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Massive explosion and fire at Texas dairy farm kills 18,000 trapped cows in devastating incident

The state authorized South Fork Dairy Farm to "more than double" the number of cows permitted at this facility back in 2019.

South Fork Dairy Farm

Photo Credit: Castro County Sheriff / Facebook

A thick, black plume of smoke filled the sky over South Fork Dairy Farm in Dimmitt, Texas, last week as a fiery explosion erupted and killed thousands of cattle. This barn fire is one of the worst in the nation's history. 

What happened?

An explosion and fire broke out at the South Fork Dairy Farm in Castro County on April 10. The incident killed at least 18,000 cattle — enough to fill 26 football fields — and has been called the deadliest barn fire for cattle in the U.S.'s history. Before this fire, the most cows killed in a single fire was 548.

One farmworker was in critical condition after being rescued from the facility. There are no other reports of human injuries.

The fire from the explosion reportedly spread through the dairy facility and into the holding pens where the cattle — a mix of Holstein and Jersey cows — were trapped, waiting to be milked.

Of the 19,000 cattle at this farm, 18,000 perished in the fire or by smoke inhalation. A sister facility near this dairy farm took in the remaining cows.

The South Fork Dairy Farm faced extensive damage, as shown by its charred facilities that span nearly 40 acres.

The 18,000 cattle lost comprise 90% of the dairy farm's total herd. Each cow was estimated to be worth $2,000, according to County Judge Mandy Gfeller, losing the dairy farm tens of millions of dollars.

The fire marshal is still investigating this incident and has yet to confirm a cause.

In an interview with a local news station, Castro County Sheriff Sal Rivera speculates that the facility's manure management equipment may be to blame. He believes that this overheating equipment may have ignited methane gas present in the facility.

The Texas Tribune reports that the state authorized South Fork Dairy Farm to "more than double" the number of cows permitted at this facility back in 2019. The state also allowed the farm to increase its manure production by 50%.

Why is this concerning?

As news of the South Fork Dairy Farm incident broke out, many people's first thought was how this affects our food supply. This single fire killed nearly 3% of Texas's milk cows. Though this percentage may seem small, it's a devastating loss.

Castro County is the second-highest milk-producing county in Texas, producing 147 million pounds of milk in February alone, reports the Texas Tribune. This incident highlights the risks of making our food supply dependent on massive commercial farms.

Others are concerned about the inhumane treatment of the cattle. Between 2018 and 2021, nearly three million farm animals died from barn fires across the U.S., according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). People online have speculated that the cattle on this dairy farm would have been safe had they not been confined to holding pens.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) like the South Fork Dairy Farm are also a massive problem for the planet. Livestock in these commercial farms is responsible for 14.5% of all planet-overheating pollution, including methane, one of the most potent gases.

What's being done to help?

People are becoming more aware of the dangers of these CAFOs, and there are attempts by some lawmakers and regulators to ensure that a disaster like this never happens again.

The Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act would hold corporations responsible — rather than taxpayers — for paying for repairs of CAFOs damaged from accidents like this fire or natural disasters. The Food and Farm Act would prioritize small farmers and ranchers over big agribusiness companies.

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