November 20, 2003
When I was in high school, I owned a small mixed-breed herd, but my dad talked me into liquidating just before I went off to college, back in the summer of 1967. He had a good point. He was working the graveyard shift at the cotton mill at the time and figured, rightly so, that chasing my cows out of the rost’near patch would interfere with his sleep of a morning after he got home from work.
At the peak of expansion my herd numbered three cows, which ranged over some 15 acres of improved pasture, improved to the point that some 20 percent was fescue and the rest a combination of ragweed, pokeberry, thistle and crabgrass.
It also qualified as improved because of the fencing I did, boring shallow holes into the rocky South Carolina soil or cutting through oak tree stumps with a hole digger and an iron cutting bar. I preferred running fence along the tree line, however. An occasional cedar sapling, properly trimmed, made a fine fence post and meant one less hole to be gouged out of the root-filled earth. Unfortunately, cedar trees grow randomly, rarely in a straight line, unless cultivated, which these were not. So the fence bore some resemblance to the drunken meanderings of a besotted banty rooster. Wire pretty much went where the cedar trees grew, so it zigged one way and zagged the other to make the necessary connections.
I often found it necessary to veer away from straight when the posthole diggers encountered objects too thick or too hard to penetrate. Adjustments back or forward, left or right often solved the problem but left the barbed wire (more about that later) too slack in places and ridiculously tight in others.
I also discovered one hot July afternoon that discretion is indeed the better part of valor, especially when the perfect spot for a posthole happens to be occupied by a healthy nest of yellow jackets. The encounter provided a good opportunity to practice my downfield running in preparation for fall football, but I also learned not to look over my shoulder when sprinting through the woods. The ensuing collision with the red oak was reminiscent of a hit by a butt ugly defensive end I had met the year before and left me somewhat addled. Some folks claim I was never the same afterward, but truth be told I was never the same before either.
The problem with my fencing strategy was that all the veering and direction changes used up considerably more of the store-bought wire than we had anticipated and funds for capital improvements proved inadequate to procure more. I was left to salvage used, rusty barbed wire from an old fence line on my grandfather’s place. It worked pretty well, if you didn’t stretch it too tight and if nothing heavier than a gray squirrel ever leaned against it.
I’m guessing that such weak places encouraged my herd to risk scrapes on rusty barbs to leave their ample if less than palatable forage to sample fresh sweet corn, yellow-neck squash and my dad’s prized sweet potato vines. More than one summer morning snooze ended with the sound of large animals trampling through the garden.
“I would dutifully shoo the cows back to the pasture, locate the break and repair it with pine limbs, abandoned rocking chairs and old tires. I also put yokes on the cows, which resulted in them dragging yards of rusty wire through the garden as they munched happily on almost ready sweet corn.
So it was no great surprise that dad suggested (?) that I find a buyer for my cattle before I left for college. I’m sure I sold on a down market but was glad to have cash in hand when I registered for classes, seeing as how the geniuses who run the scholastic testing services had sent all my scores and financial aid materials to Brevard, Florida, instead of Brevard, North Carolina.
Proceeds for my herd liquidation paid for about three weeks of tuition, room and board and gave me enough time to track down my files and procure the loan that made my education possible.
But I still wonder how my life would have turned out had I stayed in the cattle business. By now, 36 years later, I probably would have a substantial herd. Based on my previous expansion history I’d probably be running 15 or 20 head by now and would control as much as 30 acres.
I’d also have a PTO-driven post-hole digger.
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