By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
Roosevelt County’s Mike Mitchell lost a new dairy operation and about 175 cows in Friday’s tornado, but quick thinking allowed him to escape with his life.
Mitchell said he arrived Friday at the Grande Vida Dairy about nine miles east of Portales a little while before the storm hit. It was between shifts and he thought he was the only one there because he hadn’t seen his night manager.
He said he was doing a little work, but was not real busy, when the weather started to change quickly.
“It hailed and it got kind of eerie out,” Mitchell said. “The air felt different.”
He sought shelter between two big tanks in the milk barn after he heard popping noises to the south and saw debris being tossed in front of the advancing twister.
He said the tanks sheltered him from flying debris as the doors at each end of a hallway running next to the tanks blew out.
“I never could see it (the tornado), but their was a suction and it was loud,” Mitchell said.
He said it got calm long enough for him to leave a message for his wife on voicemail before it started over even harsher than the first blow.
Mitchell crawled out uninjured once the tornado passed. His son and daughter-in-law, who live in a mobile home just over the sandhill, arrived a few minutes later to check on him.
Mitchell later found out his night manager and the man’s wife had ridden out the storm inside a pickup in the feed barn where he had been working. The roof was ripped off the barn, but the cement walls of the feed bunkers shielded them from debris.
The storm destroyed buildings, pens, equipment and vehicles on the property and killed or fatally injured 110 cows, according to Mitchell. He said another 65 head were injured and shipped to slaughter for beef. Another 70-80 are being doctored and Mitchell said more are showing up with internal injuries so he doesn’t know for sure what the herd loss will be.
“The worst thing was to see the animals suffer,” said Mitchell, who grew up on a Roosevelt County dairy. “It was stressful trying to get ‘em moved and doctored.”
Volunteers began showing up Saturday morning at the dairy to help. Mitchell said there might have been 100 people with stock trailers, semi-truck cattle haulers, cowboys with horses and churches with food.
“It was just devastating,” local dairyman Wayne Palla said of the destruction he saw when he arrived late Saturday morning to help. “You just looked around and you couldn’t believe what you saw.”
The cows were herded to the nearby Greenfield Park Dairy to be loaded because of muddy roads.
Palla’s trucks and numerous others shuttled the dairy herd to a just-completed dairy at Arch owned by Paul Douma and Mitch Degroot. Mitchell said the herd had been moved by 5 p.m. Saturday — a fact that amazed him and his tired family and employees.
“We couldn’t have done it without the community, it would have been impossible,” Mitchell said. “It would have taken several days.
“We really appreciate everything that the community did for us.”
Mitchell said the facilities were insured but not the cows. Some assistance may also be available through his membership with Dairy Farmers of America for the loss of milk production.
Mitchell says he’s “squatting” right now on the Arch dairy, but intends to rebuild on the original site as soon as possible.
Operated by Mitchell and owned in a partnership with others, Grande Vida Dairy had 2,500 grown cows on site when the tornado struck.
Mitchell said they began milking operations Dec. 3 at dairy.