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Michael Perry: That sinking feeling about cattle panels and theoretical beef

Michael Perry: That sinking feeling about cattle panels and theoretical beef

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Yesterday my fitness routine included ripping and dragging cattle panels out of the underbrush in a cold rain.

There is a logger coming to trim the trees I let grow too big, too long, too close to our pole barn. If I don’t pull the panels they’ll be crushed. And if I cut those trees down myself, the pole barn will be crushed.

So there I was, damp, muddy and festooned with wet burdock burrs, hacking and yanking away. There was buckthorn to be bushwhacked and popple to be chain-sawed before I could even approach the panels. Then I had to cut the triple-twist wiring tying the panels to the posts, three twists per post. I twisted all that wire myself way back when and I am sad to say I did a fine job.

Many of the panels were braided with grapevine, some of which had grown thick as a garden hose. For those I used a lopper. Finally the bases of the panels were knitted to the earth by many year’s worth of weeds and vines and the earth itself, into which the panels had sunk. This is where the yanking came in.

If I never become a billionaire, I’m gonna blame these cattle panels. They represent what your corporate finance folks call a “sunk cost” — money that has already been spent and which cannot be recovered.

Although some of those panels and posts came with the farm and were thus “repurposed,” the majority of them were purchased fresh at the farm store or at auction.

Perhaps I will one day recoup a portion of those funds through an auction of my own, but the bulk of the sunk cost got sank through the most irretrievable currency of all: Time.

I had pigs back then. Figured I’d expand into beef. Or beefers, as my people say. I had a whole plan about how I’d fence the old barnyard with fresh barbwire, then construct a long chute from the barnyard out past the pole barn where it would open into the main pasture.

I worked at it for weeks. Drafted my buddy Mills. We got the job done.

But I never got the beefers.

Life happened, a lot of it on the road. Selling books, selling stories. In time I even had to let the pigs go. In the big picture this is as it should have been, because as someone raised on a working farm I’ve always known I wasn’t a farmer.

And yet as I pulled those panels I felt a twinge of regret. Over time I had developed this little routine in which I joked about raising “theoretical” beef, which is the best kind of livestock for a typist such as I. And yet I still harbored a thread of hope that I might one day look out back and see the real thing, grazing hillside.

All this time the weeds and burdock and grapevine never stopped working. The trees I should have been trimming kept reaching outward and ever nearer the pole barn. Disasters aside, nature wins through patience.

The cattle panels are now stowed in the pole barn and recategorized as part of my retirement portfolio.

Some investment hotshots are into cattle futures; I’m into cattle panel futures. When the time is right, I’ll cash out.

Should I cash out first, well, into the estate sale they go. La-di-da.

Much of life is built on sunk cost; I’ll count it a blessing to break even.

An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” ( Read more from Michael Perry at

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