.”

“Words cannot express how thankful we are,” Vanessa said. “The way people reached out to us in those early hours gave us hope. Hope is an important thing. It’s what we give each other, and it is amazing.”

As the family meets with insurance adjusters, lenders, builders, equipment specialists and others to chart a course for moving forward, the ready support of others in the darkest hour serves as a continual reminder of what the dairy community is made of – people who keep putting one foot in front of the other and helping their fellow producers get through times like this.

Even more importantly, the family notes that this dairy community is quick to give each other hope — that they’re not alone when confronted with a life-changing event — that when it seems everything is coming to a halt, it is the hope brought by others that carries everyone forward.

Crews from six fire departments responded to the fire at Wormont in the wee hours of Sunday morning, January 15, with others on standby.

Cleanup continues as the family pulls together to make decisions for the future – a future that they say reinforces how special the dairy industry is and how humbled they are to be part of it.

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Aug. 2016 Eric, Lindsey and Chuck at county fair

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2013 photo Wormont Dairy

‘Hope’ travels west from Virginia

Photo caption:   40 bred heifers were donated, commingled, preg-checked, and readied for travel by the Rockingham Feeder Cattle Association. They left Virginia last Thursday, Feb. 6 from Rockingham Livestock for the first leg of their journey. With the freezing temperatures and sub-zero windchills in the East this winter, they’ll be ready for western living. The Heifers for South Dakota Project strives to make a difference delivering “Hope with the hide on” and operating by the tenets of Galations 6:10. Photo by Jessica Koontz

Photo caption: 40 bred heifers were donated, commingled, preg-checked, and readied for travel by the Rockingham Feeder Cattle Association. They left Virginia last Thursday, Feb. 6 from Rockingham Livestock for the first leg of their journey. With the freezing temperatures and sub-zero windchills in the East this winter, they’ll be ready for western living. The Heifers for South Dakota Project strives to make a difference delivering “Hope with the hide on” and operating by the tenets of Galations 6:10. Photo by Jessica Koontz

*** Hope is sometimes a fragile thing, yet it can be as durable as the land and the people who are sustained by it.  Heifers for South Dakota has a beautiful facebook page where stories of hope are told. Their latest post is about the recent delivery of the last of the heifers featured in the story below. One by one, people — and heifers — are making a difference.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Feb. 7, 2014

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Ever lay in bed at night and get hit with an idea? That’s what happened to Virginia cattleman Lynn Koontz of Spring Valley Farms, Harrisonburg, after hearing and reading about South Dakota ranchers devastated by Storm Atlas last October.

“I read about the number of cattle lost and about the Heifers for South Dakota project. I got to thinking how really blessed we’ve been the past two years here,” said Koontz in a phone interview with Farmshine this week. “We’ve had super crop years, marvelous corn and cattle prices. What better time for us to take advantage of good times to help ones who fell on hard times?”

He recalled how years ago, he and his dad had dry years, “and those boys out West would load hay on rail cars and ship it East,” said Koontz, wanting to return the favor.

So Koontz, who serves as president of Rockingham Feeder Cattle Association, talked to Ty Linger, founder of the Montana-based Heifers for South Dakota project.

“There’s some desperation out there, and they would take anything with a heart beat,” said Koontz. “But we wanted to give of our best. What they really need right now is pregnant bred animals because they need something that will put money in the pocket — this fall — right away.”

The window of opportunity was short because spring calving gets underway in both regions this month. In late December, Koontz put the word out to fellow cattlemen that he was organizing a western cattle drive of sorts. He and his children donated some of their own bred heifers and asked others to do the same.

Koontz received donations of 40 bred heifers and cash from more than a dozen cattlemen in Rockingham and Augusta counties, and local businesses gave toward transportation costs.

“People told me it couldn’t be done — moving heifers out there from the East,” he said. “But I’m a little stubborn and made up my mind to do it.”

He recalled the days when he and his father still had dairy cows — milking up to 120 before getting out of the dairy business. “We used to ship heifers from here to Florida all the time,” Koontz recalled. “I’m just glad we’re able to do this.”

The 40 heifers have been commingled by Koontz at his farm near Rockingham County Fairgrounds. They were preg-checked last week and readied for transport. At dawn on Thursday, Feb. 6, they’ll board a truck at Rockingham Livestock on the first leg of their journey with a stopover at Greenville Livestock near Hugo, Illinois on the way to South Dakota.

That stopover will break the trip into two 12- to 14-hour rides. Lifelong friends Clem and Doris Huber of Illinois — with whom Koontz stayed as a kid in the 4-H exchange program — helped him locate the place to yard the cattle just off the Interstate in Illinois.

“That was the deal maker,” said Koontz. “We can let those girls off for rest, hay and water.”

Bred heifer donations are a substantial investment in young ranchers hard-hit in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. To pay current values at auction ranging $2000 to $3000 due to the national beef herd being the smallest in over 60 years and sky-high cattle prices creating stiff buying competition, makes the donations by ranchers to ranchers through the Heifers for South Dakota project even more significant. The project specifically targets young ranchers to receive the donated cattle under the mantra: “Hope with the hide on.”

To-date, Heifers for South Dakota reports delivery of 714 head of cattle to 68 ranchers with 176 head of pledged cattle still yarded. They have also received about $265,000 in monetary donations to help with transportation costs and to purchase quality bred heifers for donation.

“Value of cattle delivered into the hands of those who are hurting is in excess of $1.25 million,” according to the project’s Facebook page.

While this is a drop in the bucket — in real economic terms — the hope these donations bring has been absolutely huge. For Koontz, it’s not the cattle losses he is focused on. It is the loss of young ranchers he is hoping to help prevent.

“Like somebody told me years ago, when there’s a barn fire, as long as the problem stays in the barn, you’re in good shape,” he said. “With Storm Atlas, the real loss is where we have a young family that has put everything they have into it to get started in ranching.”

Some of those young families lost it all in October just before they would have sold that calf crop, plus they lost the cows to have another calf crop this season. That’s potentially two years without income because the fall sale of the calf crop is the income for the whole next year.

“If we lose those young ranchers out of production agriculture, that’s when we incur the big loss — losing that young person out of farming,” said Koontz. “We can replace cattle, but we cannot replace that person back on the farm. If I had the ways and means, I’d be gathering up cattle until the first of April, but I’m just one person.”

Koontz and his wife Kim operate their cow-calf and cattle backgrounding operation, along with two broiler houses and crops. The participation in Heifers for South Dakota has been a family affair with son Bud and daughters Lacey, Katlyn, Jessica, Cindy and Vanessa all pitching in.

Koontz is working with cattlemen in other parts of the state to do a later round of open heifers for donation this summer. To learn more about Heifers for South Dakota, visit their website at http://helpforsouthdakota.com and “like” the “Heifers for S. Dakota” page on Facebook to see how ranchers are helping across the country.