Neighbors help ease the sting of devastating Minnesota dairy barn fire

Fire near Brooten in central Minnesota took out buildings as farm family rushed to save cows.

Farm buildings on fire near Brooten, Minnesota.
A fire at a dairy farm near Brooten, Minnesota, was out of control when firefighters arrived on Wednesday, Jan. 19.
Contributed / Jeffery Zimmerman

BROOTEN, Minnesota — When Paul Zimmerman got a call from his daughter about 10:30 p.m., he knew it was bad news.
He looked out the window the night of Wednesday, Jan. 17, and could see the glow of the fire of his farm buildings. It was the same glow that his daughter, who was out with some friends, had seen from about two miles away from the dairy farm near Brooten in central Minnesota.

"When I got outside, the roof of the old barn had already fallen in," Zimmerman said of the wood-frame barn that was more than 50 years old. "It was very easy to ignite something like that."

Zimmerman and a son went out to the opposite end of the barn from where the fire had spread from a wood stove in a shop that also was the heat source for the barns. They would try to get as many cows out as they could.

They did manage to save all but one cow out of about 80 as the buildings burned.

A neighbor, Bradlin Martin, is a member of the El Rosa Volunteer Fire Department, that responded to the fire.


Firefighters at Brooten, Minnesota, dairy farm
Firefighters work to get a fire under control at a Brooten, Minnesota, dairy farm, on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.
Contributed / Jeffery Zimmerman

"It was down to nothing but a pile of burning embers," Martin said. He was prepared to return the next morning to help milk.

But in the morning, Paul Zimmerman could see that many of the cows pulled from the barn were badly burned or were suffering from smoke inhalation or both.

Zimmerman called the nearest meat packing plant. A representative came out to look the cows over and was able to get most of them processed at the plant in Long Prairie.

"We were really thankful for that," Zimmerman said.

Another 10 cows were healthy enough to move to a neighbor's dairy farm.

Then neighbors and the Zimmermans' Mennonite church community pitched in to clean up the wreckage left behind by the fire in a couple of days.

"There was a really fantastic group of people there helping clean up," Zimmerman said, estimating about 35 people came to the farm to help in one way or another. "By Saturday afternoon, it was basically all cleaned up."

And the Zimmerman's are already looking to rebuild — and quickly. With poles still standing from one of the buildings, the return of walls and a roof may be just days away.


A burned pickup truck at the site of a Brooten, Minnesota, fire.
A pickup truck sits in the remains of a burned building at the Zimmerman farm near Brooten, Minnesota, on Jan. 18, 2022.
Contributed / Nevin Zimmerman

Paul Zimmerman said it will likely not be a dairy operation anymore, but more likely a feedlot.

Martin has organized a GoFundMe drive to help the Zimmermans, Paul, his wife Mary, and three children, rebuild. It had raised more than $14,000 by Tuesday, Jan. 25.

"We've gotten a tremendous amount of help," Paul Zimmerman said.

Reach Agweek reporter Jeff Beach at or call 701-451-5651.
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