Building Durable Barbed-Wire Fences

Published on Tue, 03/23/2021 - 3:01pm

 Building Durable Barbed-Wire Fences.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Most pasture fences for cattle utilize barbed wire.  A good barbed-wire fence is effective, and cheaper to build and maintain than rail fences or netting, and will last longer if properly installed.

Michael Thomas (Thomas Custom Fencing, Baker, Idaho) says a good wire fence can be built in nearly any terrain, as long as you match the bracing for the terrain.  “In flat country you can go a lot farther between braces, but if terrain is varied you need more braces and shorter distances between.  Don’t stretch wire through low places or over high places without bracing.  If it’s steep, we put braces in low spots even if it’s just a simple H brace to stabilize the fence, hold it down in that area, and have something to pull the wire to,” he says.

Jason Nelson, a rancher in southern Alberta, does custom fencing for ranchers in his area.  In easy terrain, on straight stretches without corners, Nelson puts a brace every quarter mile—at the end of every roll of wire.  “Low spots require additional braces, to make sure the tight wire doesn’t pull up the posts.  Often when we go through a gully we put a brace at the top on each side, but with some we just put 8-foot posts through the low spot,” he says.  Then the main wires can go straight across it, with some additional wires in the low spot. In some instances he hangs an anchor (such as a big rock) in the gully, to keep the wires from pulling up the posts.

It’s important to tie off wire at a brace, securing it solidly to the posts rather than just stapling it, even on long runs.  Thomas says stapling defeats the purpose of the brace because there is some give and movement of that wire even if you pound the staples in tight.  “You need a solid attachment to the brace posts.  Staples eventually work out, and the wire will have some give through the staple even before it comes out,” says Thomas.

“You need at least a 5-inch diameter post for braces.  Smaller posts don’t have as much anchor quality. In really bad terrain, or in gullies that have washed to bedrock, your chances of setting a post securely are limited.  Sometimes if there’s rock in the bottom of the gully you can set two posts—one on either side of the rock—to have something secure to pull the wire to in that low spot.  In extreme cases, where we can’t set posts, we gather rocks (in rocky terrain) to make a rock basket as an anchor for the fence, and put it in that low spot.”

A rock basket can be created with net wire, but if you are building barbed-wire fence you may not have netting with you.  “You can create the basket with barbed or barbless wire; just lay out the strands in a star configuration and hook them together in the center—which will be the bottom of the basket.  Then you can create your own little basket, adding whatever wires you need to make sure it’s secure enough to hold the rocks.  The bigger the rocks, the less wires it takes to create a basket.  You are creating a sling, and if the rocks are big enough you only need two wires in an x-configuration.  For smaller rocks you’d need more wires to hold them in the basket.  You just bring the wires all together at the top of the mass of rocks at that low spot and then run one or two wires up to each wire in the fence so the basket is pulling down on each wire.  This will keep the wire from pulling the surrounding posts up out of the ground,” he explains.  

Posts And Spacing
Height of posts will depend on the height of your fence and whether you are using 3, 4 or 5 wires, or more.  “The thing about any posts, wood or steel, is that there is no reason to pay for a foot or more of extra post height above your top wire,” says Thomas.
“Calculate the depth the posts need to be in the ground, and the height of the top wire, and give yourself a couple inches in case you need to fudge a bit over uneven ground, and that’s how tall your posts should be,” he says.

How many wires, and spacing between wires, can vary with the situation, such as how large the pasture is, how much pressure the fence might have, and whether wildlife will be going through or over it.  “In a pasture where cattle might try to reach through the fence, I recommend 5 strands, minimum.  The fence also needs stays, to help keep the wire spacing so cattle can’t stick their heads through,” says Thomas.  How many stays you put between posts will also depend on how much pressure you think the fence will have—from livestock or wildlife.

If there is a lot of wildlife traffic some people use just 4 wires, to make it easier for wildlife to go over or through without tearing down the fence.  “You could use 3 barbed wires, and a smooth/barbless wire for the bottom strand.  I don’t like this for cattle (because they tend to reach under or through it more) but it will work if you make sure you do it right and space the wires correctly.  In those situations stays are a necessity, so the cattle can’t push up that barbless bottom wire.”  If they get their head under or through it, soon they are on their knees reaching, putting even more pressure/stretching force on the fence, and the wires won’t stay tight.
“If you build a lot of fence, good tools will pay off in time saved.  There are many good battery-powered tools available today, from grinders to drills.  I use a grinder in the deconstruction phase if we have to remove an old fence before we can build the new one.  It’s handy for cutting old wire, cutting off spikes, or if you have trouble taking a gate out.  We keep a good supply of cutting wheels and the battery-powered grinder makes short work of taking down the old fence,” Thomas says.

