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Sun., Mar. 1
Serving the communities of Massena and Potsdam, New York
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With barn fires a harsh reminder, farm safety program offered

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Rising at the crack of dawn and finishing work after sunset, farmers have a lot to keep track of every day.

But overlooking one small safety precaution, experts say, could mean waking up to a dairy barn engulfed in flames.

A tour highlighting safety measures every farmer should know will be offered from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at Galen Gockley Farm in Carthage. The free farm emergency response program will be put on by educators from the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health.

In addition to fire prevention, the workshop will high- light tractor rollovers and run overs, chemical and pesticide poisonings, silo emergencies, how to safeguard electrical machinery, and developing emergency farm plans. Lunch will be provided.

A blaze that destroyed a livestock barn at the dairy farm of John D. and Helen K. Garvin — claiming the lives of 90 head of cattle — provided yet another wake-up call to north country farmers.

Jefferson County fire investigator Jeffrey M. VanBrocklin, who investigated the cause of the fire, said he’s responded to numerous barn fires over the past three decades. While the cause of the fire could not be officially determined, Mr. VanBrocklin concluded it was likely caused by the spontaneous combustion of fresh hay that was cut by Mr. VanBrocklin last Thursday and stored in the barn Saturday.

Placed on the ground at the rear of the barn to make bedding for cattle, Mr. VanBrocklin said the freshly cut hay likely had a high moisture content because it was still green when it was stored. Wet hay poses a hazard of combusting, he said, and farmers will typically ensure it’s dry before storing it.

As the plant continues to release moisture as it dries out, the temperature of the hay continues to climb, making it more likely to combust in a chemical reaction.

The blaze could also have been caused by an electrical fire, he said, but investigators were left without any evidence at the scene, typical in most cases when barns are fully devoured by flames.

Most of the time, farmers will cut the hay and leave it for a while to dry, Mr. VanBrocklin said. “But if moisture-laden hay is put in a building, there’s a chance of spontaneous combustion. And the barns are totally consumed in the majority of cases.”

The number of barn fires in Jefferson County has drastically decreased since he became a firefighter 30 years ago, however, because most farmers are taking precautions to prevent barn fires.

Mr. VanBrocklin said the safest option available to farmers is simply to store hay outside of their barns. Farmers often store their hay in their fields until the winter, for example, or keep it in open-air pole barns without walls to ensure the hay stays dry.

“There are now only a limited number of farmers in the local area that are leaving hay in their barns,” he said. “That trend in farming has caused significantly fewer barn fires over the years.”

Often, farmers will store their hay in large round bales in rows in their fields, covering them in plastic wrap to ensure the hay is protected from the weather, he said.

Farmers can take precautions to ensure hay is sufficiently dry, said Michael E. Hunter, field crops educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Baled hay can be treated with proprionic acid before its stored to kill bacteria that can contribute to spontaneous combustion. Farmers can also measure the moisture content of the hay by using electronic moisture meters to test individual hay samples. Samples should be taken from various locations on fields because some areas may have more moisture content than others. The moisture content should be less than 20 percent.

Mr. Hunter said barn fires typically start two to six weeks after hay is stored, although they could start earlier depending on the circumstances.

“The temperature in the bale slowly builds up and can get to the point where it will ignite, which is why it should be checked frequently.”

The temperature of hay bales can be monitored by using a compost thermometer or by sticking a pipe with a thermometer inside them.

Ordinarily, hay fires are more likely after periods of heavy rainfall when farmers are more apt to store their hay with more moisture than normal, Mr. Hunter said. The rainfall in Jefferson County in early August, for example, could have played a role in the Rutland fire.

“There’s a higher risk for spontaneous combustion in years where we have more frequent rainfall,” he said. “Farmers are dealing with a lot more moisture and shorter windows to dry their hay, so they don’t have as many opportunities to mow, dry and bail it.”

For more information about the safety program, call the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County at 788-8450.

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