Stronger than the Storm – Cowsmo

Stronger than the Storm

This article was featured in our 2019 Winter issue, written by Julie Ashton.

Rob Leach, left, and Brent Hildebrandt survey the rubble after the storm. Photo provided.

2019 has been a year that many farmers would like to put behind them. Historic snow amounts collapsed barn roofs; spring flooding prevented crops from being planted throughout North America; drought in Australia and New Zealand forced dairy and beef operations to close their doors; and a wet fall and early cold weather halted harvest of what crops actually did get planted. While we all know you can’t control the weather and natural disasters, how you deal with the situation and embrace the challenge can mean the difference between moving forward or being left behind. For the Leach family of Linwood, KS, they choose to be “stronger than the storm” and ended 2019 with purple ribbons and banners from the All American Jersey Show.

May 28 started like any other day for Rob and Lisa Leach, and their daughters, Taylor, Erin and Sophie. While the girls were helping at the Legacy of Wilstar Dispersal in Pine River, WI, a massive EF-4 tornado tore Lin-Crest Farm apart, which had been in the family since 1964. Nearly every building on the farm was destroyed, with significant damage to the house as well. Rob’s sister Chris and her family were not as lucky, however, with their house literally ripped from the foundation by the tornado. Despite losing 10 barns, every mile of fence and almost every tree on the property, no person was hurt, and that is something the family has been thankful for over the last six months.

LtoR: Sisters Sophie and Erin Leach with Midgee and Clover. Photo ©Cowsmo

“When we first came out of the house after the tornado was over, Lisa and I headed straight towards the barn and Chris met us about 15 minutes later,” Rob said. “The calves were all pretty unscathed despite their hutches being blown away. They were running around having a grand old time! The cows were more in shock … 125 cows just hanging around the farm, not really knowing what had just happened.”

With the farm set over a ¼ mile off the road, their remote location from town and the number of downed trees everywhere, the farm was inaccessible to all vehicles. The girls, who were still in Wisconsin at this time, had heard about the tornado and turned on the TV and saw the large commercial nursery close to farm destroyed. They jumped in the truck early in the morning and headed home. During this time, Rob only called one other person, Roy Buessing, who lived about 2 hours away. Roy hadn’t heard about the tornado yet, but immediately jumped in the truck and headed towards Linwood.

While the girls were driving home, Taylor was talking to the family’s good friend Christy Ratliff, who lived about 90 minutes away. She and her husband Ron brought two trailers and as many halters as they could grab and made the trip to Linwood. “Since we were losing daylight, the plan was to load up any injured cows that night and anyone we could catch,” Lisa said. “We had friends who had walked for miles to get to us not knowing if we were alive or dead, and then they were helping catch cows!”

The “Joplin Syndicate” was started by Katrina Cobb after Dusty & Nicole Schirm donated Ho-Crawf Andreas Joplin to the Leach Family. All money raised was also donated to help them with expenses incurred from the storm.

While the majority of animals were unharmed, two cows were killed the night of the tornado, and another 18 animals were lost in the days following. Unfortunately, two of the family’s best cows were included in that statistic. Ratliff Minister Midgee EX-94 was one of the first cows that Rob and Lisa found that night, and she had an obvious broken leg. “I told everyone that I would be the only person to put down a cow, and that we would give them all a fighting chance if there was one to have,” Rob lamented. Midgee, who was the family’s newest EX-94 cow had just won Reserve Grand Champion honors for Erin and Sophie at the Southern National Junior Show in Stillwater, OK, the month prior. Midgee was also Nominated Junior All-American 5-Year-Old in 2018.

LC Valentino Clover EX-94 wasn’t found till the next morning and was over a ½ mile from the farm. Unfortunately, Clover had obvious injuries, but the family put all their efforts into saving her. After a consultation with a vet, ultimately it was decided her injuries were too severe and they made the decision to put her down. Clover, a perennial show winner for the family, had brought home Grand Champion honors of the Junior Show and HM Champion honors from the Open Show in Stillwater. Clover, 2018 HM Junior All-American 5-Year-Old, was also the 2017 Reserve Senior Champion at the International Junior Jersey Show for Erin and Sophie and cousin Anna Hahn.

The Leach family with several of the members of the “Visionary” Syndicate that Willis Gunst helped spearhead to help the family rebuild part of what they lost on May 28. Photo provided.

When daylight broke, the Leach family knew their world would never be the same. “We didn’t have power or water for several days after,” Rob recalled. “And despite being alone for hours the night of the tornado, we had over 100 volunteers at the farm for nearly three weeks straight helping with cleanup. From day one, we’ve felt guilty about how people have helped us and donated equipment, their time and money. We are just so grateful and humbled.”

While cleanup was happening at the farm, the family also had to now think about their herd being divided between several farms throughout Kansas (at one point 13 different farms!). There were two cows that were each about three weeks from calving, so Lisa didn’t want to send them to the same farm she recalled. LC Success Abilene VG-89, 2018 Junior All-American Senior 2-Year-Old, was easily caught the night of the tornado and went to Ratliffs.

Page-Crest Virtuoso 148 {5} is owned in partnership with the Chupp family from Oklahoma, who had purchased her has a baby calf at the Page-Crest Dispersal in 2016. While at the 2018 Southern National, the families were tied together at the show. “She was a nice a two-year-old,” remarked Rob, “We just felt like she needed another calf and she good be really good!” “Tyler asked me if we’d bring her home and become partners. We were overcrowded at the time but said yes anyways!” Justin Chupp attends Oklahoma State University with Erin, so the girls nicknamed 148 “JuJu,” and the name has stuck since then.

