It's no fun fencing against the current

Keeping fences serviceable is a never-ending task.

Barbed wire once was called "Devil's Rope" by cattlemen who wanted to keep the range open. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)

An open-bed truck filled with cattle panels and gates pulled next to the barn and two scruffy men emerged from the cab.

They were selling panels off the back of the truck at a price much lower than what was available in town. The suspicion was the panels were stolen or of inferior quality. After they left, it occurred to me that maybe panels would work to solve the fencing problem at the east and west border of the pasture. Panels would be much better than stringing barbed wire across the creek, which ran angry in spring and slowed to a trickle by August.

Dad disliked fixing fence almost as much as I did and neither one of us was any good at it. Although Minnesota law required neighboring landowners to share equally in the cost of maintaining fencing, Dad never asked them to.

The law holds that owners of adjoining land who refuse to share fence expense can be taken to court and forced to pay for the full cost of fence upkeeping. Taking such action would have caused bad feelings, so it was left up to us to repair fencing when the spring flow was finished.

The neighbor to the west, who ran a few cattle in his pasture, didn’t care if his yearlings mingled with our herd. His animals remained with us until after the cattle moved to the feedlot and Dad tired of feeding silage to animals that weren’t his own.


The pasture on the east side was empty of animals, but filled with nettles, scrub brush, gnats and mosquitoes. Our cattle sometimes followed the creek bed into the east pasture, which caused a miserable roundup. The repair involved stretching two strands of barbed wire across the opening.

Joseph Glidden was to blame for the misery. He is credited with inventing barbed wire in the 1860s. Ranchers and others who wanted to keep the range open called it the “Devil’s Rope’’ for good reason. Barbed wire caused gun battles and turmoil as fences were cut. The federal government stepped in and made fence cutting on federal land a felony.

The weather also conspired to end the open-range era. Winters in the first years of the 1880s were mild, and amble rainfall produced good grazing. Many ranchers stopped putting up winter feed, which led to disaster.

However, the summer of 1886 was dry and the winter that followed was beyond brutal. A Montana writer described what he saw when cattle invaded a Montana town: “Starving cattle staggered through village streets and collapsed and died in dooryards.’’

Millions of animals died across cattle country. Teddy Roosevelt, who owned a ranch near Medora, N.D., was nearly bankrupted. He was discouraged enough to head back east. He resurfaced as a hero in the Spanish-American War, vice president and president when William McKinley was assassinated.

The “Great Die Off,’’ as it became known, sparked a nationwide economic collapse nearly as deep as the Great Depression.

Dad, who was much more comfortable on the tractor and planter when oak leaves were the size of squirrels’ ears, tried his best with fencing. Woven wire, anchored by wood stakes, generally kept the hog herd from escaping. However, rooting hogs knew no bounds. When they escaped, our Collie alerted us and masterfully helped herd them back in before they could tear up the lawn and ruin Mother’s garden.

I constructed a fence for a pregnant sow Dad gave me. She birthed six piglets, which was thought to be the start of my own herd. The pigs were gone one morning, and a long search found them in the big woods far from our farmstead.


Fencing continued to be a problem when I moved to my own farmstead. The small creek that ran through the pasture became a raging river following heavy rains. It is difficult fixing fence against the current.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.

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