Protecting the Homestead Herd With Electric Fencing
We all agree that good fences make good neighbors, especially in urban and suburban areas. While fences are a good option for maintaining personal boundaries in town, on the homestead, good fencing is a mustnot only for healthy relationships with our neighbors, but for healthy pastures, healthy herds, and healthy budgets.
While many types of fencing are used for small stock, experts agree that electric-fencing systems are the most effective for grazing cattle and dairy cows. Using an electric fence to control the movements of your homestead herd is a sustainable practice that leads to both profitability and peace of mind.
Rotational grazing is the practice of moving your herdlarge or smallfrom one section of pasture to another. Known as managed intensive grazing, the system, when properly implemented, allows pastures to fully recover after a short period of grazing. A pasture that struggles to re-grow after grazing also struggles to produce nutritional grasses and legumes. Over-grazing destroys established pastures and newly seeded ones alike. It’s a sure-fire way to drive up costs on the homestead.
As Wayne Burleson, a range management consultant from Montana, explains, “Overgrazed pasture is a common mistake. If an animal bites a plant, the plant will direct energy to new top growth, ignoring root growth. Multiple bites on the same plant shrivel the root systems of plants. It’s a good way to lose money. If you can control the amount of grazing, you can get the most out of your property. People need to spend some time studying how pastures grow, and how their own pasture grows. Once you know how your pasture grows, it’s easy to schedule your rotation.”
Burleson says the healthiest pastures have eight paddocks. “This gives each pasture an eight-day period to recover after grazing. If it’s a small acreage I would advise people to have a holding area or a sacrifice areas, some area that they can put their animals in where it’s okay to trample everything down. It would be better to use the sacrifice area for feeding and develop a rotation that would give your smaller pasture time to recover. Just don’t let the sacrifice area turn into the whole pasture. Many times you see small owners with two or three horses, and they’ll have the whole area gnawed down to nothing. That’s why electric fencing is the best way. It lets you control the animals’ eating behavior. The more food you can grow, the more money you’ll save on feed and veterinarian bills. It’s money in your pocket.”
“The first thing people need to realize,” says Burleson, “is an electric fence isn’t a barrier fence. Many people over-build and end up with an electric fence that is also a barrier fence. This is fine, but if you want to make money, you might want to scale back a bit. A secure, non-electric barrier fence is great for containing your livestock, but for rotating your pastures, you’ll need an additional electrified interior fence. Unless you need a permanent barrier fence because of security or regulations, just go with a movable electric fencing system. It’s really all you need to keep your pastures healthy.”
The first thing you’ll need to build your electric fence is a good charger, or “fencer” as it’s commonly called. There are several criteria that will narrow you choices of fencers. Ken Turner, of Parker McCrory Mfg. Co, explains, “Fencers are electric, battery operated or solar. Which one you need depends on type and length of fence, whether or not you have AC service available. If you are fencing in a remote area that doesn’t have access to electricity, then you’ll need a conventional battery operated fencer or a solar battery operated fencer. The conventional battery fencer is operated with an external 12-volt car battery. It has to be charged every three or four months. The solar fencer has the battery built in, contained internally. A solar panel charges the unit continuously.”
Whichever style you decide on, Ken Turner is adamant that you should spend some time reading the instructions. “Extensive instructions come with the fencer. There are directions for proper installation and proper grounding. Anyone can do it. You don’t need a degree in physics, but you do need to spend some time reading the instructions that come with the fencer.” He suggests taking notes or marking sections where you have questions.
When selecting a fencer, you’ll need to keep in mind the length and width of the perimeter. Fencers are rated for specific lengths, and if you buy one that will only charge a quarter of a mile of wire for a fence that is a mile in length, it’s not going to work. To determine the length of the area to be fenced, you can check your property description or use a Rolotape or even a simple tape measure. Keep in mind, the measurement you end up with will be accurate for a single strand of wire. If you’re planning on multiple strands, be sure to multiply the initial measurement by the number of strands you require.
Polywire is the choice of most rotational graziers because it is highly visible, lightweight, strong, and the only tool necessary to install and maintain it is a good pair of side-cutters. Polywire is several thin strands of metal wire woven together with brightly colored nylon strands. This combination delivers an effective shock, while resisting damage from migrating wildlife and wayward cattle. Polywire is rated for breaking strength; some types have a breaking strength over 310 lbs., making it highly flexible and easy to repair. Should your fence wire break, fixing it is just a matter of tying a tight knot. It’s also easier on the back than traditional metal wire1,000 ft. of three-strand polywire weighs only three pounds.
