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Published December 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Roof collapse kills, injures dozens of cattle

Snow wreaks havoc on area farm buildings
ADRIAN — It was a Christmas tragedy and a Christmas miracle all rolled into one very long day for Jeff Bullerman and his family on Friday.

By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe

ADRIAN — It was a Christmas tragedy and a Christmas miracle all rolled into one very long day for Jeff Bullerman and his family on Friday.

The rural Adrian farmer awoke that morning to find much of the roof on one of his 100- by 344-foot cattle feeder barns collapsed under the weight of snow, with cattle trapped underneath. Within hours, family, friends and neighbors — estimates are between 30 and 50 people — had arrived on the scene to help remove sheets of metal and wooden rafters from the pole-type building and save the animals they could.

As of Monday, the death count had risen to 50 cattle, according to Bullerman. Dozens more are injured, he said, suffering everything from cuts from the metal to severe back injuries.

“Some we had to put down, some are in pretty tough shape,” he said Monday.

The barn held approximately 600 head, and it was filled with 900-pound feeder cattle.

For Bullerman, it was the second time in two years that a roof collapsed on one of his cattle barns. The first was in March 2007, after a late-season snowstorm dropped heavy snow in the region.

This time, the collapse happened on a building that was less than two years old, he said. The roof on the south half of the barn was impacted, with two of the three sections of rafters breaking under the weight of the snow that accumulated during the Christmas blizzard.

“It was pretty overwhelming to have two barns go down in two years,” Bullerman said. Both collapses resulted in loss of livestock.

With the collapse occurring sometime early Christmas morning, Bullerman said he was appreciative of everyone that showed up to help.

“A lot of farmers in the community came out and helped and brought out equipment,” he said. They worked to peel the roof off the livestock one section at a time and round up the cattle that were trapped underneath.

“It meant a lot on Christmas day to have a lot of people come out and help,” said Bullerman, who wasn’t able to thank everyone personally that day. Many of the volunteers stayed until 1 p.m. or later to get the cattle moved into other pens and buildings on the Bullerman farm.

Jason Vote, a State Farm Insurance agent in Worthington, was called out to three farms on Monday for reports of collapsed roofs. In one of those farm visits, he inspected a machine shed roof that collapsed on four or five tractors and a combine, resulting in “significant damage,” he said.

“There’s a combine in there and I can’t even see it,” Vote said. The roof of the building, located on a farm near Sioux Valley, collapsed on Christmas day. “It’s very, very dangerous with that machine shed open like that. You just as well let the snow melt and then get in there.”

The other two claims he inspected were on livestock sheds where a minimal amount of cattle were killed. Two of the roofs collapsed on Christmas day, with the third collapsing on Monday.

“My experience is the buildings (with the collapsed roofs) are running east to west, with a grove on the north side and the snow is accumulating on the south side of the building,” Vote said. “What I’m seeing is open-faced cattle barns are certainly exposed, as well as older machine sheds … built in the 1970s.”

Vote encouraged farmers to take precautionary measures to get the snow build-up removed from livestock buildings and machine sheds.

“If farmers have the ability to rake the snow off the buildings, I would encourage them to do so,” he said. “Hopefully, if it gets a little warmer, we will start to see the snow sliding off.”

Pipestone-Murray Extension agriculture educator Mike Boersma said using a snow rake or hiring a contractor to remove the snow is advised.

“If a farmer doesn’t feel comfortable removing the snow, hire a professional to do it,” Boersma said.

There is no magic number when it comes to assessing just how high to let the snow drift on a roof before action is taken.

“It depends a lot on how the building is constructed and the pitch of the roof,” said Boersma. “Anytime snow starts to accumulate on the roof is a good time to think about what your buildings are rated for. A lot of farm buildings are probably the older buildings and they’re probably not going to be able to tolerate as much as the newer buildings do.”

As for Bullerman, he has one more building that’s just as big as the one that had the roof collapse. He said the plan is to see if the rafters on that building can be strengthened before another tragic roof collapse occurs.

He estimated that the snow build-up on the roof ranged anywhere from two to three inches in some spots to a couple of feet in others.

“It’s such a big roof that it varies,” he said.

The size of the building makes it nearly impossible to keep the roofs clear during a major snowstorm.

“To get up there and scoop snow off is too dangerous,” said Bullerman. “It would be nice to get that snow off. You just hope for a little bit of wind and a little bit of sun.”

Roofs are typically built to withstand 30 to 35 pounds of weight, and he’d like to be able to strengthen the roof through additional bracing to 50 to 55 pounds.

What should you do if you have too much snow on your roof?

By Larry Jacobson and Kevin Janni

University of Minnesota Extension

The simple answer is to get it off as soon as possible. Generally there is some time between a large snowfall event and possible structural failure. Unfortunately, one good way to remove snow from a roof is to physically get up on the roof and push the snow off with a shovel or broom.

There obviously is the safety concern of falling off when working on a snow-covered and icy roof. It's important to use ladders, safety ropes and take necessary precautions. Snow rakes also can be used to remove snow. When using a snow rake, use extreme caution when working near overhead electrical power lines. Also, avoid excessive scraping on the roof or trying to chip off ice. These practices can damage the roof and lead to a leaky roof.

There are other, more innovative methods of removing snow and ice from roofs. One involves warming the inside of the building sufficiently with large heaters to melt the ice layer, and then hoping the snow and ice slide off. Obviously, a lot of heat is necessary for even a moderately-sized building, and it must be an open-trussed structure (no flat ceiling), and have an uninsulated metal roof. Caution is necessary to prevent large chunks of ice and snow that slide off the roof from falling on people, animals or equipment.

For flat-ceiling buildings, putting heaters in the attic is generally not recommended. That's because of the fire danger and the possibility of creating ice dams along the building's eaves.

Larry Jacobson and Kevin Janni are professors and agricultural engineers with University of Minnesota Extension.

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