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Spring is Here: Fencing Thoughts

 
Travis Johnson
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With Spring here and a probably a slew of people planning fences for the upcoming grazing season, I thought I would share as many fencing experiences as I could in the 41 years I have farmed. In the interest of brevity I put these down in bulleted format and while coming across as arrogant, it is not meant to. These are my experiences raising sheep, and a disastrous year of raising sheep and beef cows together. These are my pointers though admittedly experienced only in New England. Happy grazing to you and your livestock.


Fence posts should always be “pounded” into the soil and never drilled with an auger of any sort. Even if packed with dirt tightly around them they will eventually be hefted up by frost action. Encasing them with cement is even worse as it gives the frost something to adhere to and will also heft them upwards.

Slender fence posts drive easier then big fence posts, however too small of a fence post will break if it hits hard pan, ledge or a big underground rock. A 3-4 inch fence post is ideal.

Fence posts should always be driven small end down into the ground

Always choose the longest lasting type of wood locally available if possible. Here in New England it is cedar.

Be wary of purchasing pressure treated fence posts, while ideal in terms of longevity, they can compromise your ability to get or maintain an organic farm status.

I have a lot of cedar on my woodlot, however it is often big in diameter. You can split big cedar into smaller cedar posts in halfs or quarters to get to the ideal 3-4” diameter size. Lifespan is slightly less than non-split (fully rounded) fence posts, but not by a lot honestly.

All posts should be sharpened on their small end.

Consider putting birdhouses on your fence posts. Song birds need habitat and a row of them looks beautiful across a field.

If the orientation is right, consider bat houses. Yes bats. They eat their weight in bugs per night and can aid your livestock without resorting to insecticides.

Don’t debark…let livestock do that if you are not using electrical fence. It is labor intensive and does not significantly shorten a fence posts lifespan in relation to the work involved.

You can pound fence posts with a tractor to reduce work. With a sharpened point, done during the wettest time of the year (Spring here) a tractor with its front end loader filled with dirt to make it heavy, can sink a post easier then sledge hammer blows. Alternatively a backhoe attachment, excavator or my preferred method…a bulldozer with an attachment to its blade, can sink fence posts really fast.

To construct a fence post on ledge rock a hole can be drilled with a pin placed loose or epoxied into it that sticks up by a foot with a matching hole bred into the end of the post. The hole can be drilled by hand, or with a generator, extension cord and hilti drill.

A cheaper alternative to a fence post on ledge (or a temporary fence post for a gate) is to cut an 8 foot 2 x 4 in half, then cut 12 x 12 triangles out of ¾ inch ply wood and make an L-shaped 2 x 4 post. Face the L part on the ground and away from the grazed side of the field and weight down with a bucket of sand or rocks.

To bring the bottom of a fence down into a gully screw in corkscrew dog anchors work well. They are inexpensive and do not pull out.

An easy way to thread corkscrew dog anchors into soil is by modifying a ½ inch by 1-1/4 socket. Using a grinder, cut a slot across the socket about a quarter inch wide to fit over the eye of the dog anchor. Attach a breaker bar to the socket in tee-Handle fashion and thread into soil.

An easier way to thread corkscrew dog anchors into the soil is to use the same modified socket, but attached to an impact wrench driven by an air compressor that is powered by a generator. Placed in the bucket of a tractor, or on a trailer, the contraption is loud but allows simple, quick installation.

Fencing tools are easy to get lost. Paint all fencing tools a florescent orange. The cost of a single can of paint is easily offset by even the loss of a cheap pair of pliers lost in the grass.

Corners are most important. I prefer the H-brace type and have had great success with them.

Instead of using “pins” for horizontal H bracing, use long spikes (log home spikes about 1 foot long) that can be driven into the vertical fence posts. This saves the trouble of drilling deep holes in wet wood that can tax battery powered tools, and eliminates the need for generators, extension cords and corded drills.

Never use “winding sticks” to tighten bracing wire. While cheap or even free, on some fencing types like goat or sheep fencing, they cannot be retightened afterwards which may need to be done occasionally due to frost action. A better alternative is cheap ratcheting electric wire fence tensioners that cost $3 or so. They can periodically be tightened no matter what type of wire fence is used.

