The author and her husband, Duane, own and operate a 550-cow dairy in Cochranville, Pa.

Marilyn Hershey
Escapes happen consistently on our farm. Talking to and reading about fellow farmers makes me think that I am not alone in this common occurrence.

This is especially true as the weather warms up after the cold winter months, the sun sticks around longer, and spring is in the air. The calves seem to get spring fever, and they start looking for ways to get out of their wire hutches. There are some calves that just have that ability to leap up and over the wire. If we are not able to configure their fence to make it more difficult, they will continue to escape.

Speaking of getaways, escape room games are a popular activity right now. Friends and family spend time, money, and energy to enter a room as a group and follow the hidden clues in order to find the correct key or code to escape the room. Typically, there is a race to see which team can piece together the clues the fastest. Sometimes the clues are obvious, but other times the clues require a lot of understanding and maybe a bit of luck.

This activity is supposed to encourage teamwork, strategy, and creative thinking. Both times I had the opportunity to participate in an escape room, however, I did not feel any of those things. I love puzzles, so I thought that piecing together the clues would be fun. But for me, the challenge was more frustrating than it was strategic.

As farmers, we should be masters at this game. We are constantly figuring out the best steps to overcome a situation with teamwork. My husband, Duane, would probably argue that we are in an escape room most of the day.

The first time he and I had the opportunity to go through an escape room was at Hillmar Cheese in California. There is a farming twist to their activity, and the room not only provides a bit of fun but also helps consumers understand more about dairy farming.

I could give the excuse that this was my first try at an escape room and I needed more information to better strategize, but we really did not search for clues too long before we were looking at our friends for answers. Jim and Carol were in the room with us, and they happen to be a big part of Hillmar Cheese and had been through the room before. Thankfully, they handed us enough clues that we were able to escape.

The next time Duane and I participated in an escape room was when we were visiting our son. Although it was a great way to spend time with him, and we were avoiding the intense Southern heat by being in an air-conditioned room, the escaping part was a complete disaster. Thankfully, as the clock ticked closer to our finish time, we received enough help from the office to get us out of the room.

The only strategy that seemed to be effective that day was giving us a direct hint. It sealed the fact that the two of us better stick to dairy farming as opposed to playing games that require us to find clues.

We have a group of calves that turned a calf pen into their own version of an escape room. A long time ago, our heifer pen used to be a machine shed, but we needed the space for animals. After implementing a series of improvements, it is now a nice place for a group of recently weaned heifers. The calves rotate out of that pen about every four to six weeks.

There is a curtain at the back of the pen that we raise and lower to make sure they are comfortable with the proper airflow. I first noticed a problem with the curtain when I saw a nose sticking out of a tiny hole. Calves love to nose around and chew on things, and one particular group found a tiny string hanging from the curtain and started pulling, tugging, and chewing.

Once they start on a project, they cannot stop, and as each new group came in, they chewed through more of the curtain. Even though the group that started on the escape project was not able to finish the job, the next gang of calves knew exactly where to pick up and continue working. Each batch of calves worked on making the hole bigger, and their chances for escaping got better. It was not long before I saw heads peeking through the curtain rather than noses.

When the curtain was out of the way, they started chipping away at the back wall. At that point, we knew we needed to do something about it as we had our own bovine version of Alcatraz going on at the farm. A little plywood is all it took to keep them out of trouble and out of our yard — at least for the time being.

I am holding my breath as we head into spring. We all know that the warmer springtime weather will add extra spunk and excitement to the calves, and there’s no guarantee that they will not start looking for more clues on how to get out of their pen.

Maybe the next time I am invited to participate in an escape room activity, I need to take along a calf or two. They seem to know the best way to bust out of places.