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COWBOY LOGIC: Ravages of ranch time

TOWNER, N.D. -- Nothing lasts forever, but we have a few things on the ranch that are doing their best to buck the rule. We have tractors still sputtering beyond their expected useful life, pickups still rolling but so far gone there's no chance ...

TOWNER, N.D. -- Nothing lasts forever, but we have a few things on the ranch that are doing their best to buck the rule.

We have tractors still sputtering beyond their expected useful life, pickups still rolling but so far gone there's no chance of qualifying as a trade-in vehicle, a couple cows that might remember the first Bush administration and a barn with centenarian timbers still holding it somewhat erect.

All good things must come to an end. And this last winter seemed to be the tipping point for a good portion of the fence on the ranch that's supposed to keep the cows on our place, off the road, out of the neighbor's herd and away from our bulls until breeding season.

I don't know why the wires finally broke. Some of them were only 50 or 60 years old. They had a good layer of protective rust and lots of years of experience at holding cows.

Ready, release, fix

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This summer seemed like a good time to replace a little barbed wire on the ranch. Now that the $40 barbed wire is selling for $70 a roll, it must be time to start buying it.

I make the decision to replace by a quick tally of the number of breaks in the wire per hundred feet of fence. The snowdrifts we had last winter did a good job of identifying the weak spots.

I knew some of the fence was on its last legs. Seemed like there was a splice between every post from the repairs of years past.

Since our ranch went to managed grazing and pasture rotation, I've gotten on a fix-as-I-go fencing routine. Instead of fixing lots of fence for big pastures across the whole place, I fix a little fence on small pastures as I need them. I'd like to fix the fence on a paddock and then turn in the cows, but this year, we seem to turn in the cows first and fix the fence later.

So far, there's been enough grass to entertain the cows for a day or two while I try to catch up on mending the fence that surrounds them.

History on a roll

The wire I've been replacing is old, and I have a pretty good idea about how old it is. Dad called this wire, "army surplus wire."

He said they put the fence in after he got back from the World War II, or, as sitcom character Archie Bunker would call it, "The Big One."

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Whether the wire was surplus from World War II or World War I, I don't know. I don't know if it was ever any good, but it's sure not much good now, 60-plus years later. Depending on the integrity of the military contractor, it may not have been top quality when they made it.

It had four pretzel-knotted points on it and I wonder if it ever was galvanized. You couldn't bend it more than 17 degrees or it'd break in two, which made splicing a real trick.

But now it's rolled up and filed in the ranch's historical pile of old wire. Maybe I'll give a roll to each of the kids for high school graduation to remind them of their roots. The pile is bigger than just our three kids, though. We may need to mass produce some rusty wire western art to peddle it all.

For now, I just need to mass produce the rolls of old wire, unroll the new and tighten, splice and prop up the rest.

By the time I get done mending this year's broken fences, I'll be just like the old timers lamenting for a return to the days of the open range.

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