Farm was only three years old
DIMMITT, Texas––Investigators are still scrambling to figure out why the South Fork Dairy Farm, eleven miles southeast of Dimmitt, Texas, abruptly exploded at about 7:20 p.m. on April 10, 2023.
Operated under registered agent Frank Brand, South Fork Dairy Inc. was only incorporated in 2019.
The blast itself and the intense, fast-moving fire that followed the explosion together killed more than 18,000 cattle, injuring as many as 1,000 more.
A female employee who was trapped in the blazing wreckage was evacuated in critical condition. Other employees escaped with minor injuries.
First time a disaster killed twice as many cows in a day as slaughterhouses
ANIMALS 24-7 has record of hundreds of other barn fires occurring in the U.S. and Canada during the past 40-odd years, most of which killed pigs and chickens kept in huge confinement barns, but cattle are relatively seldom housed in close confinement.
The typical toll from a cattle barn fire––or even a flood or tornado––is in the range of 100 to 300. Cattle losses of that magnitude occur about once a year.
Smoke looked more like ammonium nitrate than methane
The South Fork Dairy Farm explosion and fire sent a column of black smoke into the air, visible for miles, reminiscent of the accidental ammonium nitrate blast that rocked Beirut on August 4, 2020, killing 218 people, injuring 7,000 more.
Closer to home was the April 19, 1995 ammonium nitrate bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, by far-right terrorist Tim McVeigh. That explosion killed 168 people.
Castro County sheriff Sal Rivera told KDFA NewsChannel 10 in Amarillo, Texas, that most of the cattle deaths came after flames and smoke spread into a holding area where cows awaited evening milking.
“There’s some survived,” Rivera said. “Some are probably injured to the point where they’ll have to be destroyed.”
“Honey badger” overheated?
Rivera offered that “the fire might have started with a machine referred to as a ‘honey badger,’” summarized BBC News correspondent Bernd Debusmann Jr. from Washington D.C.
The “honey badger,” Rivera explained, is “a vacuum that sucks the manure and water out” of slurry troughs.
“Possibly [it] got overheated and probably the methane and things like that ignited and spread out and exploded,” Rivera said.
Oregon fourth-generation dairy farmer Derrick Josi speculated on his “TDF Honest Farming” web site that the explosion resulted from an accumulation of methane beneath a steel roof with inadequate ventilation, detonated by a fire in the “honey badger” below.
A methane explosion would appear to be the simplest, most obvious explanation.
Methane normally rises & dissipates
But a blast of the South Fork Dairy Farm magnitude would appear to have required much more fuel than just an ambient accumulation of methane, which even inside a confinement barn would normally be of low density, quickly dissipating into the atmosphere.
Even the biggest methane explosion on record in the U.S., at a fracking well near Powhatan Point in Ohio in 2018, consuming 57,000 metric tons of methane during the 20 days that it burned, produced nothing resembling the South Fork Dairy Farm blast.
Generating an explosion comparable to that of a warehouse of ammonium nitrate, as in Beirut, or of a truck bomb, as in Oklahoma City, would require a large amount of methane in a highly concentrated quantity, accumulated perhaps by a malfunctioning methane digester that concentrates the methane from manure into fuel to run equipment.
Of note, though, is that methane digesters are used on thousands of farms worldwide, with no previous history of producing immense explosions.
Another possibility, though without precedent, might be that diesel fuel oil stored on site to power trucks or tractors somehow leaked into dehydrated manure to make an accidental concentration of ammonium nitrate.
Liquid cow manure would have too much moisture content to burn, let alone to detonate with catastrophic force.
Most deadly fire involving cattle since 2013 at least
“This would be the most deadly fire involving cattle since we started tracking that in 2013,” Animal Welfare Institute public relations manager Marjorie Fishman told NBC News.
Animal Welfare Institute farmed animal program policy associate Allie Granger confirmed to BBC News that the Animal Welfare Institute has no record of any cattle barn fire of even remotely comparable size.
“We hope the industry will remain focused on this issue and strongly encourage farms to adopt common sense fire safety measures. It is hard to imagine anything worse than being burned alive,” Granger added.
Animal Welfare Institute data indicates that nearly 6.5 million farmed animals have been killed in barn fires since 2013, of whom about six million were chickens, half a million were pigs, and about 7,300 were cows.