The amount of wire you need depends on the length of your fence at the perimeter and the number of paddocks you’ll be creating for rotation. Generally, you’ll use two or three strands of wire around the perimeter, with one wire between the paddocks. However, if you have larger breed of cattle like Holsteins, you might want to run multiple strands to separate paddocks as well as on the perimeter.
The height of the strands matters, especially when you’re trying to graze larger animals. Regardless of how many electrified strands you are using, at least one should be positioned at shoulder height of the animal you are grazing. This way, the cow will touch the hot wire with its nose, the most effective place to deliver a shock to animals. When delivered at the correct place, below the eyes, the animal backs up. If, however, the cow is shocked above the eyes, it will lunge forward, breaking the fence. Check to make sure the correct height is maintained all along the fence and paddocks. If a cow gets shocked and lunges forward, not only will you have to fix the fence, you’ll have to convince the cow to return to the designated grazing spotnot always an easy or enjoyable task.
Another advantage the new polywire has over traditional wire is the ease of making a gate. No longer do you need to build a gate, just add a plastic gate handle to each of your strands, and you’ve got a gate. The large plastic handle allows you to open and close the gate even when the juice is on. Once again, the only tool needed is something to cut with and a good knot.
Various types of metal wire are also available for constructing electric fencing systems. These types of wire are heavier, costlier, and require more tools for installation than the newer polywires. Not only do they require special tools for installation, some require serious investments of time to maintain. High-tensile wire must be tightened on a regular basis using a tension tool. Polywire, on the other hand, isn’t tightened in the same manner. It is allowed to float, or hang with very little tension, between posts. If it does need to be tightened, the slack is taken out simply by tying a knot.
Going to Ground
The ground rod is as essential as the fencer,” says Ken Turner. “The main thing in constructing an electric fence is to make sure the charger is properly grounded. The shock is produced by the fencer. It travels through the wire electrifying it. When the livestock touches the fence, the shock pass through their body and back to the charger through the ground rod. The most common mistake people make when they’re installing an electric fence for the first time is not making sure it is properly grounded. If it’s not, it won’t produce a shock because the electrical circuit hasn’t been completed.”
If an electric fence isn’t properly grounded, the electricity will still try to complete the circuit, creating the risk of stray voltage. The risk of stray voltage from an electric fencing system is eliminated by a couple of good ground rods.
The fencer you choose will come with recommendations for grounding. Smaller fences with only one or two wires will only require one ground rod, others will require multiple rods. Tom Cadwallader and Dennis Cosgrove from the University of Wisconsin Extension Office strongly recommend multiple grounding rods. As they point out in an Extension publication titled Fencing Systems for Rotational Grazing, soil types and conditions play an integral part in the effectiveness of your fencer. “Some may remember a simple secondary school science experiment that demonstrated that neither dry sand nor distilled water were very good conductors of electricity. But if you poured the water into the sand it carried an electrical current quite well. This same principle holds true in grounding a fence system.
“Regardless of the recommendation, the only area of a ground rod that is able to pick up electricity is that portion that is in moist soil. An eight-foot ground rod that is in six feet of dry sand and two feet of saturated is essentially only a two-foot ground rod. Four eight-foot ground rods in six feet of dry sand and two feet of saturated are not equal to 32 feet of ground but closer to eight. On the other hand a system may perform beautifully with less grounding than recommended if the rods are placed in a low wet spot that is high in minerals and organic matter.” The publication is available online at http://www2.uwrf.edu/grazing/ground.pdf.
Most fencers on the market use steel or copper grounding rods that are ½-inch in diameter and eight-feet long. If you’re using multiple ground rods, it’s important to use the same type of metal throughout the system. Mixing and matching could cause glitches and uneven electrical pressure. Always refer to the instructions that were included with your fencer to determine which material the manufacturer recommends.
Ground rods can be driven in with a small-sledge hammer, but if you do it this way, you’ll end up filing off part of the top that was widened by the pounding so the connector will fit. Another way is to soften the ground with water and drive the rod in by hand. To do this, dig an area that is about as wide as a soup bowl and fill it with water. Then drive the end of the grounding rod into the ground and pull it out. Each time the rod comes out, the hole it made will carry water into the soil even deeper. Do this repeatedly and you’ll have the rod buried to the proper depth in no time.
