Fifty years is a long time to remember anything, but losing a limb is something that stays with a person forever.
Dale Krekelberg joined The Moos Room podcast in honor of National Farm Safety and Health Week and talked to his daughter Emily Krekelberg, who hosts the podcast along with Joe Armstrong and Brad Heins, about the accident that resulted in the loss of his right leg.
Emily Krekelberg, University of Minnesota Extension educator of farm, safety and health, said that her father has been "very willing" to share the story of his accident, especially in the context of her work with Extension, and has talked at several youth farm safety events.
"When we do have him there, it's the kids' biggest part of the day, and the part they say they learned the most from," said Krekelberg. "It really is impactful just to see somebody who's been through that, and really see the toll that it takes."
The Krekelberg family is like many other farm families who have moments in time that changed the shape of who they are — and how they act and feel in future situations.
"You're always really willing to share about that day, and the details of the accident," Emily said to her father, before warning listeners that the story was graphic. "My dad spares no detail, but I think that's really, really important for us to hear."
Dale Krekelberg can recall every minute of the day he became an amputee.
"It was Dec. 29, 1970, about 9:30 a.m.," he began.
Before that, it was just a regular winter day. He was working at Minnesota Valley Breeders in New Prague, and after the morning break, was instructed to feed the young stock.
He said it had been snowing hard that morning, and when he walked into the building to feed the animals there was about an inch of snow covering the whole floor of the feed room. Krekelberg said he started up the outside auger to feed the heifers, and then started the inside auger that brought the feed from the silos out to the outside auger. On his way back from turning the second silo on, the lever to the sliding door was frozen.
"I couldn't quite get the door to open up, and the auger was running," he said. "But because there was snow that morning, there was about an inch of snow on it, and when the auger was running, the snow didn't fall into the opening."
There were no hoppers or guards, he said, just an running auger below.
"I calculated that I had stepped over the auger with my right leg to get the leverage so I could kind of pry open that frozen door," said Krekelberg. "When I stepped over — I don't know if the snow fell in, but I could just kind of feel the auger kick my heel, just barely felt it."
He thought to move his foot quickly, before the next auger would pull him in.
"But before I could react, the next auger came in and just kind of pulled my foot off the lip of the trough, and I was then in the auger," he said. "And I thought well, this isn't a good thing, but I didn't hurt yet."
Realizing his foot was caught in the 60-foot auger and beginning to go down the trough, he said he knew he was in trouble.
"I thought I'm not going to get out, because I tried to grab onto the Harvestore with my hands to try to pull myself out, but my hands are just like putty, they couldn't do anything," he said. "I was going down, and I just can't describe how very fearful I was, just like my life was literally flashing before me."
When the auger got up to his knee, he said his leg was too big to fit between.
"So then I can remember when one of the augers came and just literally tore the skin off my leg right, down to my bone," he said. "I remember that happening, and it was just so painful."
Learning to adapt
Krekelberg is calm when telling the story now, and his positive attitude about that day when he was 19 comes through clear. But after the accident, he said he was depressed for several months. The only thing that helped improve his state of mind was talking about what was bothering him.
"After something like that happens, I thought I had to be stoic," he said. "But I always felt much better when I talked to people, at least a little bit, about how I was feeling."
He said the accident changed his life but it never prevented him from doing the things he wanted to do. But as a young college student, Krekelberg said he encountered people who said he shouldn't be milking cows.
"That's how I got to be a therapist, because they said you can't be a farmer," he said.
Krekelberg said he always knew he could do it, but that he just might be slower than other farmers.
He started milking 20 to 25 Holstein cows daily in 1978, after he bought them from his father. He took a full time job as an occupational therapist in 1992, but continued — with the help of his young children — to milk the same herd size of cows.
It was regular life to him — getting up before 4 a.m. to milk, then heading to work after, only to return to chores on the farm at 3:30 in the afternoon, when his day job had ended. He did that for 24 years until he retired from occupational therapy at 62, but continued to milk cows for several years because he enjoyed it so much.
He stopped milking cows a couple of years ago, when it was no longer as much fun for him.
"It's hard, it's every day — I wake up and get out of bed, and I get on my crutches and I crutch to my leg, and put it on," he said.
Krekelberg said that wearing a prosthesis is almost like "wearing an uncomfortable shoe."
"You can put it on, and you can walk with it from point A to point B, but at the end of the day after I've had it on for sometimes 16 hours, it feels so good to take it off," he said. "Once you lose a limb, or you get hurt in a farm accident, it's going to be there forever."
He said that mindset helped him move forward with his life in the way he desired.
"When you lose a limb, it's permanent and it is never going to get better," he said. "You're going to adapt to it — that's the best you can do."