DIMMITT, TexasEverythingLubbock.com recently obtained a 25-page investigation report through an open records request to the Department of Insurance and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office.

It revealed details into the cause of April’s fiery explosion at South Fork Dairy in Dimmitt. A truck catching fire was ultimately ruled as the accidental cause, however, it was the second such truck to catch fire at the facility.

An estimated 18,000 head of cattle died and one person was critically injured.

State investigators ruled the incident as an accident that all started with an engine fire in a Mensch V4520 manure vacuum truck which caused substantial damage. The investigative report said dead cattle could be seen piled “three to four deep” outside the main structure.

“Whenever you have such a large number of animals packed into one facility, it’s going to be almost impossible to avoid a loss of life seen on that magnitude,” said Allie Granger, a policy associate with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).

On the evening of the fire on April 10, state investigators said in the report they tried to access the dairy pen that the burned manure vacuum truck was in.

“Because of very limited visibility due to darkness, live injured cattle wandering about, and the perceived threat of a possible structural collapse, we made the decision to exit the building and wait until the following day during daylight hours to try and make entry into the structure,” the report stated.

“The daylight brought a new perspective to the size of the building and the gravity of the situation.”

State Fire Marshal’s Office report

The magnitude of the fire was record-breaking. According to the AWI, the incident is the deadliest barn fire involving cattle recorded since the nonprofit began tracking barn fires in 2013. Since then, about 6.5 million animals have died in barn fires, 7,385 of which were cows. The largest number of cows killed in a single fire between 2018 and 2021 in the U.S. was 548.

Granger said while a loss of this many cattle is rare, that’s not necessarily the case for other farm animals.

“Since 2013, over 6 million animals have died in barn fires across the country, with a large majority of those being birds,” Granger said.

“In the past several years, there have been several devastating cases where tens or even hundreds of thousands of birds have been killed at once,” Granger also said. “The issue really just speaks to the risks of how we raise animals in this country, particularly on such a large scale and having so many packed into one building without proper safety measures in place.”

Labeled layout of the South Fork Dairy facility in Dimmitt.

Officials explained the layout of the 2-million-square-foot facility in the investigative report. The dairy cattle pens where the cattle lived took up the most space. On the west side were push-up pens and rotary tables where cattle were moved to be milked. The report stated South Fork Dairy’s cattle were milked around the clock and produced 23 to 24 semi-truck loads of milk each day.

The report said South Fork Dairy has only been in use for approximately two and a half years. The facility took approximately three years to build. 

“The design of the dairy created a more climate-controlled, healthier and cleaner environment than the traditional dairy where the cattle spend their lives outside and then move into a building for milking,” the report stated. 

The Mensch V4520 manure vacuum truck is more than 25 feet long and stands 11 feet tall. When it’s fully loaded, it can weigh up to 65,000 pounds. 

A Mensch manure vacuum truck that was the same make and model as the one being used inside the barn at the time of the fire, which had previously burned.

Investigators showed pictures in the report of a manure vacuum truck which had burned previously that was parked on the east side of the facility. The report said it was identical to the one used in the fire. The report said there were burn marks near the engine compartment consistent with the truck that caught fire inside the barn.

Investigators said the back left of the manure vacuum truck where the 6.7-liter diesel engine was had the most damage. Combustible engine components including wiring, hoses and fluids caught fire first. Broken windows and burned tires were reported. They also noted the driver-side door was open, which they say lined up with the statement given by the man driving the truck who said he got out of the vehicle when the blaze started. 

In the report, a state investigator said he wasn’t able to find any recalls from the Mensch V4520 manure vacuum truck involved in the fire. 

The April 24 report said the investigation was closed. State investigators didn’t determine what caused the manure vacuum truck’s engine to catch fire, but stated, “There was no intentional act to cause a failure found.”

When we last spoke to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on May 25, he said there will be more investigations to come that will be conducted by engineers that specialize in equipment failures.

“We’ll continue to investigate what happened to the trucks, and what we could have done differently to have prevented it, and we’ll put those measures in place,” Miller said.

EverythingLubbock.com reached out to Mensch Manufacturing, the company that makes the manure vacuum trucks that were being used at South Fork Dairy.

Below is Mensch Manufacturing’s full statement regarding the fire and explosion at South Fork Dairy.

As a family-owned business dedicated to serving dairy farmers, we were greatly saddened to hear about this tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the farmer, the injured employee and all those affected in the community.

No one has identified any issue with the machine, and we are not aware of any issue with the machine that would have caused a fire. In our nearly four decades of operation, we have had no claims about defective equipment that led to a fire.

We have a strong track record of producing safe, reliable and quality equipment for the dairy industry – and we take great pride in making the best quality equipment on the market. Our machines are safe and reliable when properly maintained and operated.

Amy Snow-Buckner, spokesperson for Mensch Manufacturing