DIMMITT, Texas – It’s been over a week since the dairy farm fire and explosion in Castro County that killed nearly 18,000 cattle and critically injured one employee who was trapped inside the facility when the explosion happened, but firefighters were able to get her out.
The victim was flown to University Medical Center (UMC) for treatment. On Wednesday, UMC confirmed the victim was released from the hospital.
“This is a kind of a freak accident,” said Sid Miller, Texas Agriculture Commissioner. “We’ve never had anything like this.”
According to the Animal Welfare Institute, the incident is the deadliest fire involving cows in nearly a decade, stating that since 2013, about 6.5 million animals have died in barn fires, 7,385 of which were cows.
Miller said it was also the most cattle ever lost to a fire in state history.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Miller said. “This was a state-of-the-art dairy barn, climate controlled, cows had their own mattresses. It was a really nice place, less than three years old. We had a tremendous loss there.”
The State Fire Marshal’s Office ruled the fire at South Fork Dairy was accidental. Investigating officers said it was caused by a malfunctioning piece of equipment used on a daily basis, and confirmed there was no evidence of foul play.
“Some type of hydraulic fluid caught fire, the dairy hand tried to put it out the fire, the extinguisher couldn’t get there, and it just rolled through the whole barn in less than five minutes,” Miller said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Texas is the nation’s fourth-largest milk producer, churning out 7 million tons of milk annually. Castro County, where South Fork Dairy is located, is the second-highest milk-producing county in the state, producing nearly 148 million pounds of milk in February alone. The Texas Association of Dairymen’s February data shows the county had 59,361 cows before the tragedy, which made up about 9.5% of the estimated 625,000 dairy cows in Texas.
Miller said even a livestock loss of this magnitude won’t disturb grocery store milk prices.
“It’s my understanding that the milk went to Littlefield where they make powdered milk, and most of that powdered milk is exported,” Miller said.
Miller said the cleanup for that many dead animals will take time, but there are some plans in the works.
“The disposal has been been a problem,” Miller said. “We finally got permission from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to bury those animals.”
In 2019, a TCEQ Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Water Quality General Permit authorized South Fork Dairy to more than double the number of cattle from 11,500 to up to 32,000, 20,000 of which are milking dairy cattle. The permit also allowed the facility to increase manure production by more than 50%. Some facilities stockpile manure to create more methane.
“There’s tons of manure being generated by these cows,” said Alissa Schafer, a researcher with the Energy and Policy Institute. “All of that manure at one point is either liquefied or it’s put into these giant mountains of poop or manure, and then they want to prevent oxygen from coming into contact with that manure to keep it wet.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database, there’s a complete mix digester project under construction with project developer Clean Energy Fuels Corp. for South Fork Dairy in Dimmitt, Texas.
In a recent press release, Clean Energy Fuels Corp. said it started a digester project with South Fork Dairy that will produce renewable natural gas (RNG). The corporation said it plans to produce 2.9 million gallons of RNG per year when it’s completed. Biogas systems use methane from livestock manure and turn it into RNG.
“Methane is highly toxic,” Schafer said. “It’s also highly flammable, so when you see something like a giant explosion, nearly 20,000 cattle being killed, that immediately sets off alarms.”
TCEQ spokesperson Victoria Cann said as of April 18, South Fork Dairy is not authorized to operate an RNG system.
Miller said it’s important to understand what went wrong in this case, so it can be avoided in the future.
“It’s never happened before,” Miller said. “We’ll get to the bottom of it and make sure that we’re prepared to eliminate the possibility of it ever happening again.”
Miller said the cows that were outside of the barn that survived the tragedy are being cared for at another dairy barn close by.
The investigation is still open with the State Fire Marshal’s Office.