Avoiding Fencing Follies

Excitement had been building for weeks, and the day had finally arrived.  Our two Nigerian Dwarf Goat doelings were being delivered, so small they were traveling on the laps of children.  The stall was clean; the gates were fixed; surely we had everything ready for their arrival.  A niggling voice in my head kept reminding me of the goat farmer who mentioned 6 foot fences to keep in our goats.  But these were babies and dwarf babies at that! The paddock had 4 ½ foot fences.  Plenty tall…right?

I’m sure many of you more experienced goat tenders know where this is headed.  Within 5 minutes of their arrival, the goats had jumped the fences and over the stall wall, bleating for their mother.  A few hours and much tacked up fencing later, everyone was settled down and secure.  And two lessons were gained from the experience: always heed the advice of more experienced farmers when attempting a new enterprise; and whatever fencing I think I need, make it taller and, in the case of electric, hotter.

My experience in fencing now covers goats, sheep, pigs and chickens.  Through observation and lots of frustration, I’ve learned that each species has its own relationship to the fence, and the fence serves different purposes in their lives.  In a recent webinar Livestock Fencing: Common Mistakes and Options for Diversified Farms, Colin Kennard from Wellscroft Fencing shed a lot of light on this topic.  The webinar recording is available online, along with all the New Farmer Project webinars.

According to Colin, non-electric fences provide a physical barrier and have to be up to the task—strong enough and tall enough to withstand the rubbing, jumping, pushing and other animal behaviors.  Electric fences provide a psychological barrier, relying on the animals’ negative association to keep livestock in or predators out. Colin’s webinar focused primarily on electric fences, providing an overview of the most common types, and also the most common mistakes made with them.

There are several kinds of electric fencing, and what you choose will depend on its purpose, your budget and how permanent you want the fence to be.

High-Tensile Smooth Wire—the most expensive but also the most permanent; often used for perimeter fencing.

Low Tension/Semi-Permanent/ “Quick Fence”—it can be left up for months or years, flexible and movable.

Polywire, Tape, Rope & Reel Systems—similar to quick fence, less durable and less visible to animals.

Electric Netting—the fastest and most convenient type of portable electric fence, and pretty affordable too.

There are some general downsides to electric fencing.  For instance, electric fencing does not work well in the winter, even with a strong charger.  The reason?  Snow acts as an excellent insulator, preventing the grounding necessary for the animals to get a shock from the fence.  You can overcome this with positive/negative fencing.  Also, animals need to be trained to the fence.  Not necessarily a downside, but something that needs to be incorporated into the livestock plan.  Colin reviews some good training techniques in the webinar if you want to learn more about this.

Common mistakes include:

Improper grounding—You need enough grounding, usually provided by a grounding rod, to cause the fence energizer to push its voltage into the fence.  If you have a bad ground or if grass grows into the fence, the fence has more resistance, causing the energizer to push its voltage into the rod.  Very sandy soils make it difficult to get a good ground.  Multiple ground rods, made from galvanized steel, at least 4 feet deep and ten feet apart can help provide a sufficient ground.  Some new fencing features an independent bottom wire that acts as the ground for the fence.

Choosing the wrong size & type of energizer—Are you going to plug your energizer in, run it on batteries, or rely on solar?  How much and what type of fence do you want to electrify? It pays to think this through before investing. A mismatch of fencing and energizer most commonly leads to an insufficient charge.

Improper training of livestock and wildlife to the fence—Make sure your animals learn about the fence in a safe, secure environment.  When your animals learn to respect the fence, they will be saved from dangerous tangles in fencing, and you will be saved from spending your precious time chasing after them.  By baiting the fence perimeter, you can train curious predators to avoid the fence before they are tempted to challenge it.

Improper lightening and surge protectors—Electric fences aren’t necessarily susceptible to lightening strikes, however, if hit, the surge in energy will travel the entire length of the fence back to your energizer.  Surge protectors prevent excess power traveling from the power source to your energizer.  Depending on the amount you are investing in your charger, this protection might be worthwhile.

Not monitoring the voltage and the condition of the fence—Use a voltage tester to regularly check your fences.  Fences can lose their charge for multiple reasons, and best that you are aware of it before your animals are!

Not choosing the right type of fence to do the job—Understand the nature of the animals you are managing and the predators that might try to challenge your fence. Also be clear about your expectations of the fence when talking to a supplier.  Starting off right will save time and money down the road.

For the full details on this topic and many tips, you can watch the webinar recording online anytime.  The Vermont Pasture Network provides additional information about fencing on their website.   And nothing beats visiting other livestock farms to see how they are managing their fencing needs.  NOFA-VT has several summer workshops coming up involving livestock management—a great opportunity to learn and network with other farmers.

The Vermont New Farmer Project webinars will be taking a summer holiday in July & August, but we’ll begin again on September 25 at 7 pm and continue through the winter, the last Tuesday of every month at 7 pm.


About Jessie Schmidt

Ag and Community Program Coordinator for the University of Vermont Extension.
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