AMHERST, Wis. - Bob Biadasz rounds the corner of the barn on his property to a cement slab next to the manure pit. He gasps at the sight -- the liquid holding area is nearly full. It's risen 2 feet overnight from heavy rains and will need to be emptied soon.
"We haven't done a thing since it happened," Biadasz said. "Manure haulers didn't even want to come back here anymore because they're nervous."
Biadasz said nothing has been done since his son Mike died Aug. 15 next to the manure pit. He was only 29.
The two had farmed together for years, co-managing the beef and custom harvesting operation.
"Him and I worked day-by-day, side-by-side," Bob said. "A lot of people said before this happened we had a unique thing going because usually you talk to most farmers and it's like gas and matches, they don't always mix."
But Biadasz said the father and son got along just fine. It was, though, mixing and gas and a routine task that would stop Mike's farming future in its tracks.
"He said he was getting up at 3 o'clock to start the tractor up to start the agitation process," Biadasz said.
Mike started mixing the liquids and solids that morning to be pumped out and hauled away.
"At 4 o'clock in the morning he sent a Snapchat to some of his friends that he was stirring up the pot of gold," Bob said. "The gold is the nutrient value of the manure."
That morning, the air on the farm was completely still with no measurable breeze and a film of fog in the air. The agitator stirred up naturally-occurring gases in the decomposing manure that settled just above the liquid, and were invisible to Mike as he worked.
"He walked down this embankment about 5 feet," Bob said. "It was probably a 3-foot drop in elevation, and that's where he was overcome."
A hired hand and friend noticed the truck running around 6 a.m. and no one in it.
"I was in the house just having a cup of coffee and he called and said, ‘Mike's dead,' and I said ‘Oh, my God,'" Bob said.
Mike and 16 of their Holstein steers died from acute exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas. It has been a danger typically for those around manure in enclosed spaces, but not normally outdoor pits.
"We always talk about safety and everything here," Bob said. "It wasn't like he didn't know what he was doing. It just felt like the world stopped turning."
The incident has gotten the attention of other farmers and the agriculture industry in the state.
"Unfortunately it's usually after someone's death that the awareness gets greater and people are willing to take action," said Cheryl Skjolaas, interim director for the UW Center for Ag Safety and Health.
Skjolaas has been researching the conditions of the incident, including the air movement that day, the elevation of the buildings and even the feed ration the family was using for the steers.
"It's concerning to people," Skjolaas said. "We've been responding to a lot of inquiries, not understanding the gases, and like you said that open-air part of it was really a different factor."
An online webinar done by UW-Extension in the weeks after Mike's death aimed to educate people on why using a gas meter might very well prevent another death.
"One breath can be enough to take your life," Skjolaas said. "It's easier to use that monitor, put in some extra safety precautions, than to lose a loved one."
The gas meters can cost anywhere from $200 to $2,000 depending on whether they measure solely hydrogen sulfide, or four separate gases that can be present in manure pits. It can be used to detect the gases and alert whenever levels are dangerous. Skjolaas said new guidelines say as little as one part per million may cause alarm.
"When it does alarm, you need to get out into fresh air," Skjolaas said.
She said only some farmers are taking the precaution, but she's hoping now that more will.
"Our best way to remember Michael is to take action and not just talk about it," Skjolaas said.
That's exactly what the Biadasz family is doing now. They've started a memorial fund that will go to promoting education around safe manure handling on farms.
"Mike always said ‘help everybody out,' that's how he was," Bob said. "If I can help somebody else, some other family from this ever happening, then I did my job."
The family says they're living a mission that Mike had emblazoned on the family's farm signs five years ago.
"He picked up this saying, ‘Live today like you're gonna die tomorrow, but farm today like you're gonna farm forever,'" Bob said. "That phrase didn't mean a whole lot at the start, but now after this happened, how true it is."
The family plans to work with UW-Extension on the details of how the Mike Biadasz safety memorial will work. If you'd like to donate, you can go online or donate directly to the Community First Bank in Stevens Point.
Farmers can watch the full UW-Extension webinar for details on gas meters and manure handling. Extension is also planning a confined-spaces seminar on Feb. 21.
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