Fencing Flashbacks

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Electric fence made it easier to keep cows (and carp) contained.
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Fixing fence was a family affair.

The arrival of balmy weather causes our lawn to become as thick as the hair on a werewolf. My lawn mower spews out an emerald river of clippings, creating a grid of tiny windrows. As the mower chews through the grass, my mind wanders, and I wonder how many cows could have been fed with those clippings.

When I was a kid, warming weather meant that the fencing season was upon us at our dairy farm. And I don’t mean the type of fencing that involves those skinny little swords. We’re talking about real fencing, the kind that has highly tensioned with ever-menacing barbed wire; we’re talking about digging holes for posts that were the size of giant sequoias.

Dad would “volunteer” his offspring for fencing duty as soon as he or she could hold a pair of pliers. Every spring, Dad would walk the fence that formed the perimeter of our cow pasture, looking for broken wires. A ragtag troupe of pint-sized fencing apprentices followed in his wake.

There were always broken barbed wires. This was because many of our fences must have been installed during the Jurassic Period. Dad taught us kids the art of splicing barbed wire that has become so brittle that attempting to bend it caused it to snap like a dried twig.

Normal barbed wire — barbed wire less than a century old — can be formed into a loop so that a new section can be looped in. Dad had a sixth sense knowing which barbed wire could be spliced in this manner and which needed to be handled as delicately as a freshly laid egg.

Whenever there was a break in an especially ancient section of fence, Dad would use our fence stretcher to gently re-tension the wire. When the broken ends were almost touching, he would wind smooth wire around and around the barbed wire. I don’t know where he learned this mysterious trick, but it never failed.

We often had to install new corners or H-braces. This gave us kids the opportunity to become intimately acquainted with the Hand-Cranked Post Hole Auger exercise program.

Dad said that the holes had to reach below the frost line or the soil would “barf” out the post. This was unacceptable, so we always dug our post holes so deep that the auger all but disappeared into the earth. I worried that our post holes might even puncture a magma chamber and cause a volcanic eruption.

Drilling post holes was oddly satisfying. It was if we were in a grunting, sweating wrestling match with the planet. There was never any doubt about who would win, but we learned how to put up a good ­ fight.

When the auger found rock, the digger had to get down on his or her belly and reach waay down into the bottom of the hole and remove the stone. This tended to give one a great amount of empathy for gophers.

I asked Dad why they didn’t sell prefab post holes at the farm supply store. He said that they did, but that a guy would have to drill holes in order to install them. This made perfect sense to me.

One spring, Dad had had enough of repairing his prehistoric barbed wire fences and decided to install an electric fence to keep our cows in the pasture.

I was dubious about this theory that electricity could control cattle. Even so, I dutifully helped Dad string a skinny wire between some spindly steel posts and their insulators. But how could this so-called fence hold back a 1,500 pound Holstein?! It didn’t even have any barbs!

Dad attached the skinny wire to a peculiar red box and flipped a switch. The box emitted a rhythmic clicking noise, and a light on the box’s front began to flash.

I voiced my doubts about this newfangled form of fence. Grinning, Dad invited me to grab the skinny wire.

A professional pole vaulter could not have jumped much higher. After I had recovered my wits, and my arm had quit tingling, I informed Dad that I totally agreed with his assessment regarding electronic cow control.

All of my fencing training proved invaluable when I began to farm on my own. Shortly after ­ finishing high school, I leased a small dairy farm. A patch of pasture came with the farm at a very inexpensive rental rate. I didn’t ask any questions, assuming that the landlord knew what he was doing.

He did. Heavy springtime rains transformed a large portion of the pasture into a miniature Lake Superior. A section of pasture fence that ran alongside a highway was fully submerged. My cows could have dog-paddled out of the pasture and hitchhiked to Mexico.

The cows needed access to grass, and I needed them to stay in the pasture. My experiences with electric fencing suddenly came to mind.

My then-girlfriend — who, despite this and other portentous experiences, married me — and I were soon constructing an electric fence on the shoulder of the bustling highway. It was unnerving when cars whizzed by at close range, their drivers seemingly unaware of the young couple conducting a critical fence repair mission. I wished that I could have acquainted them with the marvels of an electric fence.

We were in the midst of our fencing project when something out in the pasture made a splash. “What was that?” asked my wife, startled.

“I didn’t hear anything,” I replied. “It must have been your imagination.”

But then came another splash. This time, we both saw its source: There were carp in our pasture!

“What do we do we do now?” asked my wife. “Do we build a fence to keep the carp in or do we try to fence them out?”

“Neither,” I replied. “Fetch me a chunk of that baling twine while I bend some of this rusty old barbed wire into a skinny sword. How do you feel about ­fish for supper?”

Related: Complete guide to basic principles of electric fencing.

Jerry Nelson is a recovering dairy farmer who lives on his family farm near Volga, South Dakota. He hopes that prefab fence post holes will one day be perfected, but in the meantime he continues to use an electric fence to keep his half-dozen Jersey steers under control.

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