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When we purchased our farm in the summer of 2014, we knew we had a lot of work ahead of us. Our farm had a lot of barns, most in disrepair. The fencing wasn’t much better. There was a lot of barbed wire, some of it was in good shape but most of the fence was in desperate need of repair. There were some rotten posts, holes in parts of the fence, the entire fence down in other areas. Despite all of this, we were eager to get started adding animals as soon as possible. We wanted to add sheep, goats, cattle and pigs to our farm.
From the beginning we knew that we wanted to practice rotational grazing with all of our animals. Rotational grazing involves moving livestock to fresh paddocks to allow the grass in the previous paddocks to grow back. How frequently you move your livestock depends on your situation and can range from a couple of times a day, to once a week. Electric fencing is often used in rotational grazing systems, with a permanent perimeter fence. Electric fencing seemed like a good solution to our fencing issues. The decision was made to use temporary electric fence exclusively until we could get some permanent fence built.
Here are a few of the things that we learned:
Working pens are a must
Before adding animals to our homestead, we built several small, light-duty working pens out of cattle panels. We use these pens to quarantine new animals, trim goat and sheep hooves and most importantly, to train the animals to electric fencing. The animals need to respect the electric fence, it will help keep the animals in their pens.
Training is imperative
Electric fence is only as good as the training of the animals. Putting untrained animals behind electric fence is a recipe for disaster. There are various ways to do it, but we put our animals in a solid pen for training. Then, using either step-ins or other insulators, add a perimeter of the electric fencing you intend to use. Leave the animals in that pen for at least a week, where they will learn to back up when they encounter the fence, rather than pushing through.
Also, never, never put undue pressure on animals in just electric fencing. That includes turning scared animals into a paddock fenced with electric. They will simply run through the fence. We use solid pens for any sort of activity that involves handling animals. We also always entice animals into new paddocks using fresh grass or treats rather than trying to chase them into the new area. This is far less stressful for the animals and just works better. The animals quickly learn the routine and will come when you call or they see you. We always use the same call when moving paddocks and most animals will come quickly to the call.
Animals will get out
Even with training the animals to electric fencing, animals will get out. The disadvantage to no permanent perimeter fence is that the animals can go on adventures like our goats did last fall. Thankfully our animals usually don’t go far and are easy to get back into their pens. We do dream of the day that the perimeter fence is done, then when the animals get out of the electric fenced paddock, they will still be fenced in. It definitely pays to get your animals tame and eager for a treat so they will seek you out when they are out of their fence.
In order for electric fencing to work, you need an access to electricity. We move animals all over our property and the majority of the pastures do not have access to electricity. Travis built mobile solar fence chargers to move around with the animals to power the fences. He built the solar fence chargers small and on wheels to make them mobile and easy to move from pasture to pasture. Each fence has a solar fence charger to move around with it. We have had enough sunshine that the solar chargers have been able to keep their batteries charged and the fences hot. There have only been a couple of times that we have had to switch out the batteries for charging. Those times were because the solar panel was in the shade part of the day for an extended period.
We have purchased a lot of movable fence posts and electric fencing. Goats are harder to keep fenced in with any kind of fence, electric fencing is no exception. We found it was easier to use electronet fencing with the goats. The rest of the animals have done well with fence posts and strands of poly wire electric fencing. We have found that 3 strands of electric is enough to keep our sheep in, 1 strand for the cattle and 2 strands for the pigs. Most times 2 is adequate for sheep and 1 is adequate for pigs, but we have concluded that the small amount of added time for the additional strand is worth it. That means a lot of fence posts and spools of electric cable! One can never have too many fence posts or spools of electric fencing, especially when you are using electric fencing exclusively!
Good poly wire is worth it
Our local farm store doesn’t carry poly braid electric fence wire, so we have purchased the cheaper twisted fence wire in the past. Never again! The wire doesn’t last as long, as it catches on things (especially brambles), has higher resistance (fence won’t be as “hot”), and sometimes burns an internal wire when there is a high load on the fence. That last one can make for a partially dead fence that takes time to diagnose and fix. Our current favorite is “Braided Twine 9SS” from Kencove.
Good step-in posts are also worth it
Make sure to get a long-lasting step-in post that is easy to use in your situation. This is going to vary some based on your moisture level, rocks, etc. We have found that the gray fiberglass posts do not last, as the glue that holds on the “step” doesn’t last. Once that breaks, the post is essentially worthless. The plastic posts such as the $2.50 “Step-In Post White” from Kencove work well here though they seem a little flimsy. We have found that sharpening the metal tips with a grinder makes them easier to use when the ground is dry. Our biggest concern with them is their longevity. We broke a few after just a few months, when trying to step into hard ground. We also suspect the plastic will break down after a few years. That is a lot of plastic (petroleum) going into the landfill, which pains us.
Our current favorite is the “economy” pigtail post (also from Kencove). They do cost more but seem a lot sturdier. For cattle, we use them as-is. For sheep and pigs (sometimes even goats), we add on rod post insulators. Since they can easily be slid up or down, it makes it very easy to adjust for uneven ground. Our favorite part about these posts is that they seem like they will last longer. Even if the top plastic breaks down, they can still be used with the rod post insulators.
