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.

More Information



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


Jerry and Julie

There’s a particular day in 1988 that Jerry and Julie Nelson will never forget, even though Jerry’s unable to recall most of it. This is because July 10th, he says, was the day that he was supposed to die.

On that day, 30-year old Nelson entered the manure pit at his family’s dairy farm near Volga, South Dakota to unclog a slug of hay that plugged the manure pump.

He recounts his story at the 30-year anniversary of his unlikely survival.

A scorching Sunday morning. Rushing through chores on our dairy farm. Glancing into the pit and discovering that the manure pump had plugged. Crap!

But I know how to fix this. Just climb down and unplug the pump with a spud bar. I’ve done it dozens of times.

Bending over with the spud bar in my hand, the manure inches from my face. Suddenly feeling really weird. It’s the gas! Get out, NOW!

Beginning the climb up and out. I can see the sky, hear the tractor idling. Then everything abruptly fading to black. I cannot recall much of the next three weeks.

Dad finding me unconscious, floating face-up in the manure. He and Mom placing the 911 call no parent wants to make.

First Responders hauling me out of the pit. No respiration, can’t find a pulse. Ambulance whisking me to a local hospital.

My wife, who was in town for groceries, a car suddenly pulling up alongside hers. Its driver, a First Responder, shouting, “Get to the hospital! He’s still breathing!”

At the ER, the attending physician telling my family that I’ve inhaled hydrogen sulfide. Zero chance for survival.

Julie absorbing that at age 29 she’s about to become a widow with two young sons. Keeping her wits about her and asking the doctor if I’m still alive. Yes. Barely.

Then call the chopper. Get him to Sioux Falls. Doctor replying, you don’t understand. There’s no hope. My wife saying, I don’t care. Call. The. Chopper.

Nelson’s diagnosis at Sioux Falls included a collapsed right lung, diffuse pulmonary infiltrates, manure aspiration, and anoxic encephalopathy. His odds of survival, family was told, were perhaps 50/50 – if he made it through the first week.

ARDS – acute respiratory distress syndrome – becoming part of my family’s lexicon. My wife, who never leaves my side, giving me a sponge bath and being assailed by the stench of rotten eggs. Hydrogen sulfide is sweating its way out.

On the seventh day, me indicating to Julie that I can’t breathe despite being intubated and on a respirator. Doctors being summoned. Diagnosis: my swelling lungs are suffocating themselves. Nothing more can be done. Call the family. This is it.

My wife again refusing to give up, asking the doctor to consult with Mayo Clinic. He does and is advised to inspect my lungs with a bronchoscope. Discovering that blood clots are blocking major airways. The plugs are removed and I can breathe again.

From my point of view: the first three weeks following the accident are a blur of fantastic hallucinations and painful realities. I don’t know which is which.

Gradually being weaned off the narcotics as my pulmonary function improves. Clear thinking returning slowly.

I’m in a hospital bed. I am catheterized and am breathing through a tube protruding from the base of my throat. A forest of IV poles sitting at my bedside and my right ribcage aching. Inspection reveals stitches where chest tubes had been.

I don’t belong here! I have farming to do, cows to milk. Trying to exit the bed and the respirator emitting earsplitting whoops. A nurse sprinting into the room, reattaching the respirator to my tracheotomy tube. The nurse admonishing, “You be good! You want me to tie you down again?”

Then, slow but steady improvement. It’s a big deal being hoisted from the bed and placed in a recliner. Sitting upright for the first time in a month leaves me feeling woozy.

The urinary catheter and pulmonary artery catheter being removed. Relearning how to walk in Physical Therapy. My wife ordering in a Godfather’s Classic Combo pizza. I can only manage one slice, but it’s the best meal I’ve ever had.

Coming home to a huge Welcome Home banner, family, cake and hugs. Just like a birthday party. Which, in a way, it was.