Unhappy, unfed livestock are highly motivated to get out of fenced areas. Unfortunately they prefer living grass to hay so if sufficient acreage is not available, good fences are a must.

My farm has plenty of fence, but NONE of it is electric. Being a sheep farm, we use Page Wire fencing and though “expensive”, will last 30 years or more with very little maintenance and no electric current to maintain and ensure.

You cannot rotationally graze (mob grazing) with marginal fence. Due to crowding, competition, and lack of forage (all of which is the purpose of rotational grazing), livestock are motivated to escape.

There is no such thing as an “expensive” fence. With increased liability, frustration from escaped livestock, and longevity; its overall cost is cheaper than temporary fencing or cheaply constructed fences.

Always keep in mind that fencing is double-purpose. Not only does it keep livestock in, it keeps people and other animals out. This can be advantageous because while my fence is “expensive” I do not have the added costs of livestock guard dogs either, and yet have yet to lose a sheep to coyotes because my fence protects them from them.

Wildlife laws often require the farm owner to incur certain expenses, if for instance coyote proof fencing is installed however, livestock losses may be compensated, or alternative measures given out in aide since countermeasures were taken.

The “ultimate” fence is one that has page wire to 48 inches high. A strand of barb wire OUTSIDE the fence at ground level to deter animals such as coyotes from digging under, and offset electric fencing on the inside spaced at heights for pigs, cows, horses, etc.

Wire fence that uses staples should always be double barbed. I found this out the hard way with ½ a mile of fence that pulled the staples out from drifted snow.

If using electric fencing and you need to drive a copper ground rod into the ground drive the ground rod at a 45 degree angle and not straight down. It glances off rocks and obstructions better. Ground contact is what is important and not depth.

If your electric fence is not impeded and yet you lack significant voltage and it s dry out, dump 5 gallons of water on the ground near your ground rod. You need moisture to ensure that it sends voltage to ground upon an animal touching it. This actually works.

Use a tractor, truck. winch or come along to stretch fence to obtain a tight fence. I prefer my tractor mounted logging winch, but a hand come-a-long will work equally well. Even tight fences sag over time.

If fencing breaks ratcheting electric wire fence tensioners work well at fixing many problematic situations because they can be tightened. I have several that are now permanent repairs of a perimeter fence and have endured for years.

Bending wires in Z’s to make a sagging fence tight is a waste of time; not only does it break off zinc and causes the fence to rust, in later years ice storms will stretch out this type of repair

Crimped splice kits work well for fence repairs. Often times a come-a-long can bring two broken wires back together, put tension back in the fence and then with a crimped splice permanently

Tube greats are great, simple to operate, and have a variety of add-ons that make them ideal for gates. However tube gates are expensive.

Tube gates…without modification…do not deter coyotes or domestic dogs. Statistically the later kill more livestock in the USA than other predators.

I will never use a tube gate without these two add-ons. A bolt on latch and locking mechanism for the open position. It is a lesson in frustration without them.

Stay open latches can easily be made using ¾ plywood cut into an L shape. With a single nail acting as a pivot point, then can be slipped over the top pipe of a tube gate and keep it from swinging shut. Only plywood can be used because boards would split.

The USDA-NRCS does not pay for ANY gates in its cost share programs. Plan accordingly.

The best fence is one which has the least amount of gates possible yet has them strategically located. A gate in an often used location is a dream.

Reflective material should be placed on any gate on a road, trail, or field as ATV’s and Snowmobiles are common unfortunately on posted land. Better to warn even those that trespass that a gate is present than to be sued by them.

All gates should have locks or be able to be locked. This prevents livestock theft, and while that has never occurred at my farm yet, I have had people ADD sheep to my flock ruining my Scrapie Status.

Cheap plastic signs that say “Warning Electric Fence” deters trespassers. Even a single strand of electric wire fencing with a sign or two stating as such, works. I have used this for years and yet the wire is not electrified and just stapled to fence posts. People do not dare test it, keeping them out.

To span wide distances, often two gates is better than a wide single one. Our widest piece of equipment is 17 feet wide FOLDED UP, so I use (2) 12 foot tube gates for a gated span of 24 feet.

To save on expensive tube gate costs, but yet allow future access, but not everyday access to areas, I install a single gate then a removable fence post with wire stretched to it instead of a double gate.