A good, powerful fence charger is important
You can get by with a small charger in many cases, but we have found that a powerful low-impedance charger is worth the investment. In a lot of cases, something like a 1/2 or 1/3 joule charger will work, but as soon as you make a larger enclosure or add on an adjoining paddock, you’ll find that it is weaker than you like. Using a larger charger gives you margin to work with. Our current choice is 1 joule for most areas, which is plenty for both the electronet (which needs a good charger) and the larger runs of poly wire we use for the cattle. Look at the chargers carefully when shopping to see past the marketing (“20 miles”, etc) and look at the joule output. That is the true measure of the amount of energy being generated by the charger. Also remember that the good case (no weeds, good ground) isn’t what you’ll see most of the time. When your fence sags or weeds grow up, you don’t want that to drag the fence voltage down too much.
We have also found that the dual-voltage chargers offer great flexibility. When close to a building, we can plug it into AC power. When used elsewhere we either use a deep-cycle battery or one of our solar units. We currently use mostly Stafix or Speedrite chargers, which are identical other than color. We have been very happy with them. There are numerous other good choices as well.
Also remember to use a fence tester to monitor voltage. Voltage on each enclosure really should be checked each day to head off problems early. We aim for at least 5000 volts on each fence although we have found that most animals will stay in even with only 3000 volts. It is important to keep the voltage up so the animals continue to respect the fence. Remember, it is only a psychological barrier! We find that the “fault finder” testers are most useful as they don’t require a ground and can sometimes help diagnose a short. They are expensive but worthwhile.
A good ground is incredibly important
Read the information that comes with your fence charger, and you will learn the importance of proper grounding. That’s great, but what do you do in the real world when it just isn’t practical to pound in 3 6-foot grounding rods for each move? Well, they are right that grounding is incredibly important, so it is important to pay attention to this. We have found 3 options that work reasonably well for mobile chargers.
1) A screw-in anchor for tying out dogs
This one works relatively well in ground that isn’t too rocky. Unfortunately, much of our ground is pretty rocky, so this can be a bit frustrating when the soil is dry.
2) A t-post
This one probably works the best of the options we have tried. It is a bit of a pain because it requires carrying a post driver and sometimes a post puller as well. However, we have only found a few places that were rocky enough that it was difficult to drive a t-post. Also remember that if you are near an existing fence, such as barbed wire, that is a ready-made ground that you can use.
3) A pig-tail step-in post
This works when the ground is damp, but doesn’t always give an adequate ground in dryer soil. One thing you can do is use multiple posts and make sure they are touching.
No matter what ground you use, watering the ground rods can help considerably when the ground is dry.
A good reel is worth the investment
A good reel made for rotational grazing is quite expensive ($50-$75), but really does help, especially for larger paddocks. We have used the cheap cord reels that can be purchased for less than $10 at hardware stores or big-box stores. They work reasonably well, but break down quickly when left in the sun for an extended period. The reels from Stafix, Gallagher, and O’Briens have held up far better for us. All of those 3 work well, but we prefer the Gallagher reels, which can be a bit hard to find in the US. Most of the reels are made to hold a full spool of braid/twine (1640′), which is usually plenty for the paddocks we make. We like the geared reels for quicker roll-up. Make sure to keep your poly-wire relatively tight on the spool or it will quickly become a tangled mess. There are also cheaper reels in the $20 range that work OK, but have been frustrating for us.
Electronet fencing is not all created equally
We use primarily the 4′ electronet fence from Kencove, but there are other suppliers as well. The important part for us has been in the posts, not the actual netting. When the ground is soft or sandy, pretty much anything will work. However, if the ground is rocky or hard, it is important to have a way to step the posts in. An alternative is to carry a cordless drill with a long bit to pre-drill a hole for the posts. This is time consuming, so we prefer posts that have two prongs for easier installation and an better hold. Furthermore, it is nice to have sturdy posts that don’t flex (sag) too much. The weaker posts tend to sag over time and succumb much more to wind. We normally use two sections of fence, then set up an adjacent two sections to move the animals. This means that we need four sections for each herd, which is kind of expensive. Another option that our neighbor has been using successfully is a mobile cage that he locks the animals in while doing the move. That becomes a bit harder with a larger herd, but some creative person could surely expand on that idea.
Moving animals takes time
Since we have no permanent perimeter fencing, we have to put up enough electric fencing for an entire pen. Setting up an entire pen takes time, especially when there are several herds/flocks to move around on a daily or every other day basis. While it’s an investment in time, we feel like it is worth the effort to keep the animals moving. Great for the animals and great for the land. Once we have perimeter fencing in place, the amount of time to move animals will be greatly reduced.
The advantage to putting up a whole new pen is that you can put goats, for example, in areas that have a lot of brambles that you want them to clear. We have a lot of multi flora rose and blackberries that are taking over some of the pastures. To reclaim the pasture land, we put the electric fence around the brambles for the goats to clear. They can clear out a blackberry patch in no time!
Winter weather woes
Snow and ice complicate electric fencing a bit. Snow and ice are heavy and will either knock the fence down, especially if you’re using electronet fencing, or potentially short the fence out. Either of those instances will be opportunities for animals to get out. Thankfully it has been a very mild winter here and we have not had any issues with ice or snow affecting our electric fences.
Can you get started without permanent fencing? Yes, you can! But having pastures all fenced and ready is really the best way to go. It will save you a lot of hassle and headaches! We are looking forward to the day when all of our pastures are fenced. Fencing will be an ongoing project here on the homestead. For now, we’ll be out there doing what we can with what we’ve got!