Ottawa

Farmer reflects on devastating loss in 1998 ice storm

Nick Thurler says despite losing a barn, cattle and racking up six-figure losses from the ice storm of 1998 he's just grateful no family members or neighbours were killed or injured.

20 years later, Nick Thurler still gets 'chills' whenever forecast calls for freezing rain

Farmer Nick Thurler reflects on the 1998 ice storm

5 years ago
Duration 1:11
Nick Thurler's dairy farm was hit hard by freezing rain 20 years ago, leading to the collapse of one of his barns.

When Nick Thurler started his night shift of milking dozens of Holsteins on the family farm in South Mountain, an hour south of Ottawa, on Friday Jan. 9, 1998, he knew something wasn't right. 

The dairy farm and home he shared with wife, Lynn, and four children had been pummelled with freezing rain for five days. They lost power on the third day but had a generator to keep the milking machines running. 

Thurler, 54, recalls it was around 9 p.m. when he saw the ceiling of the barn, which measured 24 by 67 metres, sagging from the weight of the ice.

"I looked up at it and I knew it wasn't good," said Thurler, from one of his family's new barns surrounded by cattle.

Several family members and neighbours climbed onto the barn roof and tried to chip away at the thick sheet of rock-hard ice that had formed. 

The barn in the upper right hand corner was destroyed when the roof collapsed during the ice storm in 1998. (Submitted by Nick Thurler)

Thurler said they hurriedly moved as many cows as they could to the two far edges of the barn away from where the roof looked precarious. He continued to milk cows at the far end of the barn where the milking machines were set up.

"I heard this big bang and it was like a domino effect," said Thurler. "We were in a shock at first and couldn't believe what was happening." 

Despite moving many of the cattle, the weight of the collapsed roof killed 20 cows. 

Livestock was euthanized 

"I think there was only a couple that actually got killed but the other ones we had to put down because we couldn't save them, they were hurt too bad," Thurler said, lowering his voice. "That's pretty hard for a farmer because it's your livelihood. It's pretty hard to do."

The feeding belt for Nick Thurler's dairy cows collapsed when his family's dairy barn caved in during the ice storm. (Submitted by Nick Thurler)

According to Thurler, the family scrambled to get the rest of the cattle out of the barns. He and his brothers didn't sleep over that weekend trying to feed the cows outside and bringing them in to the milking parlour in shifts. 

After a family discussion they concluded, without a barn, they'd have to sell off the herd.

But when the insurance adjustor arrived three days later to say they weren't covered because the ice storm was classified as a so-called act of God, Thurler knew they had to keep the animals. 

"We needed the milk cheques without any insurance money," he said. 

Within a few days with the help of neighbours who volunteered, they moved all the feed from a hay barn and cleaned out a storage shed across the street. The herd was divided between the two buildings.

Three times a day about 100 cattle had to be walked from the shed across the road and brought into the milking parlour. 

The day after the roof collapse, soldiers from the Canadian Armed Forces arrived with a more powerful, efficient generator. 

Herd stressed after barn collapsed 

Thurler said the stress on the cows from being moved around, combined with an outbreak of mastitis, an inflammation of the udder tissue, meant he had to sell 80 cows in the spring.

Nobody got hurt and we could have easily lost someone that night if someone fell through the roof.- Dairy farmer Nick Thurler

He estimated the cost of rebuilding the barn was $600,000. Insurance did cover $150,000 for the loss of 20 cows and some equipment. But while he did receive $40,000 from a provincial relief program for farmers affected by the ice storm, he estimated the total loss of milk production over the four months without the barn at $100,000. 

The dairy farmer is pragmatic about the financial losses from the storm.

"Liittle things don't matter much anymore like when a piece of equipment breaks you say, 'No big deal.' Compared to losing a barn, that's a big blow."

Three months after their dairy barn collapsed the Thurler's moved their cattle back into the new barn. (Submitted by Nick Thurler)

Thurler is also grateful he only lost a barn. 

"Nobody got hurt and we could have easily lost someone that night if someone fell through the roof. You can always replace a barn," he said.

He thinks of the ice storm from time to time, especially when he hears a weather forecast calling for freezing rain.   

"Even today it kind of gives you the chills but hopefully the barns are built for it," Thurler said. "You always hope if it comes [freezing rain] it won't be very long." 

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