Installing fencing on your farm is a task that will cost you both time and money. Before purchasing fences, consider all your options and how they will best suit your farm.
1. Wood Fences
Traditionally, wood was the best choice for fencing, often cut and milled right off the farm. But for early fence builders, the heartwood of aged, hardwood trees was readily available, and this heartwood had longevity—often lasting 100 years with little attention. Today, this type of wood is generally unavailable.
The wood at lumberyards is typically softer wood that requires diligent upkeep. In humid climates, a wooden fence has a life expectancy of about 20 years with a regular maintenance schedule, including painting or staining every few years. Without dedicated maintenance, a wooden fence will suffer. Pressure-treated lumber will last for about seven years without painting or staining, but carries a higher cost than untreated lumber.
Vinyl-coated wood can dramatically increase a wooden fence’s life span.
“Solar radiation is what does wood in,” says Bill Mullin, owner of Stockton Lumber and Fence. “By cladding pressure-treated wood with vinyl, you get a water-resistant product that is not exposed to solar radiation. You get a great, no-maintenance product.”
Although wood is rarely used today for perimeter fencing of large pastures, its strength makes it a good choice for small pastures, handling facilities and paddocks designed to separate bulls or stallions from cows or mares. It also makes affordable riding arenas.
2. Barbed Wire Fences
Barbed wire, developed in 1853 by Texan William H. Meriwether, enabled those settling in the arid West (where wood was scarce) to operate farms and ranches. However, barbed wire is difficult to work with—inevitably tearing up pants, gloves and skin if it has half the chance. It’s also dangerous to animals that get caught in it, often resulting in such severe injuries that the animal must be euthanized; this is particularly true for horses.
Barbed wire is, unfortunately, the only “legal fence” in some states, yet it’s often illegal under local government codes if you live in a town or a subdivision. If you live in one of the states that limit a legal fence to four-strand barbed wire and your animals escape from another type of fencing, you lose certain protections that are afforded under the state’s fence law.
3. Woven Wire Fences
Sheep, goats, pigs and poultry are difficult to contain. They climb, dig or fly through many fences, so for years woven wire has been the choice for these animals. It’s also favored by many horse owners—as horses are less likely to get tangled in woven wire than in barbed wire—and because of its sturdy character, it’s often used for corrals and night-holding pens in areas with predator problems.
A well-made, woven wire fence can last for 20 years with moderate maintenance—unless you live in a high-snow region where the weight of the winter’s snow tends to pull it down. Initial construction of a woven wire fence requires heavy-duty wooden posts to support the weight.
4. High Tensile Wire Fences
High-tensile wire fencing is effective in both smooth and woven wire designs. Unlike traditional galvanized wire, high-tensile wire is extremely strong and has a life expectancy up to 50 years, with minimal maintenance. Initial construction costs can be high, and it requires specialized equipment and skills that the neophyte fence builder might not have, but it is perhaps the most economical and trouble-free fence if amortized out over the life of the fence. It is like the Humvee of fences: durable and heavy-duty.
5. Synthetic Fences
When synthetic fencing hit the market in the 1970s, it had a reputation for failing or looking shabby after a few years in the sun. But the class of synthetic fencing that’s been around for the last decade has improved tremendously and now often comes with a lifetime guarantee against discoloration, rusting, peeling, rotting or splintering.
“Synthetic fencing is highly visible, and good-looking,” says Debbie Disbrow, owner and president of RAMM Fence Systems Inc. “As animal owner’s ourselves, we are always concerned with safety, and products like reinforced and bonded flexible rail are very safe, because the product gives on impact.”
There are many types of synthetic fencing. PVC fencing is hollow rails sunk into heavy-duty posts. RAMM Fence suggests using electric in combination with rigid PVC in high-traffic areas, or with aggressive animals. High-tensile polymer rail fences are flexible systems where rails slide through post-mounted brackets. Rail sizes can vary, but are designed to flex upon impact to reduce livestock injury.
Like high-tensile fences, PVC requires a substantial up-front expenditure, specialized tools and skills to install, but with their longevity, their long-term cost is very reasonable. Because of their cost, they are most often used for horses and exotic animals, like llamas, alpacas or emus, in suburban areas, but are rarely seen in remote rural areas.
6. Electric Fences
Electric fencing provides great flexibility and exists with fairly low maintenance if constructed properly. It is also a fairly inexpensive option, regardless of what you need to fence in (or out). Electric fence is effective largely because it offers the same type of reaction that livestock are accustomed to in a herd environment. Those who challenge the herd leader receive an immediate, aggressive response. Those who challenge electric boundaries get an instant bite as well, thereby establishing the rules.
Modern electric fencing relies on an “energizer,” sometimes called the fence charger, or fence controller. The energizer sends short pulses of energy out through the wires. Like a reservoir, an internal capacitor stores electrons until it is full; then, when an animal challenges the fence, the capacitor spills out what it has stored up as a pulse of energy. A short, intense pulse is more effective at getting an animal’s attention without injuring it, than a long, less intense pulse.
The energizer is one of the most important components of an electrical fencing system, so plan on spending as much as you can afford to purchase a good “low-impedance” unit. Avoid low-end energizers, as they run a continuous charge, or a long charge, either of which can harm animals or start fires. Always mark your fences with warning signs.
Electric fencing is available for both temporary and permanent use. Temporary is effective for subdividing paddocks so you can improve grazing management, and uses electro-plastic twine, rope or tape, and step-in fence posts made from vinyl, fiberglass or polymers. There’s also a woven-mesh version of electro-plastic fencing that works well for poultry, sheep, goats, pigs and for protecting gardens. Temporary electric fencing is also convenient if your existing fence is questionable, but you can’t afford to replace it entirely. Consider running a temporary electric fence about two feet inside the existing fence. This will keep animals from pushing on a dubious fence, and it is relatively inexpensive to construct. However, don’t attach it to the existing fence, or you’ll spend a great deal of time troubleshooting shorts.
Permanent electric fencing uses metal wire and a combination of wooden and metal T-posts with plastic insulators. Some permanent electric fences, such as electric-braided fencing, reduce injury because if an animal runs into it, the fence acts like a “boxing ring”—bouncing the animal back. Permanent electric can provide an adequate perimeter, though if you live in an area where your perimeter needs to be extra secure (adjacent to a highway) you’ll do better with a combination of electric with one of the other types of fencing (wood, woven wire, synthetic or high-tensile), because electric fencing can fail at times. Combination fencing also works best in high-stress areas, like runways, stallion paddocks or holding pens.
Even if the energizer never fails, electric fences will fail to give the shock that animals respect if a wire is shorted against a piece of metal, or if the fence is inadequately grounded. Proper construction minimizes both shorts and grounding problems.
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This article was excerpted from the Summer 2002 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.