If you’re going to use your fence for rotational grazing, you’ll want to make it as portable as possible. The portability of the fence depends largely on the type of post you choose. Posts come in a variety of materialsmetal, fiberglass, woodand are used in combination with insulators to conduct the electricity. Insulators vary in size and color. They are sold at your local farm store. Which one you use will be determined by the type of post you are using. Each has its advantages.
Metal T-posts are sturdy and easy to drive in the ground with a post-driver, especially when it’s moist. If you use a metal post, you’ll need a plastic insulator on each post for each strand of wire. If the wire touches the metal, it will short out, and your fence won’t deliver any shock at all. The disadvantage is that plastic insulators degrade. Instead of using insulators, many people place 2″ schedule 40 PVC tubing, cut to length over the post. This way, they can just wrap the wire around the post and forget it. If you’re going to move your fence often, use these sleeved posts on the corner of each sectioned-off piece of pasture. In between, place fiberglass posts every 10 or 12 feet. Then you simply have to pull a few lightweight poles and reposition them, leaving the corners intact.
Fiberglass posts are lightweight, portable, and easy to push into the ground, but these posts should never be handled without leather gloves. Tiny splinters can become embedded in your hands; the pain and burning is severe. If you’re going this route, you’ll need to buy a bag of metal clips that are the same diameter as the posts you are using. In this system, the post becomes the insulator. Attach the clip to the post and run the wire through it.
If you won’t be moving your fence all that often, you can also use wooden posts made from branches or scrap wood. It might not be pretty, but it works. If you go this route, your plastic insulators will need to be nailed or screwed into the posts. Make sure you bring the proper equipment along to securely fasten them.
Which material you choose is up to you, however, you will need to make sure you have enough posts to place one every 10-12 feet for optimum performance of your fence, according to Ken Turner.
While there are several common mistakes people make when planning and constructing electric fencing systems, the first one can be the most costlyforgetting to check local fencing regulations. The requirements vary in each township, county, and state. Not knowing what they are can add a significant cost to your fencing system by adding a hefty fine. In some areas, you can fence right up to the gravel road. Other areas require fences to be setback a specified distance. Still others require permits for certain types of fences, even movable electric fences. Be sure to call the land management office in your county to learn about the regulations in your area.
Wayne Burleson shares some of the most common mistakes people make when constructing an electric fence in his article “21 Mistakes to Avoid with Electric Fencing.” According to Burleson, the most common mistakes include poor grounding, incorrect spacing of wires, and the wrong fencer for the type and length of fence. “Most people constructing an electric fence for the first time mess up because they didn’t read the directions on the fence. I suppose that’s the biggest one.”
Another common mistake, according to Ken Turner, is failing to properly maintain the fence. “The customer has to educate themselves on how to maintain the fence. The biggest issue is lack of knowledge and lack of maintenance. You have to keep grass and weeds off the fence. The weeds become a ground, shorting out the fencer if there is a large amount. Most fence charges can shock through a light to medium load of weeds, but that doesn’t mean you can just let weeds grow over it. It is always recommended that weeds be kept away from the wire. You can accomplish this by a chemical herbicide or by mowing or weedwacking. Walk the fence line periodically to check wire and insulators. You don’t have to be out there every day, but once a month or so. You can buy an inexpensive tester if your fencer didn’t come with one built in to make sure you’ve got juice.”
The End Of The Line
A 660′ cone of three-strand polywire with a break rating of 180 lbs. starts at about $20. Bare-bone fencers start at about $100. Posts can run anywhere from less than a dollar for fiberglass to double digits for metal or wood. “A good electric fence doesn’t cost you money,” says Wayne Burleson. “If you do it right, it makes you money. You get better pasture, better milk, and better meatand a lot more of it. The price of your fence will be nothing or nearly nothing when you factor this in.” Electric fencing systems, like the people who build them, are unique. No two fences will look the same or cost the same.
Planning and procuring are arguably the most time-consuming chores when building an electric fencing system for rotational grazing. They are also the most important. As with any project on the homestead, experience is the best teacher. So take some time to learn from the mistakes of others, and be prepared to have a few learning experiences of your own.