Nelson credits his long-shot survival to many:

His parents had the presence of mind to open a second hatch to the pit and use a window fan to blow in fresh air until emergency responders arrived; had they entered, they, too would likely have been victims. Rescuers wearing air-supplying respirators retrieved him. A diverse team of Sioux Falls specialists managed his care and recovery over a five-week hospital stay.

And Julie, who, he says, refused to give up on him.

During Jerry’s 25 days in ICU, she brought their sons to see him, not knowing which might be the last time. Six-year-old Paul busied himself by trying to explain the functions of all the machinery hooked up to his dad. Chris, age 4, stood at the bedside and patted his hand.

Julie taped photos of the boys to the ceiling above his bed – so they’d be the first thing Jerry saw when he came to – and dozens of get well cards to the wall, many from people they didn’t know.

She remembers how strangers who share ICU waiting rooms become like a second family:

“You share your stories, pray for one another, and cry together when the news isn’t good.”

After he returned home that fall, neighbors and friends convened – in the old tradition of close rural communities – to help the Nelsons with harvest.

He remembers encountering the pit upon being able to resume work and the major operational change they made to ensure safety.

I recall pushing manure into the pit for the first time afterward and getting the feeling you get when you peer over the edge while standing atop of a tall skyscraper. But work needed to be done, so I set it aside and carried on.

[After the accident] when the pump plugged, we’d go through the rigmarole of pulling it out with our loader tractor to unplug it. We began to grind our hay and our bedding, which pretty much eliminated the plugging issue.

Shortly after, I could look down into the pit with total dispassion – and a sense of wonder that I had survived.

Twenty-nine years later, the Nelsons were waiting at the bar of a restaurant to meet a friend when they bumped into a memory. Julie glanced across the restaurant. “Oh my gosh! There’s somebody we know!”

It had been 29 years since I’d seen Dr. Hoffman. Which, I suppose, is a good thing. At the Sioux Falls hospital, most in that team of doctors assembled to manage my care had “ist” attached to their titles, such as ‘pulmonologist.’ It’s easier to simply say that I had a lung guy, a gut guy, a brain guy, and numerous other specialists. Dr. Hoffman was my infectious disease guy.

Shortly after I’d arrived at the hospital, Dr. Hoffman had wanted to know what sort of microbes were present in our manure pit. He cultured a manure sample and found that the answer was “about everything imaginable.” He had visited me daily in the ICU. He was kind, concerned, and always asked, “How are you feeling, Mr. Nelson?”

“You should go say hi to him,” urged my wife.

I walked over to the good doctor and introduced myself. I asked if he remembered me and he replied, “Of course! Hydrogen sulfide exposure in a manure pit. What year was that? 1988?”

Once again, he smiled kindly and asked, “How are you feeling, Mr. Nelson?”

I apologized for letting nearly three decades elapse without giving him an update, and I thanked him again for everything he had done.

As I was taking my leave, Dr. Hoffman asked, “Would you mind if I pulled your chart and reviewed it? I have an infectious disease conference coming up and I think your story would be a fascinating one to be presented.

“Yours was a very difficult and interesting case,” he said. “It was certainly memorable. I’m glad that you turned out so well.”

Hindsight and wisdom often come as partners after a close call, with an urgency that doesn’t diminish over time. Nelson brings all three to the message he shares with others:

If I can get someone out there to just think twice before they rush to do “this thing” – whatever it may be – those few seconds of hesitation and thought might save you from something like I suffered.

Thirty years on, I’m grateful for every day above ground.

More information

The Nelsons, 30 years later
Video courtesy of SDPB’s On Call with the Prairie Doc®
Video courtesy of SDPB’s Dakota Life

An abbreviated version of this story was published in Iowa Farmer Today.

Story | Stephanie Leonard with Jerry Nelson

Photos & videos | courtesy of Jerry Nelson & South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s On Call with the Prairie Doc® & Dakota Life

Nelson has written about this and other farm experiences in Dear County Agent Guy, available at bookstores and