They say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and this summer, eight of our cattle got an opportunity to test that hypothesis.
We have been raising a small number of beef animals for the past 16 years, since a couple of years after we moved back to the farm that has been in my family since 1911. We only have 40 acres to go with the buildings, so each year we graze between 16 and 18 stockers from the beginning of April to the end of October. We sell the meat in quarters and halves to customers across southern Wisconsin.
If there is one thing that I’ve learned from grazing beef animals — we had dairy cattle and hogs here on the farm when I grew up — it is that they have a mind of their own. And if there’s another thing, it’s that they should be talked to in a relatively quiet, calm voice.
Early this spring, I made the mistake of startling our cattle during their resting time. I had moved a fence and the water in our valley so the cattle could enjoy some fresh grass, but when I went to the top of the hill to encourage them to switch paddocks, I surprised them enough that two of them jumped up and bolted through an interior barbed-wire fence. The fence wasn’t that good, I must admit, but since it wasn’t a perimeter fence, it hadn’t really mattered.
That’s because there was a gate open in the paddock the cattle jumped into. Our nephew and niece are building a house on 5 acres of the farm, and that day, the well was being drilled on the farm. The well-drilling equipment had been brought on the property through the gate along our county road, but the gate hadn’t been shut behind it.
Six more cattle followed the two leaders through the hole in the fence and jogged along the perimeter fence toward the open gate. I watched helplessly, with my truck in the valley, as they reached the county road and headed south. My stomach sank.
On the lam
I ran to the truck and made my way out of the valley and onto the road to find the animals. I followed a manure trail about a mile down the road until it led onto a field road and into a woods. All of our neighbors were alerted to keep a lookout for our cattle, but there was no sign of them until 6 o’clock the next morning.
I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say that the cattle enjoyed their temporary freedom. We chased them through a woods, onto the road, into neighbors’ fields and off into the wild blue yonder. Beef cattle aren’t meant to be chased.
Toward evening, a neighbor called to report that six of the critters were meandering by his farm buildings, so with his help and the assistance of another neighbor, we were able to herd those six cattle over the hill and back into our pasture.
The next morning, the other two steers came wandering back, looking to reunite with their herdmates. I made them promise that they wouldn’t jump the fence again, and I let them back into our pasture. They were happy to be home.
Taking into consideration the neighbor sightings over the two-day period, I figure the cattle traveled a good 10 miles from when they left our pasture until they returned.
Why they do it
I know why our cattle got out — a bad fence and an open gate. That is not a good combination.
But because inquiring minds want to know, I thought I would ask a couple of experts what they see as the primary reasons that cattle get out and what farmers can do to prevent it.
When I Googled the term “fence expert,” the name Bob Kingsbery quickly appeared on my screen. In fact, his web address is fenceexpert.com.
Kingsbery is the international sales manager for Dare electric-fence products and is often an expert witness to cattle and livestock accidents. He lives in Tioga, Texas.
“The No. 1 reason cattle get out is human error — gates left open,” Kingsbery says. “Poor fences are another reason. I tell people that cattle are going to get out no matter what you do — just don’t help them. Don’t have a crappy fence. Make it visible and clear of brush.”
A damaged fence is also a recipe for disaster, when a tree falls on a fence or someone drives through it for one reason or another.
“I would say cattle go through a fence because they want to,” Kingsbery continues. “A calf gets under a fence, and then the mom wants out. You put cattle in a pasture for the first time, and they want to test it.
“A lot of people just don’t fix their fence until cattle get out. Granddad built this fence and he never had a problem. That might not be the case today.”
Kingsbery, who says he began building fence with his father when he was 5 years old, urges everybody who owns property and livestock of any kind to have an umbrella policy of at least $2 million.
“In today’s world, if something gets out and it gets hit on the road, you get sued, it doesn’t matter if the person gets hurt or not,” he says. “That’s the world we live in.”
Kirsten Jurcek, a partner in Brattset Family Farm near Jefferson, Wis., and a grazing specialist with Glacierland Resource Conservation and Development, rotationally grazes about 110 head of crossbred cattle on her family’s organic farm.
She says keeping cattle on a farm is all about good management.
“If cows have plenty to eat, they’re not going to test the fence,” she says. “If management gets low and there is not as much to eat as they would like, they might look to go elsewhere.”
Another key is using sound animal-handling practices, she says.
“We always try to be quiet and calm around our cattle and never in too much of a hurry,” she says. “If you’re loud and they can sense you’re in a hurry, things just go wrong. Consistency with cattle is huge, too.”
When using an electric fence, Jurcek suggests keeping fence lines between the nose and forehead of the cattle, so if they test the fence, they get shocked in the head. Fence-wire spacing is critical, she says.
We learned a thing or two from our cattle-wandering escapades of 2021. Make sure the gates are closed at all times, not just some of the time. And even if it’s an interior fence, “good enough” might not be good enough if you have 1,200-pound animals that want to test it.
Let’s just say the fences have been tended to, the gates have been kept shut, and the umbrella policy has been updated.
The rest of the summer has been quiet and calm. We like it that way.
Massey lives in Barneveld, Wis.