Allan (left) and Caleb Orebaugh.

Caleb Orebaugh steered his slow-moving John Deere 4320 straight down the familiar hillside when, suddenly, he felt the weight of the mower start pushing his tractor forward.

“It was during a drought and the ground was dry and hard,” Orebaugh said. “I started sliding and I pushed the brakes, but I didn’t have any traction and kept sliding sideways.”

Orebaugh was losing control.

“When the mower’s tongue caught the rear tire I just hung on.”

Time seemed to slow down as he gripped the steering wheel. The tractor rolled onto its side, stopping when the rollover protection structure (ROPS) hit the ground. 


Orebaugh, 34, had installed it just a few months before the July 2020 incident, becoming the first reported participant in the Wisconsin Rollover Protection Structure (ROPS) Rebate Program to survive a tractor overturn with a ROPS installed through the program.

“I bruised my elbow when it hit the inside of the (sun) canopy, and that was about it,” Orebaugh said.

National data suggest that 1 of every 10 tractor operators overturns a tractor in his or her lifetime. Tractors are the leading cause of death on U.S. farms; the most frequent cause of tractor-related deaths are overturns, nearly 100 per year. Approximately half of U.S. tractors do not have rollover protection.

A ROPS is designed to create a protective zone around the operator. A ROPS, when used with a seatbelt, is 99 percent effective in preventing serious injury or death in the event of an overturn. Even when used without a buckled seatbelt, as was the case with Orebaugh, a ROPS is 70 percent effective.  

Seeking shade

Orebaugh’s father, Allan, heard about the Wisconsin ROPS Rebate Program on the radio. The rebate program, started in 2013 by the National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield Clinic Research Institute, was offering rebates of up to $865 toward the cost of purchasing and installing a ROPS. (The National Farm Medicine Center has since made the program more cost-effective by limiting out-of-pocket retrofit expenses to $500, no matter the cost of the retrofit.) All Wisconsin farmers are eligible. The program is funded through philanthropic support from the Auction of Champions and other generous donors.

“When Caleb called me and told me he’d rolled the tractor, I remember feeling very relieved that six months earlier we put that rollover bar on there,” Allan said. “We had farmed that land for two or three years without one.”

The Orebaughs grow about 100 acres of hay and other crops, and raise a few beef cattle. Both work off the farm. This part of Southwest Wisconsin features steep, rolling hillsides, rocky outcrops and deeply carved river valleys, features that escaped the flattening effects of glaciation during the last ice age.

But it wasn’t the hazardous topography that motivated Allan and Caleb. The ROPS retrofit grew out of a simple desire for sun protection.

“We had talked about getting an umbrella,” Caleb said. “But then we thought, ‘no, it would just get snagged on the trees and wrecked,’ so we thought we might as well look for a ROPS with a canopy.”

“And sure enough,” said Allan, thinking about what might have been.

“The funny thing is,” Caleb said, “that’s not even the steepest part of the farm. I’d always thought if I had a rollover it would be somewhere else on the property, not where it happened.”

The ROPS came from Iron Bull Manufacturing in Indiana, a couple hours west of where the Orebaughs used to farm near Muncie, Ind. Caleb was 14 when Allan moved the family from the flat land of the Hoosier State to the Holmen area.

Caleb, a former mechanic, put the ROPS on himself. He rented workspace at the local John Deere implement dealer to do the job, a dealer where had worked for a dozen years. He now works at the nearby John Deere construction equipment dealer.

Did the ROPS save his life?

“I can’t say for sure, but the roll bar definitely stopped it from rolling further.”

The incident

Unknown to Caleb, a spectator watched as he dusted himself off from the rollover.

“One of the neighbors called her mom and said, ‘I think they just rolled a tractor out here,’” said Allan, relaying a conversation the neighbor had shared with him. “‘Is he OK? Yeah I guess so, he is walking away from it.’”

A shaken Caleb made his way downhill to the farm house, where Allan lives, and called Allan at his place of employment.

“I can’t even remember what I was thinking,” Allan said of the call from Caleb. “You’re just trying to figure out what to do first.”

Once he realized his son was OK, the men’s thoughts turned to the functionality of their only tractor.

“We used the skid steer and a jack, and got a neighbor’s tractor and dragged the haybine out of the way and called a tow truck to roll the tractor back upright.” Caleb said.

One of the rear tires had gone flat so they dragged the tractor down to their workshop.

“I felt lucky that I wasn’t under the tractor, and also lucky that I didn’t completely destroy it,” Caleb said. “There wasn’t anything major wrong with it. Snapped the PTO shaft off the tractor, bent the outer PTO shaft on the haybine, had to straighten the exhaust, and put a new sun canopy on. We were able to do all the work ourselves, other than the rear tire.”

A ROPS normally limits the degree of rollover, thereby reducing damage to the tractor, say engineers. Another reason to retrofit.

Caleb waited to tell his wife, Kara, after she got home from work. She took the news in stride, Caleb said, but thinking about his family, he said that he now buckles his seat belt if he is on the “steeper stuff.” The couple has two young children.

Rollovers can happen on flat ground, too

Farms don’t have to be hilly for rollovers to occur, say researchers. It is possible to tip any tractor on flat ground if the turn is short enough and the speed is high enough. Additionally, operators must be alert for ditches, embankments, holes and ramps. Banks of ditches can give way if the tractor is driven too close to the edge.

Most overturns involve the tractor rolling on its side, however tractors also roll over backwards. This can occur when trying to pull out a tree stump, or a piece of equipment stuck in mud. Hitching too high can result in backward tips. For each tractor, consult the operator’s manual for acceptable hitch points.

ROPS are engineered to mount on specific tractor models and designed to operate with the tractor’s mounting brackets and frame. This provides a structure that is flexible, yet rigid enough to withstand the loads produced during a tractor overturn. Prototype ROPS must pass engineered, crush, static, and dynamic tests to assure adequate performance before they are produced for the public. These prototype ROPS must meet the standards set by the Society of Automotive Engineers and the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

If a tractor with a ROPS does overturn, the ROPS should be replaced because it is specifically designed to bend to absorb the energy generated by the tractor contacting the ground, engineers say. ROPS are designed and certified to withstand just a single overturn,

Orebaugh said he is considering replacing his ROPS with another ROPS from the rebate program.

Make the call

If you, your family or hired help operates a tractor without rollover protection, make the call today.

To check on retrofit options for your particular tractor, go to the National ROPS Rebate Program website, or call 1-877-767-7748. Not all states have rebate funds available. When available, funds are applied toward the purchase, shipping and professional installation of the ROPS.

“The process went smoother than I thought,” said Caleb Orebaugh.

Smoother than a ROPS-less overturn.

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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.

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

Story & photo | Stephanie Leonard