It was a surprise in Surprise (Nebraska), but not the welcome kind:  Susan Littlefield’s afternoon chores culminated with a smashed hand.

Littlefield, a veteran farm broadcaster and Network Farm Director for the KVRN Rural Radio Network out of Lexington, is no stranger to doing safety stories, but this time, the story is personal.

Littlefield and her family raise registered Columbia sheep, chickens, and a handful of cattle on their 20-acre farm southeast of Surprise.  During Thanksgiving week 2017, the chores were left to Littlefield and her daughter while her husband and their boys were in Wisconsin deer hunting.

“It was a typical day,” she begins, sharing the experience of a rambunctious steer and her son’s final instructions before he departed on their trip:

Whatever you do, Mom – don’t let the steers out.

That fateful afternoon, Littlefield went to feed steers in a fenced pasture adjacent to the barn and the sheep lot.  The routine path was from a bin, through the ewes’ lot, through two 8-foot panels used as gates to separate the sheep from a lot holding three Jersey steers.

“For some reason, the dogs weren’t with me,” she remembers, referring to her Maremma, Australian Shepherd, and Blue Heeler, the three livestock dogs that always accompany her.

“This time they must have got distracted by a rabbit or a squirrel.

“So I went in, set the two buckets down, and reached back to get the gate.  As I went to grab it, here comes that one steer, running full force.  And he’d gotten out before, so he saw the open gate as an opportunity.  The last time he got out, it took us 45 minutes to get him back in.”

She recalls the cascading thoughts of a split second: “I‘m home by myself, I am not chasing this steer, I don’t have time for this!”

As she pulled the panel closed, the steer’s head crashed into her hand, slamming it and the panel against two T-posts set in the ground.

The blow knocked her to the ground.

He had her in a corner with an electric fence above her – definitely “not the place to be grabbing ahold of!”

What seemed like an eternity with the 1300-pound beef standing on her calf and thigh muscles lasted maybe a minute, she estimates.

She used her arms to protect herself, fearing that he’d start butting her head next.

But then, maybe thanks to the dogs that came running after hearing her scream, or maybe of its own accord, the would-be runagate turned and walked away.

“I got up, dusted myself off and might have said a few choice words, and I finished feeding,” she remembers, before going in to ice her hand to control the pain.

“It’s funny, the things that go through your mind in the moment,” she explains.  Littlefield, who’s also a rural firefighter and EMT, wondered if her daughter would come home to find her there on the ground, and if she’d have to call 911 to have her own colleagues come get her.

Afterwards, “I sat out under the windmill and thought, ‘How stupid…why? Why didn’t I just let him out?  Why did I think I had to close that gate?”  …because the other  gate was already closed. 

After the fact, you think about that, but you don’t think of it during that time.”

Littlefield tried to ignore her pain, figuring the injury was ‘just a sprain.’  But two weeks later, she had shooting pains up her arm and was unable to write.  At that point, she went to the doctor, who initially suspected a sprain – until he reviewed the X-rays that revealed thumb fractures.  He sent her to an orthopedic surgeon.

By Christmas, she had a cast from the tip of her thumb to just below the elbow.  She went through two cast changes, followed by a month in a splint and physical therapy.

But pain that was, at times, astronomical just didn’t dissipate, and her hand kept swelling.

In late March, she underwent surgery to remove the crushed basal joint and restore thumb mobility, using a tendon graft taken from her forearm to substitute for the damaged joint and torn ligament.

In typically stoic farmer fashion, she tried to downplay her injury down to herself and others.  She missed just a day of work – for surgery – and was able to keep her cast off camera until she had a morning TV gig at a different studio and didn’t realize the camera had a shot of her casted arm resting on the counter.

“Before I got off the air, my phone was buzzing… people messaging me, ‘what did you do, why are you in a cast?’”  It forced her to come clean about what happened.

But playing down her injury as ‘just a livestock injury’ or ‘a small injury’ didn’t work with livestock producers who set her straight about the other possible outcomes:

“’You could’ve lost your hand … or your life.’”

A year later, she continues work to improve mobility, but won’t regain the level of function prior to her injury.  She works to touch her thumb to her pinky, and she can’t write for extended periods.  Opening a jar with the right hand is impossible without the hard base of a thumb joint.

Littlefield understands how easy it is to become complacent again, now that she’s had a year continuing chores without further mishaps, and she emphasizes how important it is to make changes to ensure the occurrence and opportunities for injuries don’t recur.

She jokes that ‘the other guy’ ended up in a body bag in a deputy’s freezer, referring to the steer – in butcher’s paper – going to the local deputy shortly after her husband returned from hunting.  She and her husband didn’t accept the risk of her kids being hurt by the steer, knowing their injuries would likely be worse than hers.

