Letter From Unison

Letter From Unison: The Cattle That Got Away

By Paul Hodge
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 9, 2009

It was probably a bum steer. Two bum steers.

Four weeks ago on our small farm in the southwestern Loudoun County village of Unison, two steers arrived from the livestock auction, rambunctious teenagers weighing 900 to 1,000 pounds each. They leapt from the livestock trailer into our pasture, where they found fresh bales of hay, buckets of grain, greening grass and two ponies to greet them.

But they ignored the food, sniffed noses briefly with the ponies, crashed through one interior fence and then, after restlessly scouting out their perimeter for almost 12 hours, broke a whole section of fencing and galloped into the scenic western Loudoun countryside.

Our two expensive Black Angus steers went missing.

How, one might ask, can two enormous ruminant quadrupeds, the size of compact cars, simply vanish? One might observe, as Lady Bracknell did in slightly different circumstances in "The Importance of Being Earnest," that to lose one steer may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two looks like carelessness.

We weren't the only ones to lose cattle that week. Perhaps it was spring break in Loudoun. At least four other head were on the loose at the same time. Animal Control called to say its officers had cornered two near Lincoln, outside Purcellville -- could they be ours? They weren't. Two other wanderers, white-faced Herefords, simply showed up at a neighbor's farm. And one farmer called to say that a pair of heifers had infiltrated his herd.

After I had plastered the area with signs on utility poles, e-mailed neighbors and gone door-to-door, one neighbor said she had seen two large black cows eating grass on her front lawn the evening of the escape. Clearly ours. She didn't call anyone but simply accepted them as visiting rural lawn ornaments. After I appeared at their door, she and her husband kindly searched their place and surrounding woods. They saw plenty of deer but no longer any steers.

"They may have been rustled," said a Loudoun Animal Control officer, which makes western Loudoun sound like the Wild West. Or more likely, our steers had joined another nearby herd, the officer told us. They're herd animals.

Cattle and horses make bids for freedom all the time, and in most cases, people get them back. But there have been a couple of rare instances of steernapping and farmers coveting and keeping their neighbors' wandering cattle. Perhaps they think the animals are like abandoned boats on the ocean, belonging to anyone who tows them away. Finder's keepers.

In at least two cases in the past decade or so, farmers with large herds have said "prove they're yours" to the owners of lost cattle. One got his steers back, with difficulty; the other reportedly didn't. Steers here aren't branded, few have ear tags, and none has microchips like household pets.

Raising steers was not something we moved to Unison over 20 years ago to do. When we bought our little farm, no one mentioned that the property was in "land use," a county program that gives annual property tax breaks to active farms of at least five acres. About 4,950 farms are in the program, almost all in western Loudoun. County officials sent us a letter after we moved in saying that if we did not keep at least two steers a year, or a large number of sheep, or have something like a tree farm as a business endeavor, we would have to pay five years' back taxes.

We decided to keep two steers.

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