Most fencing projects require a good digging bar and shovel.  The two-handled post-hole diggers only work in really good conditions (clay or loam) with no rocks and very little sand.  “Those 2-handled shovels don’t work in rocks or sandy soil.  If it’s sandy, the ‘bite’ falls out before you can get it up out of the hole.  In our dry, rocky country, a digging bar and digging shovel (not an irrigating shovel) works best,” he says.

“It pays to keep a sharp point on your digging bar.  You’ll get a lot more work done if your tools are sharp.  We heat and re-point those bars, hammering a new point.  A tamping bar is like a digging bar, but has a blunt, round tamping foot on one end and a flat chisel on the other.  The chisel end is handy if you need to dig through tree roots.  We try to keep the chisel end sharp for cutting roots, and that end is also handy for tamping around a tight space around a post where the flat end won’t go.  A good tamping bar weighs about 16 pounds.  You don’t want it any lighter than that or you’ll only get half as much done with each stroke,” he says.

For building barbed-wire fence you need good pliers and hammers.  You need a way to cut wire, hold and bend it, and pound staples.  “Traditional fence pliers/fencing tools are the best.  There are some newer, fancier tools, but most of them are not worth the money.  There’s one called a plammer (pliers/hammer) made of cast iron, and it looks like a hammer and fencing tool combined, but the handles are easily broken because cast iron is brittle,” says Thomas.

“When building braces with wood posts, a small chain saw is handy for cutting out notches.  We also started using 5/8 inch rebar for twisters in the brace wires because they last longer than wood twisters,” he says.

“A good two-inch barbed staple works better than the 1½ inch staples.  The small ones are cheaper but won’t stay in as long.  I recommend a 2-inch minimum, and the barbed ones won’t pop out as readily.  Weather takes them out eventually, no matter what they are, so the longer-shanked ones last longer before they come out,” Thomas says
Nelson also uses barbed staples because they stay in better and don’t pop out as readily.  “There are staple guns that some people use, to make it faster, but I’ve never tried them.  They would be handy, if you could put barbed staples in them.  A good hammer is still the best way,” he says.

It pays to have all the tools you need.  Nelson pulls his post pounder behind his truck, and has a big toolbox topper on the truck to carry everything he needs.  “Chain saws, hammers, fencing pliers are standard equipment along with generators (for power), digging bars, sledge hammers, etc. and pull straps for when you are stuck!  A person learns from experience what to have—so you don’t have to go back home and get something when you are out in the middle of nowhere.  My wife is good at keeping everything organized and making sure we have enough of everything we need—so we don’t run out of staples and always have the tools we might need that day,” he says.

Metal Posts
In flat country and good ground to hold posts, you can go farther between posts, and often use steel posts (which are cheaper than wood) between braces, according to Thomas.  “Depending on the type of pressure the fence will have, from livestock and wildlife, we add wood posts fairly often to help support the line of steel posts.  We usually go with wood about every fourth or fifth post, depending on expected pressure.  This adds stability and visibility.  A long run of metal T-posts without wood posts interspersed is more likely to be laid over by a herd of elk going over it or pushing against it.  The wood post every 50 or 60 feet will give metal posts more help, so you won’t find the whole fence bent/pushed over or clear down on the ground,” says Thomas.

“Anywhere the ground is wet in various seasons, either from irrigation, rain or thaw, T-posts alone are pretty weak if cattle press on the fence.  They don’t have enough diameter to give enough resistance in wet ground.  

Nelson doesn’t use metal T-posts very often.  “I use posts made of sucker rod, with wire hooks welded on them already.  These work well because they go through rocks and don’t bend easily.  You just set the wires in the hooks and take a pipe wrench and give the post a quarter turn and it locks the wires into place.  We often use these posts when fencing in winter when the ground is frozen, because we can pound them down through the frost—a lot easier than trying to set a wood post.  We mainly use these whenever we would have to use steel posts,” he explains.

“I use a piece of drill stem to hold with my post pounder and pound that small post through the middle of it, so it doesn’t fly out and hit you.  Otherwise the little posts can flex a lot and can fly out when you are pounding them,” says Nelson.