We knew last spring when we strung electric wire around four targeted grazing sites that our fences would have to be as effective at holding cattle out, as keeping sheep in. But the fences were to be temporary and, after all, 5 strands of “hot” poly-wire ought to do the job for a month each fall, for a couple of years. Right?
Although we experienced a couple of short-lived breaks for freedom when the ewes tested the integrity of the portable fences dividing grazing cells, the ovine critters tended to stay where they belonged and never tested the perimeter fences. I suppose I was lulled into a false sense of security.
Anyone who knows much about cattle can tell you that if the animals are going to respect a hot fence, it needs to be hot when they first encounter it… and yearlings are particularly curious. But suddenly my email inbox was alerting me that the steers were in the pasture where my plots were located. And by the next day, before I had had time to set up my chargers, that bovine curiosity had found—and frolicked in—my plots. I didn’t need a good friend, a cowman, to tell me that I was in for a fun month.
It took me a day to de-snarl and re-string the poly-wire strewn across the prairie. I set four chargers on four t-posts beside four gate-posts, fastened four green clips to four grounding rods and four red clips to four fence wires, unhooked four interior fences to give the perimeters extra power, and hoped without much confidence that that would be the end of the matter.
One week later, I was again picking through poly-wire tangled with toadflax. The steers had, rather predictably, rubbed on the chargers to detach them from the fence before proceeding to gambol through my repairs. With the help of a fellow grad student, I rolled up the now-bedraggled interior fences, no longer entertaining the notion that they would be protected from the frisky steers. I also moved my chargers to the inside of each fence to resolve that particular weak point. I noticed that one of my chargers wasn’t particularly hot and resolved to check on it the next day.
As I picked through toadflax and poly-wire later that week and placed a repaired charger on the designated t-post, I idly wondered what the steers would do all day if they weren’t romping through my plots anymore. Sure, they had the entire pasture, of which my plots made up a tiny fraction, but clearly my study sites were located in prime territory—not necessarily for eating, as my vegetation still appeared as it had before the break-ins (and the rest of the pasture was still growing grass above my knee, which is more than I could say for my heavily-defoliated plots), but certainly for cavorting through at least once a week. “At least,” I reasoned, “even if there is some magnetic attraction drawing them here, at some point in the near future they’ll be sold for prospective t-bones.” I’m not a vengeful person, but I admit this was a somewhat comforting thought.
Three days after that fence repair incident, I received a brief but meaningful text message from Brian, my advisor: “Steers are out of the pasture.” Because it was such a good grass year, the steers had gained weight more quickly than usual and been sold a little early. I don’t know of many circumstances when a work-related text can induce such a freeing sensation… or a hankering for steak.