Authorities reported at least 21 cattle died in a barn fire that burned for hours Saturday on a farm about 30 miles east of Madison.
Fort Atkinson Fire Chief Michael Reed said the department received the report of a fire just before 3 p.m. Saturday.
Crews arrived to find the barn and two connecting structures at N3726 Ehrke Road in the Town of Oakland engulfed in flames, Reed said.
Farm owner Bill Ehrke told firefighters there were between 30-35 cattle inside the barn. The dead cattle toll may rise as they move through the rubble.
The chief said crews fought the blaze for hours and tried to save more animals but were unable to enter the barn due to a variety of safety complications including snow, cold temperatures and equipment in the barn.
"We spent an awful lot of time trying to suppress the fire and wet down the cattle," Reed said. "[Entering the barn] was too much of a risk with the load we had."
Reed said the scene was cleared just after midnight Sunday.
The big barn was a total loss, Reed said, though a financial estimate was not available. Parts of the two adjacent buildings were salvaged, the chief added.
Ehrke concurred with the fire chief. "I doubt very much if I'll be able to build that barn back," he said.
Reed said several cows did survive and are under watch by the farm’s veterinarian for minor burns and smoke inhalation. No animals had to be euthanized as of Sunday afternoon.
Reed said the fire remains under investigation and there were no theories as to what caused the blaze at this point.
The Fort Atkinson Fire Department was assisted by crews from departments in Cambridge, Deerfield, Edgerton, Helenville, Ixonia, Jefferson, Johnson Creek, Lake Mills, Milton, Palmyra, Rome, Sullivan, Waterloo, Watertown and Whitewater.
Ehkre got the news of the fire via a phone call from his son as Ehkre was coming back from the airport in Chicago following a vacation.
"He said something happened pretty bad," said Ehkre.
Making it even worse were the emotions involved.
"They're all registered cattle and they all have names, you know them all by name," reflected Ehkre. "And that's kind of hard."
The fire obviously marks one of the biggest setbacks of Ehrke's career.
Ehrke has owned the farm since Lyndon Johnson was president. He said he's had good years and bad, but this is something else entirely.
"If you saw the ad that they used with Paul Harvey for the Super Bowl, I think that kind of gives you an idea of what you have to think about," said Ehrke.
But, as that celebrated ad made clear, farmers are a resilient group.
"There isn't much you can do about it," summarized Ehrke. "It happened, and we'll move on, I guess."