Christy Ratliff with Page-Crest Virtuosa 148 during the 2019 National Jersey Jug Futurity. Photo ©Cowsmo

JuJu “doesn’t see the best,” according the Rob and Lisa, and wouldn’t allow anyone to get near her the night of the tornado. When they did catch her the next morning, she appeared to be uninjured and was sent to Dwight Rokey’s in Sabetha, KS, about 90 minutes from Linwood. She calved a few weeks later with a heifer calf, and Rob remembers Dwight telling him how good she looked. JuJu made the trip with Christy Ratliff to Illinois State Fair, and she stood fourth in the Junior 3-year-old class.

Around this same time, the family realized that she had been entered in the National Jersey Jug Futurity in Louisville. “This was only our second animal we’ve ever showed in the Jug,” commented Lisa. “And it’s really hard for Junior-owned animals to compete in three shows in Louisville because of the schedule.” Despite this, they prepped JuJu to look her best Junior Show day, and it paid off. Not only was she the Junior All American Junior 3-Year-Old, she walked away with Intermediate and Reserve Grand Champion honors. The following day, JuJu beat out the class of 31 three-year-olds winning the National Jersey Jug Futurity. “We can’t thank Ron and Christy enough for the care they’ve given JuJu and all our cows over the last six months,” Rob said.

The excitement of Louisville didn’t stop with JuJu though. LC Barnabas Annie was the first animal that Lisa found the night of the tornado. “She was just a baby calf and was still in her hutch that night,” recalled Lisa. Annie, along with several other heifers, were sent to Kevin Holton’s, a Holstein farm not far from Lin-Crest. When it came time for the girls to pick heifers for the summer and fall, Sophie picked Annie out straight away. Annie was the winning Spring Calf and HM Junior Champion at the Illinois State Fair and then went on to win her class of 25 at the Junior All American Jersey Show and stood fifth in the open show.

LC Valentino Clover EX-94 already had a solid show resume and the family had exciting plans for her in 2019. Photo ©Cowsmo.

Just days after the storm, Katrina Cobb of Red Dirt Genetics in Oklahoma organized an online auction to help raise funds for the Leach family. Various items were donated from dairy companies and individuals from around the U.S. The largest donation came from Dusty and Nicole Schirm of Ohio, who donated Ho-Crawf Andreas Joplin, the 2018 AJCA All American Spring Calf, to the auction. This quickly turned into the “Jolpin Syndicate,” where not only were the proceeds all donated to the Leach family, but the heifer as well. “We were just blown away by everyone’s generosity. I texted Dusty and asked him to call me after it was announced in Facebook,” Rob commented. “When he called, I couldn’t thank him enough but told him it wasn’t necessary, and it was too generous. He was adamant that he and Nicole wanted to do this. I remember him saying ‘You have kids, we have kids, it’s just the right thing to do.’” Sophie exhibited Joplin in Louisville, placing 2nd in the Junior Show, and named Reserve Junior All American Spring Yearling. You can see the full list of Joplin Syndicate members on the following page!

As if Louisville hadn’t already exceeded the family’s expectations, one last moment pushed it over the edge. Willis Gunst, who has been good friends with Rob and Lisa for years, and where the girls were at during the tornado, wanted to organize something for the family. In talking to Tim, Barb and Kyle Natzke of Wisconsin, they formed a plan to help “rebuild” the outstanding cattle they lost during the storm. At the National Holstein Convention, Willis proudly wore a sticker that said: “Ask me how you can help the Leach family!” Rob and Lisa didn’t know what he was up to, and never could have imagined what would come to fruition through his efforts.

While Rob was watching the line at Louisville, Kyle came over and asked him to look at another heifer for the girls to show in the Junior Show. Standing next to her was a fuzzy summer calf that Kyle pointed out to Rob and told him it was a maternal sister to Ratliff’s Vision cow, a granddaughter of EX-97 Veronica. “And what would you say if I told you that she is yours now?” Kyle joked. But, Kyle wasn’t joking. The Visionary Syndicate, as it became known as, purchased the calf from Johnathan Heinsohn, Red Carpet Genetics in Illinois, who made the heifer available at a very special price for the group.

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While the donations and generosity have been in different forms and from all over the world, Rob and Lisa are truly humbled. “We know that we’ll never be able to repay everyone, and we just hope that others never have to experience something like this from our perspective,” Rob said. “We never once received a vet bill for any of the work that was done, and a pharmaceutical company stepped up and donated all of the medication that was used. Cargill and Purina assisted with grain and nutrition needs and Calf-Tel generously replaced all of our hutches that were destroyed.”

So, what’s next for Lin-Crest farm? The family has started the rebuilding process, but it is a slow one. They were unable to crop farm at all in 2019, and they are still worried about debris in those fields, so clean-up continues. They’ve had to drain their ponds and re-run all electric, sewer and gas lines. Work on a new commodity barn is underway, and they hope to build four more barns in the future. “It would be amazing to be milking again by the 1-year anniversary,” Lisa commented, “but there is a lot that has to happen beforehand.” The family does plan on downsizing their herd, however. “Insurance doesn’t cover everything, and we still have to be able to cash-flow as a farm after this is done,” Rob said.

Between the various fundraisers that individuals had for them at shows, sales and the National Jersey Convention, Rob and Lisa cannot say enough good things about all of the strangers that have help them. “We don’t want to overwhelm people with our story though,” Rob remarked. “And our greatest fear is that we won’t seem grateful enough.” Yet, to outsiders looking in, ungrateful is not a word used to describe the Leach family. Humble, kind and “stronger than the storm” are just a few that most would associate with Rob, Lisa, Taylor, Erin and Sophie Leach.

 

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