19 tips for better fencing

sheep under fence

Photos: Dreamstime

Doing some fencing now the ground is softer? Here’s 19 tips you might find useful.

Words: Nadene Hall

Wire mesh fences are great for sheep and goats – although young kids or small lambs may walk through them, they usually don’t go too far from their mothers. It’s not so good for horses, who risk catching a hoof and being trapped or doing severe damage to their lower leg. If you do have wire mesh fences, have an electrified outrigger along the top so a horse can’t get right up alongside it. You may also need an electric wire at the half-way mark to stop itchy goats or sheep using it to scratch themselves – this eventually stretches the mesh making it easier for animals to wiggle under it or over it.

There’s an old saying – if you can see through it or blow smoke through it won’t hold a goat. While this is a slight exaggeration, goats will be the ultimate test for any fence, often squeezing their way under wire and wood fences. Wire mesh is the answer but it will still need a couple of hot wires stop animals trying to go over or under it. A five wire fence can do the trick for sheep and goats, if each wire is electrified.

While many farms still contain barb wire it’s worth replacing it if you don’t intend to carry large stock. Barbs tear flesh easily – both animal and human – and can cause a lot of damage. It’s also dangerous for children who may just grab at a wire for support and you can’t even electrify it as most of the energy is lost through the barbs.

If you are putting in a fence that needs to curve, reduce the post spacing in the curve, to prevent tensioned wire from overturning the posts.

The coats of sheep and goats insulate them from some of the shock of an electric fence. Horses wearing covers also learn they don’t have to be as respectful to an electric fence because the fabric absorbs some of the shock when they lean over it. Outriggers will need high to stop horses leaning over and your fence will need to be well grounded. Most animals can sense when an electric fence is shorting or has stopped working completely. It may be they can hear the pulse but most seem to sense it through the fine hairs on their noses – this is why you often see animals sniffing an electric fence.

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When you’re erecting a fence, a post rammer on the back of a tractor makes the job much easier. You can use a post-hole borer to create a post-hole but a post that is driven into the ground has about five times the holding strength of one put in by hand. If you do use a tractor mounted rammer, be aware of their nick name – “the widow-maker” – the relatively small-looking weight ramming a post in can weigh hundreds of kilos. It should be treated as a dangerous tool at all times. If you are putting in posts, damp soil makes this job significantly easier.

electric fence

Photos: Dreamstime

Fencing around areas prone to flooding can be a challenge. One or two wire electric fences are less likely to collect flood debris or be swept away and are easier to repair after a flood has been through. Mesh fences act like a big sieve and can disappear under the weight of debris. If you do need more than a one or two wire fence, go for a five-wire fence but attach the wires on the downstream side so they pop their staples rather than snapping. Don’t use barb wire or battens if an area is prone to flooding or they too will become debris collectors.

If you find your stock are challenging electrified gates have a look at the ground. Animals standing on grass get a much greater electrical shock than those standing on dirt so you may need to create a second gate or hoe the ground up and put down some grass seed.

Try to avoid making paddocks long and narrow as research has shown most animals will under graze areas furtherest away from a water trough. Gates should be in a corner so it is easy to herd cattle towards them. If you are putting in a race make sure it is wide enough for stock to walk through without being crowded. By making a race two gates wide (approximately 7m) you ensure large tractors can get through if needed for resowing and a truck can come through if required. If you intend to use vehicles down a race in all weather, you will need to scrape back the top soil and lay some kind of base metal to stop vehicles from sinking.

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While you might want newly created paddocks to be symmetrical this is usually unrealistic if your property is anything other than flat terrain. Make a plan of your property or get a satellite photo of it – most councils can provide you with one for a few dollars. You can usually see existing fenclines and get an idea of geographical features. You can then use this to plot new fences and get a good idea of length so you can estimate cost more accurately. You can also work out how to avoid areas that are difficult to fence like steep banks or stony areas.

Posts on flat land are usually 3-4m apart at most – this supports the fence and helps it keep its integrity when it comes under pressure, say when an animal leans on it. As land gets steeper posts will need to be closer together so the wire follows the topography of the land.

While a wire fence should always be kept tightened, you should think of it as being like a rubber band – if something runs into it you want the fence to have some give in it rather than being so tight it just slices like a grater.

If you have horses don’t create paddocks with sharp corners. A more dominant horse can trap a herd mate in a corner. If you are putting horses in a paddock fenced with wire consider using white electric fence tape on an outrigger or a board along the top so it is visible. A panicking horse may forget where a fence is unless it is easily visible.

Fencing wire naturally loosens over time so you should check the tension every six months or so. It is a good idea to walk your whole fence line and make small repairs from time to time rather than have a fence get so out of shape that it needs to be replaced. Even cheap fencing is expensive.

alpine cattle in fog

Photos: Dreamstime

The rule on any farm should be leave gates exactly as you find them. If you find a gate closed, close it after you’ve walked through. Most animals that escape just walk through a gate that has been accidentally left open. Once out on the road, you may be liable if an accident is caused through negligence. Consider padlocking any gate on a boundary at both ends, so it can’t be lifted off its supports.

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Gate catches need to be animal-proof, especially if you farm horses and goats. They quickly find out if a gate is easy to open – one horse figured out the delicate art of opening an electrified spring-wire gate while being used as a stock horse on a dairy farm and observing his owner do this several times a day. When he retired he delighted in opening the gate to his paddock and wandering off around the farm. Generally your rule of thumb should be if a two-year-old child can open a gate, a horse or goat probably can too.

If you are having problems with a weak pulse from your electric fence and you can’t find an obvious short, go back to the unit and look at how it is grounded. An electric fence needs good grounding – at least two 2m long galvanised rods should be driven into the ground to maximize the shock value of a unit. If the ground is often dry or you have a lot of fence to power, it will pay to use 3-5 rods – check the instructions for your electric fence unit and use what the recommendation of the manufacturer.

Have you got good quality insulators on your fences? A poor quality insulator on a fence will degrade in the sunlight and eventually start creating shorts in an electric fence. Black plastic insulators are usually treated against UV light so will last longer. If an insulator fades or turns white, it needs to be replaced.

Buy a voltmeter so you can check an electric fence properly. If you haven’t got a voltmeter take a small battery powered radio and walk your fenceline. You should be able to hear the pulse of the electric fence on the radio (that should be set so it isn’t on a radio station frequency). As you get closer to a short, the sound should fade, giving you a good idea of where to look for the short. If overgrown vegetation isn’t the answer, it may be a join in the wire.

NZ Lifestyle Block This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine.
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