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Fences: Old and New

June 28, 2019
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In the modern mind farm fences contain animals, and this a generally correct conception of the purpose fences serve in 2019. But 150-200 years ago when a farmer built a fence it was almost always designed to exclude animals, whether domestic or wild, from a crop field. Building fence out of wood, stone, or layed hedge is vastly more expensive than various forms of steel wire employed since the 1870s. Until the invention of barbed wire, if an animal need to be restrained it would be kept in a barn.

Previous owners of our farm ran dairy cattle and had a number of different pastures delineated with barbed wire. These old fences reached their expiration dates at least 25 years ago, perhaps more in some cases. 

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As our animal numbers increase we have finally reached the point we need to fence our whole farm with up-to-date wires. We’re not quite at the point where we can fully utilize every bit of grass we grow, but it’s always better to have a little more pasture fenced than not-quite-enough. 

In the interest of getting this done I’ve been simultaneously pulling out old rusty barbed wire and clearing brush and trees - some with wire deep in the wood - where we’re going to string the new wire. 

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For new fences I use a combination of techniques and tools. Our farm came with a woven wire fence around 35 acres. It’s a great fence, but I’d never pay for a perimeter fence of that caliber. It is crazy expensive, both for the materials and the labor necessary to erect it. The fences Garth and I build are 4 wire, 12.5 gauge hi-tensile steel smooth wire. For internal division of large sections into more reasonable blocks we use 2 wires. Smooth wires don’t injure animals the way barbs can, and so long as they’re attached to a powerful fencing energizer the electric shock they deliver is enough to make everyone, animal and human alike, quite cautious of them. Well, everyone except pigs. Pigs are just plain freaking clueless about where their bodies are in space and shock themselves with frequency unmatched by any other animal on our farm.

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Electric fence of various types has been in use for many decades. The most recent, and from a management perspective most revolutionary, deployment of electric fence is the portable fence. The development of lightweight polymer twine with thin strands of wire twisted in makes possible dynamic herd management that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. With portable fences and posts a grazing herd can be placed on a particular piece of ground for 1 day (or even less than a day) and then moved on to fresh grass. Portable fencing is key because it means  paddock size can be tailored to the available forage. If the whole farm were fenced exclusively with fixed paddocks one section might get over grazed while another under grazed. In fact, if you’re fishing for a question for a farmer about their grass-fed beef or grass-fed lamb to elicit their commitment to the principles of grass-farming, I think the single most illuminating thing to ask is, “how do you manage grazing?” or, “how often do you rotate your cattle to fresh pasture?” A competent grass farmer should be able to make your eyes glaze over before she’s even half done talking about the complexities of managed grazing, but the key things to listen for are that portable fencing is employed in the management of livestock and that the moves to fresh grass occur roughly 1x per day in the northeastern US (I can’t speak to all climates). More frequent than 1 time per day is gravy. Less frequent is OK in some circumstances, but if there are 3 or more days between moves I’d question the farmer’s commitment to the principles of good grass management. 

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I’ll write another post on fenceposts in the coming weeks…

-Edmund

Photo Credits - Edmund Brown

Edmund Brown

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