Monday, May 11, 2009

Fencin'


While making my first spring visit to our local nursery, I ran into an old acquaintance who runs the Wolf Run Ranch with her husband. After inquiring about my family she asked, “Well, how’s spring at your place? Got all your fencin’ done? We’re in good shape. We’ve got the fencin’ done, but now I need to get some fertilizer down.”

I was surprised to hear their fencing was done. I tell her we’ve got a good start on the fencing but we weren’t done. The winter was hard on our fences: the harsh winter snows stack up deep and lay across the wire pulling it until either the staples come out, the wire breaks, or the fence posts collapse and snap off at the ground.

Pete goes out every morning, just as he has in previous years, to take on repairing the fences. It’s an important ritual to the life of a ranch. Calving herds, yearlings, and bred heifers all need to be put out on grazing land as soon as possible in the spring. After being fed hay all winter, they need to be moved to grazing ground to make practical use of the free feed and the ground they were wintered on can be harrowed, irrigated, perhaps fertilized, and then hayed later in the summer.

The ritual Pete follows, building and maintenance boundary fences, has a long and interesting history in the West and is well told by Laurie Winn Carlson in her book, Cattle: In Informal Social History. In the mid-1800s, the West was grazed largely by great bison herds, originally supporting the many Native Americans tribes inhabiting the plains and the grasslands of the West. However, in 1870 a new technique was developed in Philadelphia for tanning hides. Buffalo hides could now be hunted and harvested year round. For four years, shooters and skinners harvested over four million bison hides, delivering them to the railheads for use in the burgeoning shoe industry back East. Eventually, between dwindling numbers of bison and the dislocation of Native American Indians, who relied on the animals for their way of life, the large prairie and grasslands were left largely ungrazed.

In 1875, two important events occurred. The refrigerated rail car made its appearance and a surge in interest in Western lands, both by Americans and the English and the Scottish, for grazing land for livestock. It didn’t take long until the ranges were overstocked with animals. As settlers moved in, there were competing interests for the land and settlers soon found it necessary to establish boundaries in order to protect their land, crops, and small livestock herds.

The original boundaries set up to protect pastures and property lines were creatively made out of hedges, the most popular, Osage Orange, in addition to prickly pear, mesquite, and wild roses. Soon to follow was the rush to patent the barb wire fence. Between 1886-1888, 368 fence patents were filed.

Barb wire fences moved Western agriculture forward. Containing livestock prevented overgrazing, better control of breeding genetics, and prevention of the spread of diseases found in free roaming cattle. However, the development of barb wire fencing was not without its opposition. Battles were fought between subsistence farmers and small ranch operators, who wanted to protect their stake, and large urban and foreign cattle investors who saw large cattle herds grazing open lands as a viable and profitable investment. As settlers continued to move into the West and the fencing movement gained momentum, the era of cattle drives and cattle barons came to a close.

Today, barb wire is still vital to most cattle operations. In addition, a rancher may use the next generation of fencing, the electric fence, sometimes solar powered, for small areas of containment or pasturing for other livestock. Pete uses electric fencing to more efficiently use the horse pastures through intensive rotational grazing.

Pete will breathe a sigh of relief when the fences are fully resurrected because the season can’t get underway until he does. The mares can’t be pushed out into the larger meadow and he can’t push the yearlings across the road until their pasture fencing is restored and sound. When it’s done, and the horses and yearlings are where they belong, he will feel a new season of growth begin again on the ranch.

For more information on barb wire, click on the following link: http://www.barbwiremuseum.com/
To read more about author, Laurie Carlson, click on the following link: http://www.lauriecarlson.com/

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