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Rising from the ashes: Petersons rebuild after losing freestall barn and parlour

Alice Guthrie for Progressive Dairy Published on 09 December 2019
Dairy barn fire Peterson Farms, Agassiz, British Columbia

“Fire! Fire! Wake up! Wake up!”

Ruby Peterson woke abruptly to a call from a neighbour informing her that their dairy barn at Peterson Farms, Agassiz, British Columbia, was ablaze.



One can only imagine the shock and horror of waking to such news – a nightmare while awake. What to do? What to do first?

Even before Peterson, her husband, Gordon; and son Eric were outside, neighbours and passers-by were at work. One drove the tractor and mixer out of the burning structure. Others opened gates to release the livestock. Total strangers took part: One lady wearing a white dress and high heels was helping as she could. Neighbours brought their tractors and various implements to corral the cattle. “It was a lot of dumb luck,” Peterson recalls, referring to the number of people who showed up so quickly.

The fire department arrived, but the structure was much too far gone; there was nothing they could do to save it. “Any amount of water was too little, too late,” Peterson states. The freestall barn with drive-through feed alley and attached double-six herringbone parlour was only 9 years old. Their entire operation was gone, razed to the ground.

Incredibly, only three animals of about 130 head were lost.

The cows were relocated to a neighbouring farm, which was empty, the owner having sold out a year earlier. In spite of shorter and narrower stalls, their 60 milking cows did remarkedly well with the change. There were problems though, as a dozen good cows were lost due to iodine burns from the use of old iodine left behind by the previous owner.


The fire occurred on Sept. 19, 2018. An investigation indicated that corn silage gases had somehow escaped and ignited.

“You’re just in shock, absolute shock,” Peterson remembers. They hardly slept for several nights. Their community rallied around them. The amount of food supplied was unbelievable. Close neighbours helped them pick up the pieces and do what needed doing. Peterson expresses deep appreciation for this community, and for the further farming community. “Our farming community is fabulous … unbelievable,” she says. A truck arrived one day, with a fresh 2-year-old cow, donated by a dairyman who had also been through a similar loss. This cow was a good milker, and classified VG as a 2-year-old.

New farm nearly complete

Most of 2019 was spent constructing the new freestall barn.Fast-forward 14 months, and a new operation is nearing completion. At the time of this writing, the projected opening day is Dec. 10. The new setup includes two Lely A-5 robotic milking systems, a large freestall barn with accommodation for 130 cows, space for youngstock on the opposite side of the barn, sand bedding and 13-foot opening curtains for ventilation.

The new barn will use automated milking with two robots installed

A manure separation system is installed, with a centre flush to a sand lane at the end of the barn. They will be able to reclaim over 90% of the sand, and it will be very clean. Later plans include installing misters and fans, but these will not be required during the winter. Future plans also include expanding the herd from the present 70 milking cows.

Dry manure is stored in the shed on the left and the water is used to fl ush the barn or stored in a manure pit.


In the meantime, the Petersons are eager to have their cows back at home. Even though it is close by, it is less convenient having them at a neighbouring farm. The present facility takes three people to keep it working smoothly, so the new one will also be less labour-intensive.

The farm will be one of the stops on the British Columbia Dairy Farm Tour in late January; by then, the new operation should be running smoothly. Peterson expects to see lots of people there. This farm is one of the stops providing lunch that day. Peterson is interested in seeing the tours from a different perspective – she has been on several tours, but this is the first time her family has hosted.

It has been a difficult year, but Peterson is optimistic and looking forward. “When you’ve received as much as we have received, it leaves you speechless,” she says.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Over a year ago, a fire destroyed Gordon and Ruby Peterson’s freestall barn and parlour near Agassiz, British Columbia. Most of the animals survived and have been residing at a neighbouring farm until a new facility could be built. 

PHOTO 2: Most of 2019 was spent constructing the new freestall barn.

PHOTO 3: The new barn will use automated milking with two robots installed.

PHOTO 4: After traveling through sand lanes to recycle the sand, the manure is piped to a separator. Dry manure is stored in the shed on the left and the water is used to flush the barn or stored in a manure pit. Photos provided by Ruby Peterson.

Alice Guthrie is an award-winning freelance writer from Hagersville, Ontario.