Is Your Livestock Barn at Risk for Fire?
How to Prevent a Livestock Barn Fire
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By: Anita B. Stone
No one wants to see their livestock barn wrapped in flames. But that’s exactly what occurred at one of the oldest dairy farms in New York, when firefighters from 15 departments responded to the scene. “I immediately rushed over thinking I could save some cows,” says owner, Michael Miller. “But the barn was engulfed in smoke and flames on the window edges.” Mitchell lost 46 cows. Only one animal survived the fire.
Barn fires killed more than 150,000 farm animals in 2018 according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). Farm animals are not covered by the Federal Animal Welfare Act, which provides some protection for animals. From 2013 to 2017, 2.7 million animal deaths occurred in 326 livestock barn fires in North America. This number includes 2,600 cows.
According to ‘Dairy Herd Management,’ “Of the 148 barn fires tracked in 2018, nearly double the number documented one year prior, occurs because laws and regulations vary by state and municipalities are not required to report barn fires and livestock losses that occur within their boundaries.”
Due to a lack of owner safety precautions and government-designed regulations, many barn animals needlessly die. It is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of fire in your livestock barn, but you can learn the factors most likely to be responsible for fire and take measures to reduce these and protect your barn and livestock.
One of the worst culprits is defective wiring inside the barn. Two-thirds of barn fires occur between the months of October and March with the onset of cold weather. Where the cause of the fire can be identified, half of the time heating equipment is the source. This helps explain why northeastern and mid-western states account for the largest reported number of reported barn fires. It’s important that livestock facilities be inspected before installing additional heaters and to inspect electrical wiring for damage. “Given the massive scale of industrial farming, and the potential for hundreds of thousands of animals to die in one fire, it is imperative that fire suppression and prevention become a priority in the animal agriculture industry,” states Alicia Pygoski, AWI’s farm animal policy associate.
The National Fire Association offers these tips for lowering fire hazards on any size farm:
Heaters and Electricity
Keep heat lamps and heaters a safe distance from anything that can burn.
Use electrical equipment labeled for agricultural use.
Inspect all wiring, cords, and lights designed for livestock barns.
Use professional installation of electrical devices.
Pay attention to heated waterers and heated buckets. They generate heat even without water and may cause plastic to melt, causing a fire to ignite bedding and hay.
Install covers or cages on light bulbs to prevent accumulation of dust, moisture, or breakage.
Remove dust and cobwebs around outlets and lights.
Do not overload circuits or outlets. Doing so is a recipe for disaster.
Keep hay and bedding away from a barn that houses animals.
If you have no separate hay storage facility, make sure the hay is properly cured before placing it in the barn.
Hay bale should have a moisture content less than 17%.
More moisture equals more bacteria and more heat, resulting in the greater likelihood of spontaneous combustion.
Check hay twice daily when new. Temperature should hover around 125 degrees F. If temperature reaches 175-180 degrees, take immediate action.
If steam rises from your hay or moisture collects on the barn ceiling, call the fire department.
A temperature probe can be found at most farm supply companies.
Oily material such as rags should be placed in a closed metal container away from heat.
Fire Prevention Measures
Create and enforce a no-smoking policy. Post signs inside and outside of each building.
Keep the livestock barn clean. Cobwebs, dust, chaff, and loose bailing twine make excellent fuel for fire.
Install a fire alarm, carbon monoxide device, sprinkler systems, ABC fire extinguishers every 50 feet within the barn and near every exit. Inspect each extinguisher every year.
Water hydrants with necessary pressure and adequate water supply around the barn are helpful. Water sources include ponds, pools, cisterns, and manure lagoons.
Place written emergency information by each phone.
Keep weeds cleared from around the barn.
Keep tractors, fuel, and machinery away from the barn.
Remove grass, hay, leaves, and other combustible material from equipment before storing.
Use reflective tape or paint on stalls and pens or paint to make it easier to see.
Hold drills frequently with anyone who uses the barn. Discuss emergency plans with family and employees.
Designate a safe place for your animals. Any Identified location should be a safe distance from the barn, leaving enough room for the fire crew to do their jobs.
If you are removing animals after a fire has started, start with the animal closest to the exit, handling one at a time or in groups if they are herd animals, controlling them as best as you are able to prevent injury.
Human safety is a priority. Ensure your own safety and the safety of others before taking care of your animals.
Livestock insurance gives protection against fires or other hazards such as vandalism or vicious animal attacks.
Insurance depends on the kind and number of animals on your farm. Livestock can be protected as personal property if a limit for the animals is shown in the declaration.
A farm policy may cover barns, stables and other farm structures that are considered as personal property or household property.
Insurance may also cover grain, hay, and machinery.
Additional Farm Safety Information
Farm buildings should be at least 50 to 100 feet away from the barn.
The ground under the barn should be compacted to support heavy equipment during wet conditions.
Check out materials if you build a barn to estimate how any fire would spread.
Concrete has a rating of zero and raw wood 100, and treated wood has a rating of 25. The lower the flame-spreading rate, the longer it takes for flames to move along a surface.
Use fire-resistant products such as masonry, heavy timber, or fire retardant treated wood, where possible.
Fire retardant wood decreases flame spread by 75% if properly applied and will be effective for at least 30 years.
When heavy wood is exposed to flames, a hard carbon char forms on the surface of the wood, protecting it from further damage. Because of this charring, heavy timber and fire retardant treated-wood retains structural integrity longer than unprotected steel during a fire.
All barns, regardless of age, should be outfitted with lightning rods.
Have a fire evacuation procedure in store.
If there is a fire, act calmly and safely. Call 911 and get people out of the barn.
Of course, following all recommendations would be a difficult task, especially with financial considerations and farming uncertainties being part of the picture. Don’t expect perfection, but educate yourself to future action to protect yourself, your family, and your animals.
Originally published in Countryside January/February 2020 and regularly vetted for accuracy.