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Beef on the Loose

May 28, 2019
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Last Friday I found myself standing in the road with my brother and my dog Oban, trying to convince my cows to go back into the field they’d just escaped from. The impediment was the small stream which runs through the farmyard parallel to the road, a stream they’d happily crossed perhaps an hour earlier, some using the bridge, others just walking down the bank. But now they collectively balked, turning and snorting and looking to go any direction but the one in which I was encouraging them.

I’d become aware of the fiasco while sitting at my kitchen table, moments from figuring out an argument about the future of agriculture that would be so compelling it would convince basically everyone to agree with me, when I spotted a cow moseying up the hill on the wrong side of the fence. A moment later my dog Oban started barking as six more came into view. We ran out to find the entire herd was loose, with Ed already trying to wrangle them. We soon turned them around only to have them sprint past the gate they were supposed to go through, across the stream and into the road.

It was only because they didn’t know which way they wanted to go that we were all able to run to the far side of them and prevent them from wandering into the world beyond the farm. We began herding them in the right direction, and after a few false starts they finally started moving, albeit slowly, in single file and with frequent pauses to nibble at willows or grass. It’s important to be patient in these situations, and I was feeling happy with any progress when I noticed that the sheep had escaped out the gate I hoped to soon be guiding the cows through. So even as one group of animals was finally heading in the other was trotting off into my neighbor’s corn field.

At these times the whole endeavor can feel remarkably shaky, with a few innocuous choices leading to a bad outcome. In this case I’d swapped the fence energizers, so the paddock the cows were in didn’t have the strongest charge. I’d further weakened it by adding a couple rolls of poultry net around the new flock of layers. When Ed decided to use the cows to mow an awkwardly shaped area beside the barn, which required moving the herd outside of the permanent fence, a steer had pulled the temporary wire down, which it would not have done if it had been shocking properly. In this case, because the cows and sheep all ended up back where they were meant to be, there was no disaster, just the loss was a few hours of time. But I still have a lingering sense of powerlessness from watching fifty cows - faster and far larger than me, but also my responsibility - go for an afternoon ramble.

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