Agriculture Losses Mount in Pilger, NE


by Todd Neeley, DTN Staff Reporter

PILGER, Neb. (DTN) — Jeff Dinklage knew all hell would break lose Monday afternoon when the radar on his smart phone displayed returns of a deep magenta color near Pilger, Neb.

“I could just tell it was a very serious cell,” he said. “I went to my basement.”

After twin tornadoes obliterated Pilger and destroyed feedlots between that town and Wisner to the east, Dinklage and his family arose from the basement unscathed.

His farm's future is not so certain.

“I'm out of business right now,” Dinklage told DTN Thursday. When a farmer pays an insurance premium, he usually thinks the coverage will be enough, he said. “When something like this happens you don't have enough. It is the first tornado I've seen in my life.”

While he's removed the animals that were killed initially, the task is ongoing. “We're continuing to lose cattle, lost 40 more today,” Dinklage said. “There were cattle with boards run through them and they were still walking around alive.”

“We're going through these emotions,” he said. One minute you're angry, he said, though angry isn't a strong enough word for the emotion Dinklage feels. “Then you focus on the clean-up. Then you get mad again.”

Some 200 employees at Dinklage's three feedlots between Pilger and Wisner are picking up the pieces. The infrastructure damage is absolute. A set of four grain bins on one of his feedlots along Nebraska Highway 275 sustained damage on the north side. The bins protected Dinklage's office to the south. Pens that once held cattle are mangled, and an irrigation pivot in a nearby field is twisted and upside down.

“For us the first concern was the living livestock. Our second concern was the injured cattle.” Most injured stock must be euthanized. “What we do is take care of animals,” he said. “We've all seen (news footage of) towns wiped out, but it's not the same when it's your place.”

Dinklage also farms some 2,500 acres of crops including corn and soybeans. He lost nine center pivots and is in the process of removing debris and replanting some 200 to 300 acres. He estimates that some 90{0a3336b3da8cf935de4f3eb78fe29508c4b8b5ebd27d01af2d815614325d533e} of his equipment is damaged.

Despite all the destruction, Dinklage said the disaster may give him a chance to rebuild to include state-of-the-art technology.

“Most of us try to insure for normal stuff,” he said. “I didn't lose my personal home or record-keeping ability. I'm thankful I've got an office. I couldn't feed cattle if I wanted to. I have no power, no water. You've got to see how insurance works out.”

If he's able to rebuild, Dinklage said he may consolidate his operation to make it more efficient. “I hate to not have my son be a fifth-generation cattle feeder,” he said.


J.D. Alexander, past president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, lost a rural house in the area. His home on the south side of Pilger, where the family huddled during the storm, still stands. His cattle-feeding operation sustained “quite a bit of damage.”

Once he and his family emerged from their home after the storm, Alexander said he immediately hopped on a four-wheeler to round up cattle. He lost about 10 head as of Thursday.

“The minute we came out we couldn't believe the (rural) house was destroyed,” he said. “Within an hour after the storm we had to have had 50 people at our place. We knew we had to get the livestock secure. There was major damage to our water system. You just kind of work things out. You start picking up pieces.”

Alexander said he is taking things slowly, to avoid making “irrational” decisions at a time when he's trying to get his mind around the disaster.

“It's gut-wrenching — the town of Pilger is in tough shape,” he said as his eyes welled with tears.

Alexander said he has always believed his house was in line with a southwest-to-northeast path tornadoes typically follow in the area. Still, he couldn't believe his eyes as he watched the storm approach.

“I could tell it was heading right to the middle of Pilger,” he said. “You could tell it hit Pilger as it just exploded. It went right through our home. There is a lot of damage to a lot of buildings. The other challenge is you've got a business to keep running. I don't have an office now.” The office computer, which contained all the farm's business records, also was lost.


One of the major challenges area farmers face is removing large debris littering fields. It's not just papers. There are car parts, grain bins, bricks, parts of houses — everything imaginable carried eastward from Pilger.

Producers will be relying on volunteers to clean fields. On a day following the storm a group of about 40 volunteers spent eight hours removing debris from fields, finishing just 200 of some 1,200 acres that needed cleaned on one farm. At that pace it would take about a 40-hour work week for a group of 40 to finish the job on just one farm.

Emergency first responders and others set up a central command at a park on the west edge of Pilger. The park was left untouched by the EF4 tornado with winds between 166 and 200 miles per hour. Some 80{0a3336b3da8cf935de4f3eb78fe29508c4b8b5ebd27d01af2d815614325d533e} to 90{0a3336b3da8cf935de4f3eb78fe29508c4b8b5ebd27d01af2d815614325d533e} of the town of 346 residents is destroyed, including the Farmers Cooperative in the middle of town that housed some five million bushel storage.

Nearly all 12 bins were blown away and corn piles are left standing in the wreckage. When the tornado hit, debris from the cooperative sprayed to the northeast through a church that only has its steeple left standing near the northeast edge of town. A field just immediately east of Pilger is covered with mangled pieces of metal.


U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns told DTN while on a tour of Pilger Thursday that he expects the final assessment of agricultural losses to be significant.

“There isn't any question that we've had hundreds of head of cattle die in the storm,” he said. “The other thing is the storm goes across farm land and it's spreading debris everywhere. So if you didn't lose your crop I can almost guarantee that every time you go out there for five years you're going to be picking up debris — and some of it is very large pieces of debris that you have to get out of the field before you can do anything else.”

Johanns, who also toured the tornado-damaged Coleridge area north of Norfolk Thursday, said he believes crop losses from the Pilger storm will continue to mount.

“And we're at that point in the year where re-planting is a very, very iffy proposition,” he said. “If you get any kind of early frost that just isn't going to work out.”

Johanns said he is “fairly confident” Pilger will receive federal emergency assistance.

“Now will I guarantee everybody's going to be made whole — that's never the case,” he said. “I tell people federal programs aren't designed to make everybody whole. But I am confident that we're seeing enough damage out here that we'll bring together pieces of various federal programs and that's our job to figure out what programs match the losses and we'll try to get as much help up here to people that we can.”

When it comes to cattle losses in the region, Johanns, the former U.S. agriculture secretary in the George W. Bush administration, said the recent farm bill will be more effective in helping producers.

The farm bill permanently funds livestock indemnity, covering up to 75{0a3336b3da8cf935de4f3eb78fe29508c4b8b5ebd27d01af2d815614325d533e} of losses. When it comes to crop damage, Johanns said federal programs won't kick in for farmers who have insurance. That's because the federal government views insurance as the first line of defense for producers.

“The most important advice I can offer today, these first days following the storm, is document your losses,” he said. “Document the time. Document everything. The federal government is a stickler for detail. All I can say to people is document everything. Take pictures. Write down your losses. Make sure that you can prove that you actually sustained that loss.”

NORTHERN AG NETWORK NOTE: To see video of the twin tornadoes causing the above discussed damage, read “Twin Tornadoes Tear Through Nebraska Community.”

© Copyright 2014 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.

Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp


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