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



Leon Sheets of Ionia, Iowa vividly recalls the September 15, 2014 flash fire in his swine finishing building.

He had emptied the four rooms in his 1200-head finishing barn and had washed down two of them earlier in the day. Before leaving the building, he decided to give the floor of his “work room” – an 8’x40’ maintenance room in the center of the building that housed supplies, equipment, and utilities, including an LP heater – a quick rinse off.

Leon was aware that manure in one of the four pits beneath this building had a foaming issue (the other three pits did not). The pit with foaming manure was in the finishing room next to his work room, and spanned partially under the slatted floor of the work room.

“About 90 seconds” after starting to rinse off the floor with his cold water electric washer, Sheets said, he heard “a WHOOM and a BOOM.”

He was engulfed by a fire ball that burned 20 percent of his body, including his arms, hands, and face, and melted his glasses.

He was able to get out of the building – the closed door to the work room was blown off in the explosion – and shut off the building’s breakers, gas line, and generator before calling 911.

The fire destroyed the building. Sheets spent nearly three weeks in the hospital, part of which time involved surgery and skin grafts to repair second- and third-degree burns.

The cause of the flash fire was methane gas that was released into the air when water spray broke the foam bubbles 1½ feet below the slatted floor. The LP heater in the room hadn’t cycled on, but its open pilot light provided the ignition source when methane concentration rapidly reached the lower explosive limit concentration in the closed room.

Although he was aware of prior flash fires and explosions caused by sudden release of methane during pit agitation, in retrospect, he is quick to explain that pressure washing in a poorly ventilated room with foaming manure and an ignition source was unsafe.

Leon Sheets considers himself an extremely lucky man. Rather than dampening his enthusiasm about being a pig farmer, the experience galvanized a passion for promoting safety in the industry.

Sheets – who was selected as the National Pork Board’s America’s Pig Farmer of the Year for 2017 – urges all producers and employees to be acutely aware of the potential for pressure washing to release methane gas trapped in a layer of manure foam.

He now practices and stresses taking these precautions prior to pressure washing:

  • making sure all doors, windows, and curtains are open with fans running for maximum ventilation to dissipate gases;
  • assuring that all heaters, pilot lights, and automated feeding systems are turned off, to eliminate all potential ignition sources;
  • maintaining a lower level of manure depth in a pit where foaming phenomenon is observed.

He advises producers to check manure regularly – and by that, he means every day – for evidence of foaming or an increase in foam depth.

When the explosion occurred in his building, foam was about a foot deep and liquid slurry was a few feet below the slats – not at floor level or overflowing.

Sheets urges other producers to consider safety for younger or less experienced workers on their farms – because they are the ones who typically get the pressure washing assignment. They need to know the risks, he stresses, and producers and managers must do everything they can to minimize those risks.

More Information

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

Story | Stephanie Leonard

Photos | courtesy of the Rochester Post Bulletin (banner photo), the National Pork Board (fire photos), S Leonard (Leon and Barb)

Video | courtesy of Daniel Andersen, Iowa State University



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