In 1996, Joan and Matt Marti of Nehalem, Ore., were faced with a catastrophic flood. Residences were destroyed, 30 percent of the herd was lost, and all of the farm’s financial records were ruined. The land the farm sits on was damaged extensively and would take a full year to return to production due to 3 feet of silt residue left from the flooding.

“Could we have prevented the flood? Absolutely not,” says Joan Marti, co-owner of Marti Holsteins, Inc. But, since then, Marti says she has learned a lot about preparing for a crisis.

Have you ever considered what would happen if you were faced with a catastrophic event like this? While every disaster will present different challenges, there are steps you can take to better prepare your farm.

Think it through

Make a list of things that could happen. What would happen if your barn caught on fire and you lost all of your hay or lost the milking parlor? What if an employee was killed? What would you do if the electricity went out for a few hours or days, or if the milk truck couldn’t get there? What if a major feed or water source became contaminated? What about a flood, tornado or a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak?

Thinking through the worst-case scenario that could happen on your farm is the first step to prepare for a crisis. “Crisis preparedness is about what’s possible, not probable,” says Julie Smith, University of Vermont extension dairy specialist. “If you only prepare for the probable, you may be caught unprepared by the possible.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the toxic sludge flood from an aluminum plant in Hungary, and the crippling earthquake in Japan are just a few examples of crises that have happened in the past year. Somewhere in the crisis-planning process, someone might have said these particular situations could not happen or were unlikely to happen, says Smith. But then, they did happen.

While you can’t plan for every situation, you can pick two or three of the most-likely situations and two or three worst-case scenarios for your particular farm and plan for them. “Don’t forget about disability, divorce, deportation or death as potential crises. It’s common for people to think about a natural disaster as a potential crisis, but death and divorce can be just as disastrous,” reminds Smith.

Consider the after-effects

Once you’ve considered what could happen, you have to consider the consequences of such an event.

Think about what or who might be impacted, says David Doerfert, professor with the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications at Texas Tech University. A crisis will typically impact more than one thing; consider the impact a crisis could have on humans, animals, crops or the environment.

For example, if you lost your barn, where would your animals go? In an instance like this, it may be helpful to think about your herd biosecurity practices. Are your vaccination protocols sound enough to co-mingle with another herd? asks Smith.

If you had to dispose of milk or animal carcasses, what would you do? Several potential events could result in the need to dump large quantities of milk or bury a large number of carcasses. Is there a location on the farm that you could use? What would you do if the ground was frozen?

After you’ve thought about the after-effects, consider steps that could be taken ahead of time to minimize the impact of your crisis.

Take catalysts into account

Next, identify potential catalysts. What are the trigger points that would cause a potential crisis to grow into an even bigger problem?

Some of the catalysts might be unintentional; for example, flood equipment doesn’t work or a generator fails, says Doerfert. Other catalysts could be intentional; for example, an angry employee.

Once potential catalysts are identified, create a system to monitor them. For example, if a generator failure is identified as a potential catalyst, develop a plan as to how often and who is going to check it to ensure that it is in working order and ready should a crisis ever occur.

Check your insurance

After you’ve identified potential crises, meet with your insurance provider to review current coverage.

Coverage should be reviewed every year. And, don’t take a verbal confirmation from your insurance agent that you are covered. “From year to year, things might get dropped from your insurance if you’re not on top of it. Mistakes get made,” says Marti. “Just because your insurance agent says you don’t need the insurance, do not believe it.” The value of animals needs to be updated on a yearly basis, as well.

Not studying your insurance policy on a regular basis can cost you.

Remember, the media never sleeps

Think about who you would appoint as a spokesperson for your farm if a crisis were to occur.

In a crisis situation, be ready to talk. “With today’s 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week news cycle and social media, there is no hiding and the news media will likely be at your doorstep,” says Doerfert.

Resources are available from the Dairy Checkoff to help you deal with media interviews. In a crisis, someone may even be available from your local dairy promotion board to help you field media questions while you deal with the situation. (A list of state and regional organizations and contacts are available at:

Handling media interviews should be included in any crisis preparation.

Where in the business cycle are you

In your crisis planning, have a clear picture in your mind of what your business goals are, both short-term and long-term.

Responses in any disaster should be informed by these goals, says Smith. Decisions made during a crisis situation cannot be reversed, and some decisions make it hard to go back.

Put a plan in place

Now that you’ve identified what the potential crisis or crises are, what and who may be impacted, and potential catalysts to the crisis, develop a plan to follow should a disaster strike.

Once the plan is created, it needs to be reviewed and exercised at least once a year. It does not have to be an elaborate exercise, says Mary Lou Peter, extension communication specialist with Kansas State University. But you should ask questions about who is going to execute certain tasks.

“When disaster strikes, it won’t be the plan that saves lives and money, it will be the thought process and experience gained developing the plan,” says Peter.           

Resources are available to help you create a disaster plan specific to your operation. See the “Library of resources” sidebar on this page for more information.

Invite emergency personnel to the farm

Invite local and county emergency personnel out to your farm for training exercises, recommends Steve Cain, Extension Disaster Education Network Homeland Security Project Director.

For instance, fire-fighters and emergency personnel may not be familiar with farms. They might not know the sensitive areas on the farm or how lock-ups or gates work. Giving emergency personnel familiarity with the layout of your farm is critical if a disaster ever happens, says Cain.

It is a good idea to have an emergency lock box on farm with a map inside specifically for the fire department. The more information you provide up front to the emergency responders, the better, notes Cain.

In the event of an emergency, a map of the facility can help emergency-service personnel identify hazardous areas, such as fuel storage, chemical and pesticide storage or electrical control panels. A map can also help identify the location of supplies, feed, water, utilities, receiving and load-out areas.

It can be very helpful to know where the chemicals are. If the building that houses your chemicals is on fire, the fire-fighters need to know that so they can decide if it is better to just let the fire burn. If they try to put a chemical fire out, it may become a bigger cost and liability to the farm if the chemicals run into a creek. The environmental cost down the road could outweigh the cost of letting the barn burn, notes Cain.