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Fencelines: Self-preservation comes in handy on the farm

by Marie Johnson

First, the man grabbing my life preserver shouts, “Get in! Get in and paddle! Self rescue is a big part of this experience! Paddle!” Then, the next day, my husband gets a dose of “mad cow disease.”

It starts with my right arm immobile – frozen where bone pinches muscle in my shoulder. The wet suit and life preserver are additional restraints to whatever muscles remain in my arm. I can’t pull myself into my kayak, which is floating toward churning water, hitting boulders. Cold river water pulls at my kicking legs. I am trying! Hands and scalp tingle. Adrenaline is in my system. I want to control my entry into the rapids, save myself. I just can’t get back into my little plastic craft.

The river guide maneuvers his kayak to the far side of mine. Reaching over, he pulls on my right shoulder strap, leveraging me so I can swing a leg, then two, back into my kayak. Paddle in hand, I dig into the water with all the strength real fear gives. Shortly after lunch and a few more rapids, I get into a larger, inflated raft with seven other passengers and just float down the river. Tired out, I’ve had enough contact with self-rescue for one day.

Just like ranching, self-rescue is a big part of the experience. Paddle! Paddle! Paddle! It can’t be a half-hearted attempt or bad things can happen. People who care will come alongside if they see you in trouble and encourage you to keep going, but you’ve got to do it yourself. Avoid stupid mistakes, stay alert, watch when you are in over your head, watch for the glassy tongue, know your strengths and know when to get out.

We tried to get out last fall when we sold most of our cows. We were tired, spread too thin, physically and emotionally. But, we kept a few head to keep the grass short in the field around the house. Those few have now turned into 20 and, in early spring, they will become even more because when we preg-checked the mother cows, the day after we got back from our white water adventure, only one wasn’t pregnant.

While preg-checking, Kent gets fresh, warm, green manure on his sleeve, up to his shoulder, so he takes off his shirt. Only one more cow to examine, then we are done. This one cow, however, charged the chute and busted through the headgate on her first pass down the alley. She’s on the fight. She’s been separated from her calf all morning. She’s heard all the bawling from giving shots, dehorning and preg-checking. She wants nothing to do with it. With some fancy running and dodging, we push her into the alleyway, a second time, heading toward the chute. Kent is following her.

Next thing, he’s riding on her head, 6 feet in the air. He looks safe enough up there for a few seconds, but then he falls off and hits the dirt at her feet. He has just a heartbeat to scramble on his butt and heels to the side of the alleyway, away from her hooves. Then she charges again, head down, slamming and sliding Kent, bare backed, into the splintering boards all the way to the corner where the wood panels and gate meet. He’s curled up in a ball. I shout, “Hang on! Hang on!” and run to get the hot shot. In the breath it takes to grab it and run back, Kent manages to uncurl and scramble over the fence. Stiffly, we finish working the animals.

Kent’s mad cow injuries are healing. My shoulder is being repaired and that cow is pregnant. Self-rescue – a big part of this experience!

n Marie Johnson is a Fredericksburg, Calif., resident and is married to Kent Neddenriep. They have two sons, Kyle, 11, and Bradley, 8. Her column, “Fence lines,” appears once a month.