She changed the feeding routine, now using a different gate at the other end of the lot, one that closes automatically.

“And I make sure the dogs, at least one of the dogs, is with me at all times,” she adds.

A good rule of thumb.

More Information

Littlefield’s Australian shepherd is one of the dogs that rarely leaves her side.

An edited version of David’s story was published in Iowa Farmer Today.

Story | Stephanie Leonard

Photos | Risto Rautiainen, S Leonard

Video | R Rautiainen



Think about a spot in a field a quarter-mile away, downhill from your house.

Now imagine crawling back home from that spot, using just your arms.

The heat index is in the mid-90s.

Kenny Patterson of Cherokee, Iowa can tell you what it was like; he did it on June 13, 2016.

His ordeal lasted five hours – or 14 months and counting, depending how you look at it.

Patterson was spot-spraying thistles in a lower pasture when his four-wheeler overturned and rolled over him, breaking his right femur near the hip.

“It sounds like an unbelievable story,” he said, when he and his wife Kathy shared it with me.

Patterson was driving on a downhill grade, angling across a side hill with a rear-mounted, full sprayer tank. The ATV’s left front wheel dropped into a worn rut of a cattle path hidden by tall grass.

When he and the ATV tipped left, he knew the outcome would be bad. He heard his thigh bone snap when 700 pounds of equipment rolled over him.

The ATV kept rolling, ending upside down not far from him, with the engine still running.

“I was instantly (mad at myself)… Stupid, stupid,” he said, about driving on a sloped grade with uneven terrain. “I thought, ‘this four-wheeler is gonna catch on fire and burn up; I don’t want to get toasted too.’”

So with a right leg that “just flopped” below the hip, he used his shoulders and arms to drag himself 50 feet away and considered the options. It was early afternoon. He didn’t have a cell phone. His wife didn’t expect him home until supper time.

“I did some talking to myself,” he recalled. “’My son’s at work. My wife thinks I’m ‘somewhere’. Nobody’s gonna look for me. It’s hotter than the hubs of Hell, but I’m a stubborn SOB and I’ll either make it or die trying.”

For the next five hours, he inched his way up the hill using his arms and elbows. His arms and hands were bloodied, and his broken leg caught in cattle path ruts as it drug along. He lifted his leg out of the ruts with his hands to free it.

When his arms and hands were raw, he turned over and scooted backwards on his rear, but that was worse.

“I even tried hopping with my good leg, but I came down on my bad leg and the pain dropped me.” So he went back to belly-crawling.

Kathy had been in town and returned late in the afternoon to make supper. By 6:30, she was concerned and called their son Nicholas to ask if he’d seen his dad.

Nick came over to the farm in Patterson’s ’78 Jeep. Before heading to fencelines that Patterson had intended to spray, he noticed an open gate north of the farmstead that would ordinarily be shut. When he went to close the gate, he spotted the overturned ATV down across the pasture.

In the meantime, Patterson had made it to a cattle yard, but he couldn’t cross it because of deep ruts that kept catching his leg. He went back to the pasture route and crawled until he reached a waterer on a concrete pad. After hours crawling in the heat, “I got myself up somehow and drank water out of that mossy cattle tank.”

When he heard his Jeep, he knew someone was coming to find him. He started hollering.

“Nicholas called for the ambulance,” Kathy continued. “He came back and told me ‘I found him, and it’s not good. He’s in the cattle yard. He wants a Mountain Dew.’”

Patterson was transported to Sioux City and had surgery the next morning. A titanium rod was implanted the length of his femur to hold three pieces of bone in place.

Over the past year, he’s had physical therapy. He’s operated a tractor but only recently has been able to climb steps alternating right and left legs, instead of leading with his left.

Patterson is recuperating and optimistic. In spite of all he’s gone through, he and Kathy maintain a sense of humor. They recounted fatal ATV injuries in neighboring communities and know Kenny was lucky to survive. “The bone broke into three pieces but it didn’t sever an artery or break through the skin,” he said.

He cautions about hazards like cattle paths or washouts hidden by tall grass, driving across a steep side hill, and having a full sprayer mounted on the ATV that changes its center of gravity and adds momentum to a rollover.

“One of the last things I said that morning was ‘I don’t have that much experience on this thing.’ I’d never sprayed with it except on flat ground; I was too far down that slope.

“I don’t plan to get on one again,” he added. “I’ll use my Jeep or tractor.”

Kenny Patterson is a lifelong farmer at Cherokee, Iowa. He runs a 100-cow cow-calf operation and grain farm with his son, Nicholas, and recently retired from the fur-trading business he operated for decades. He’s known for the signature stocking cap he wears in all seasons.

More Information

An edited version of this story was originally published in Iowa Farmer Today

Story & photo | Stephanie Leonard