Last May, I was alone at the farm when I noticed FarmerHoney’s Black Angus herd edging closer and closer to a fence that had been on its last legs for at least a decade. I think a hearty sneeze from one of the cows would’ve blown that rickety old fence over – it consisted only of some rusted woven wire and ancient locust posts . An errant strand of barbed wire formed gentle loops at the top of the fence – hardly enough to keep a cow from barging through. That decrepit old fence was the only thing that separated FarmerHoney’s cattle from our neighbor’s hay field. And now Doug’s crop was in danger of being run through by a herd of grass-hungry cattle.
I was supposed to be heading over to the Sites Homestead near Seneca Rocks; the curator there was hosting a quilt weekend and I’d promised to bring my quilts and displays that show how a quilt is constructed. Instead, I decided I needed to rescue that hay field.
I raced to grab the tractor key and load up a one-ton round bale of hay on the spear that protrudes from the front of the tractor. (Sort of a tractor-unicorn.)
I took that bale over to the cattle, teasing them away from the fence with the prospect of an easy meal. Once I’d plopped that bale in their round, metal feeder, I quickly retrieved a second bale and placed it in the meadow. The cattle liked that, because their hay is usually in a feeder. When it’s on the ground, the cattle can make “nests” in the hay that falls as they feed, resting in it and even playing with it. Some time ago, I watched in amazement as FarmerHoney’s bull tossed a full bale as if it was a soccer ball. I prayed that these bales would keep the herd amused, fed, and away from the fence line.
Once the cattle were distracted and had meandered away from the fence, I went to work repairing it as best I could. I shoved rocks down the holes in the ground next to the fence posts, my meager attempt at shimming the posts in place. Then, I surrounded each of those fence posts with larger rocks, which kept them upright and steady. That was slow work, especially when one’s back is rather fragile. But the job needed to be done and no one else was around to do it. So I made sure I paced myself and took breaks when needed.
The last bit of fence repair involved the barbed wire strand. I stretched it as taut as I could and bent the barbed wire ends around sections of the highest woven wire. I hoped that if it looked stronger than it really was, the cattle might just leave the fence alone. Farmer Honey calls this a “fake”. It’s better than nothing!
And the fake worked! I was incredibly relieved as I had no desire to chase mischievous cattle from that hay field.
I could finally relax. As I sat down with a bottle of water in hand, it occurred to me that this was not the first time I’d been alone on the farm when fence lines needed repairing. One winter, bales of hay had been stored a bit too close to the fence. When the cattle realized they could nudge the strands of woven wire apart and lean in to nibble on hay, the rusted metal fence didn’t stand a chance against the hungry herd. Not only were cows able to stick their heads in and feed, their calves managed to squeeze through a particularly weak section, seeking refuge among the hay bales from the winter’s bone-chilling winds.
That day – that cold, windy day – it was my turn to face those arctic blasts! So I dressed warmly, grabbed a small spool of barbed wire, fence staples, and a hammer, and went out to survey the damage.
It was pretty bad. One entire section of fence was so badly damaged that cows could wiggle through. For about 45 feet, the barbed wire strand at the top of the fence line was either damaged or non-existent. Cows had turned that lengthy section of woven wire into a mangled mess. The task seemed overwhelming. But I decided that I just needed to start somewhere and take on a little bit of the work at a time.
First thing I did was install new barbed wire at the top of the fence. Normally, this is done with a barbed wire stretcher, a tool that sort of grabs the barbed wire and then pulls it taut. But I didn’t know where it was, so I used a claw hammer instead. I put a section of wire through the claw, positioned the claw against the fence post and rocked the hammer slowly backward in the opposite direction. This was enough to straighten the barbed wire fairly effectively. The trick was holding the hammer steady with my left hand, while pounding in a fence staple with a hammer in my right. Once I managed to secure one end of the barbed wire, it was simply a matter to going back down the line, hammering in fence staples.
Fence staples come in different sizes. Some have barbs, others don’t. And the harder the wood that the fence posts are made of, the more difficult it is to pound in the staple. As luck would have it, the fence posts on the farm were made from locust – really hard wood. Now, FarmerHoney and our neighboring farmers can take a staple and pound it two or three times, and the staple’s in place. Not me. For one thing, the guys can wield hammers that Paul Bunyan would be pleased to call his own. And for another, they have more upper body strength than I do. So what they might have accomplished in an hour or so took me far longer.
I worked on that fence an entire afternoon. An old piece of picket fence was enlisted to cover up the badly-damaged section and wired into place. Since so much of the woven wire fencing had been damaged, I decided to use barbed wire stretched horizontally across the fence, spaced five inches apart. That way, the cattle would not be tempted to nudge any wires anywhere. Barbs really hurt!
It was a lot of work, in cold and windy weather, but I felt a deep satisfaction as I checked out the repairs. I’d used my muscle power in the outdoors; that is not something I did as a teacher! After years of planning lessons, grading papers, and holding conferences, I’m finding that demanding, physical labor is immensely satisfying.
A few years have passed since that winter repair and the fence is still functional. But working on fence line is a never-ending chore on a farm.
Last fall, it was decided to rebuild the fence line around the bull pen area on the family farm. Since I’ve been the one making repairs to the fences, I suggested that a new type of woven wire be used, one that locks the intersecting wires together so cattle can’t nudge them over with their noses. Since the old fence posts were going to be ripped up and the old rusty fencing torn down, might as well replace it with the good stuff. Might as well build it so it lasts another 30 years. I was given the task of getting the fence materials, and I was determined to do it right.
So I drove to our nearest Southern States store in Petersburg and talked with the young woman behind the counter. “We’re replacing a fence and we want to make sure it’s done in the best possible way. Can you help me out?” She was very knowledgeable. From her, I learned that we needed 10-inch pins to insert into the brace poles. Brace poles are horizontal poles that secure the corner post to the adjacent post. The pins prevent the brace poles from working loose over the years. Next, she showed me a sort of ratchet tool that is used to tighten wire connected horizontally from corner post to the adjacent post. She made sure I understood that a fence staple is used to keep the wire in place while the ratchet part is tightened. It used to be common practice for farmers to build fence lines with diagonal wire that was tightened with a wooden stake – sort of a tourniquet that would draw the fence posts tight. Now, farmers are switching to this new ratchet; when the fence line needs to be tightened again (and it will, with all those cows leaning against it!) all the farmer has to do is use a little handle on the ratchet.
I made sure we had two rolls of fixed-knot woven wire fencing, fence staples, brace pins, ratchets, and wire to use with the ratchets. I was so eager to get this fencing installed!
Doug, our neighbor who leases this farm, and his farm hand, Mike, who is worth his weight in gold, installed the woven wire in less than one day. A tidy single strand of barbed wire topped off the row of fence posts. It looked wonderful! I watched as Mike pounded in the last few fence staples; he was using only two strokes to drive in each staple. Two! True, his hammer was large; mine looked like something Cub Scouts would use to build their first birdhouse. (Actually, that’s exactly what mine was first used for!) My paltry attempts to nail in a fence staple seemed even more pathetic compared to Mike’s expertise. He and Doug had built a very sturdy, good-looking fence. The experience and proper equipment both men brought to the job had that fence up in no time.
Now, I am definitely lacking when it comes to actually building or repairing a fence. But I like to think I played a small part in this fence’s installation. First, I got the right materials – I knew Doug approved when he checked out what I’d brought back from Southern States and said, “This fence will last longer than I will!” And I’d taken each fence staple and squeezed the open ends together slightly so they were parallel to each other; this makes it easier to pound in the staples.
Well, easier to pound in the staples if you’re Mike!