Cattle guard gates work well for cows, but do not deter sheep. They roll across them to get to the other side defeating their purpose. (And some people say sheep are dumb!)

To make fully functional, light, but cheaper non-see thru gates (for say in barns, holding pens or paddock areas), simply use self-tapping screws to affix cheap steel roofing to the tubes of the gate.

Non-see thru gates, while they have their place; also catch the wind and can rip hinges out of posts. Be wary and guard against this.

Spring loaded electric fence wire gate handles work well for make-due gates. Attach fencing to one end, and use wire gate handles on the other. For sheep fencing I use (5) to secure PAST the gate post. This ensures sheep do not wiggle between the gate post and spring loaded handles.

A better alternative than the one above is the Double Flap method. Attach fencing securely to each gate post and overlap in the middle using electric spring fence gate handles to secure. The double attachment points keeps livestock in.

I never built a wooden gate yet that survived for very long (against sheep anyway)

Fencing is expensive and thus it can be moved, even Page Wire fencing. A tractor with a front end loader works well with a chain wrapped around the post and hoisted straight up. Going from one post to another, huge sections can be lifted and deposited on the ground then dragged to the new area to be fenced.

It is impossible to redrive fence posts that are nailed to wire. Sagging fences result.

To remove wire from fence posts the fastest way is to use a generator with an electric grinder with a thin cut off wheel. They last a surprisingly long amount of time. 3 cut off wheels helped me remove the wire from fence posts off a 10 acre field. They were well worth it!

Always put gates in the corners of a field. Livestock will often run by an open gate in the middle of a long open run, but can easily be “cornered” and pushed through to an adjacent field of a gate located in a corner.

“Laneways” do not need to be constructed of Page Wire fencing. A cheap alternative is smooth “barb-less cable” stapled directly to fence posts. They only need a visual guide to keep them going in a straight direction.

The best way to move livestock around from field to field is slowly.

Plan livestock moves well in advance. If they do not go where you wish within one or two tries, wait for another day. They are in panic mode and will not go where you want anyway and you will just chase them aimlessly.

Get in the habit of always securing gates behind you. In the case they get by, they are limited to where they can go.

Know your livestocks habits and plan a fence accordingly. Sheep for instance “go under a fence” where as cows tend to “go over a fence.”

Cull livestock that are “jumpers” or in other words; often get out whether under a fence or over it. They are not worth keeping.

As often as possible, try to have multiple gates so livestock can be trapped thus preventing escape and eliminate frustration.

Build a sorting pen as soon as practical. The ability to move livestock around without fuss can be rewarding rather than frustrating. Better care of the livestock is also done since it can be done easily and more often.

A sorting pen with a roof, though expensive, is ideal in northern climates as snow accumulations can render sorting pens utterly useless quickly in the winter. (Our barn doubles as a sorting pen via numerous gates)

Cheap hinges and gate latches are a lesson in frustration.

Keep your eyes on the prize while you work. Fence building is a lot of walking which causes fatigue and makes people grumpy. Just remember that 330 feet of fence you put up will last 30 years or more. Do not be self defeating by how much needs to be put up, take stock in what is already accomplished.

There is no such thing as dumb livestock. They have nothing to do all day but scheme against you and plot ways of escape. Regardless what you do, or what you have for a fence, they will probably succeed. However the better the plan, the fence, the fencing materials, the less often it happens.
 
Jennifer Smith
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Location: Zone 5
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Thank you. I will show to hubby. That last part is super important, don't look and fret over how much to go, look at how far we have come.
Good day
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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I've regretted the permanent fencing I've installed. For one thing I didn't know what I was doing, for another, I've changed my mind about where I want fences, and what kind of fences they should be. So, aside from perimeter fencing to prevent trespass and define boundaries, I advise being cautious about installing permanent fences.
 
Kelly Smith
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Location: In a rain shadow - Fremont County, Southern CO
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Tyler Ludens wrote:I've regretted the permanent fencing I've installed. For one thing I didn't know what I was doing, for another, I've changed my mind about where I want fences, and what kind of fences they should be. So, aside from perimeter fencing to prevent trespass and define boundaries, I advise being cautious about installing permanent fences.


our new rule is - no permanent fence until a temp fence has been there for 3 years.
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://richsoil.com/email
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