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Dozens of dairy cattle die in Antigonish County fire

A fire overnight destroyed the barn at the Aaron Rovers farm near Afton. CHARLES RILEY
A fire overnight destroyed the barn at the Aaron Rovers farm near Afton. CHARLES RILEY - Contributed

Rev. Art Riley looked outside Wednesday morning to see a Holstein being chased around his Antigonish County yard.

Then he looked to his right and saw the twisted and charred rubble of his neighbour’s dairy barn.

“Over 50 cattle died and they might have to put more down because of smoke inhalation,” said the deacon of the three surrounding Catholic parishes.

The close-knit farming community of northern Nova Scotia was awake long before Riley.

News had travelled fast that Aaron Rovers’ barn, complete with new milking machines and a recent extension, had burned.

Diesel pickups towing cattle trailers descended on the thirdgeneration dairy farm in Afton.

“The cows need to get to where there’s feed, and be milked and taken care of,” said Bert Meyers, a Pictou County farmer, as he arrived at Westarm Farms with a trailer.

Volunteer firefighters from Tracadie, Havre Boucher and Pomquet responded to the blaze around midnight, to find the 70-metre-long barn fully engulfed.

“Our other deputy chief got there first and he managed to help get some of the gates open,” said David Boudreau, deputy chief of the Tracadie and District Volunteer Fire Department.

“They got quite a few cattle out before the roof came down.”

With the wind in their favour, firefighters were able to set themselves up between the neighbouring barns and house and the inferno, and create a wall of water that prevented the heat from spreading the fire.

They hauled and sprayed water for nearly 10 hours before heading home.

Friends and neighbours spent the night rounding up those cattle that had managed to escape, bringing with them coffee and food for first responders and the family suffering a terrible night.

“They’d worked so damn hard lately,” said Joan Corsten of her nephew, Aaron Rovers.

Rovers and his family had just finished making silage off the farm’s surrounding fields before the rain forecast for Wednesday night.

The barn itself was the culmination of a long journey for the Rovers family.

When Aaron’s grandfather, Martin Rovers, immigrated to Antigonish County in 1956 he brought with him eight children.

They had left war-battered Holland with all their possessions in a three-metre-square crate.

They bought land in Antigonish County and started the farm — milking their cows with a bucket.

From Martin the farm passed to his son, John (Joan Corsten’s brother) and most recently to Aaron.

Four years ago Aaron allowed The Chronicle Herald into Westarm Farms to see the future of dairy farming — two laser-guided robotic milking machines valued at $200,000 apiece.

“When you jump in you go feet first,” said Aaron at the time.

On Wednesday Aaron was busy seeing to the well-being of the animals that remain and co-ordinating the swirl of human activity all around his smouldering state-of-the-art barn.

Watching her nephew, Joan sighed and said, “It just breaks your heart.”

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