From GENE LOGSDON
Nothing I read or see in the news can shock me like the real thing: backing inadvertently into an electrified fence. That is the ultimate wake-up call and it has been my bad fortune to have been awakened that way so often in my sordid past that I might have built up enough immunity to survive the electric chair.
Not much is made of the fact, but without electric fence, today’s rotational grazing would not be so easy and inexpensive— hardly possible at all. But ’twas not always so. l began getting electrified way back in the 1950s when my father and I decided that we could replace real livestock fences with one wispy strand of electric wire and hold in a hundred head of hungry Holsteins. I still have nightmares of our thundering herd disappearing into standing corn and exiting out the other side into Aunt Stella’s garden, dragging a fourth of mile of high tensile wire behind them.
I hold that the history of farming can be told in the history of fencing. The main reason there was such a wholesale move to large scale tractor farming was not because farmers could make a better living that way but because smaller farms required animals to make a profit and animals required fences. Farmers hate fences, no matter how much they might deny it. That’s why the song “Don’t Fence Me In” was at the top of the Hit Parade for so long back in the middle of the 20th century. That’s when farmers started gleefully bulldozing away the tree-choked fencerows they had inherited from grandpaw. After that, if anyone was fool enough to still keep animals and one of them got out, it could go all the way to Montana with nary a fence to stop it. When my son’s cows got out a couple of years ago, I asked sheriff deputies who helped us round them up what they did if a cow really went wild since there are hardly any fences left in our county to act as a corral. “Sometimes we just have to shoot ’em,” he said.
After most of the fences were gone in our part of the country. we decided to get into dairy farming. Electric fencing was in its infancy and so was the cow’s experience with it. A cow learns not to touch the fence with her head, but her tail never learns. It has a life of its own, flailing away back there chasing flies. It gets entwined in the electric fence. Montana here we come.
Soldiers in war get shell-shocked. Livestock producers get wire-shocked. If one does not stay alert at all times out where the kilowatts lurk, one will invariably back into a hot wire. Or sauntering dreamily across a field (that’s me), inadvertently walk into one. This was especially true before electric wire became more of a tape, easy enough to see. In earlier years, all we had was this thin, wispy stuff, about as visible as a spider web. There is no surprise like that rendered by a jolt of unexpected electricity along a corn field. I got so battle scarred that sometimes I would just imagine I saw fence out of the corner of my eye and jump back like someone possessed. I had a friend who delighted in suddenly leaping backwards as we walked across our pastures, shouting “watch out!” I would instantly summersault backward to avoid the would-be danger.
It was electric fencing that almost got me expelled from the seminary in my wild youth. We used lots of electric fencing on the seminary farm. One of our wild-youth pastimes was to see who could hold on to the fence the longest. The pulsations of electric current make one’s arms jerk convulsively. The trick is to grab the wire as tightly as you can, which (don’t ask me, I’m not Edison) diminishes the effect of the jolt. So one day I was driving an old truck whose muffler no longer muffled out to the fields. I roared by one of the seminary buildings and stopped while my companion turned off the electric fence and opened it to allow me to drive on. One of our teacher-priests came storming out of the building, stuck his head in the truck cab and started chewing at me for disturbing the quiet sanctimony of his study and meditation. About that time, I looked out the windshield to see my gate-opener holding the wire and pretending that the current was running through him, jerking his arms around ludicrously, as if he were being electrocuted. I couldn’t help myself and broke out into a raucous laugh. The priest of course thought I was laughing at him and before it was all over, I came very close to being excommunicated.
Today, controlling cows with electric fence is relatively easy but not raccoons and deer. It can be done, but when the coons get into the sweet corn anyway, I suspect that the fence isn’t working. Those little gadgets that register the amount of current in the line don’t always work for me either. I know how to short the line out to make sparks jump if the wire is hot. Or I can use the old time-honored method of touching the wire with a blade of grass and maybe get a mild poke rather than the full treatment. But eventually there comes that moment of truth when the only way you can be sure that the line is working properly is to touch it. And so. Uhhhhhhhhhhhharrggghhhhh. Yes, it’s working but what about my heart?