Fencing Options for Beef Cattle

Published on Mon, 02/06/2023 - 2:06pm

Fencing Options for Beef Cattle.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Farms and ranches always need fences.  Building and maintaining permanent fences can be a huge job.  Permanent fences are often barbed-wire (especially in large pastures) or net wire, and sometimes posts and poles or jack-fences.

Fencing can be a challenge when it’s too rocky to dig post holes, or set posts with a post pounder.  Michael Thomas, a rancher and custom fence-builder (Baker, Idaho), uses a hydraulic jack-hammer type post pounder mounted on a skid steer, and it will drive posts through most rocky conditions.  In some situations however, the best option when you need to set a deep brace post is to dig a hole with a backhoe.

In country too steep for a backhoe he sometimes uses a roto-hammer electric drill and a portable generator.  “This works for drilling small-diameter holes into solid rock, to insert a steel post, or even create a larger hole for a brace post,” says Thomas.

In some areas where it’s not too steep and there are surface rocks, you can use an above-ground basket/cage full of rocks as a brace point when it’s impossible to set posts.  You can gather and stack rocks, then secure them with wire, or make a cage first and put rocks into it.  “Net wire works to create the cage around a pile of rocks, to hold them in place.  Rocks are heavy enough that you only need a cage about 3 feet in diameter or width, to provide a solid anchor to secure fence wire and stretch it from there,” he says.  If terrain is too rocky for setting wood posts, you can often put steel posts into the ground deep enough to hold, using rock baskets every so often for braces.

Other alternatives are a completely above-ground fence like a jack-fence (buck fence) or worm fence.  A worm fence is created by stacking logs or large-diameter poles upon one another, interlocking in two directions.   The fence is a continual series of corners/angles.  

A jack-fence of poles works if ground is too rocky or swampy to set posts, but in windy country it must be anchored so it won’t blow over.  “To keep it from tipping over, hang a large rock under one of the jacks every so often, or make small rock baskets under some of the jacks, with the jack secured to them,” Thomas says.  

Sometimes high tensile electric fencing is utilized as permanent fence, but the most common use today for electric fencing is portable fencing for rotational grazing.

Portable Electric Fencing
Many grazing systems today utilize frequent moves for cattle, from paddock to paddock or strip grazing fields and pastures with portable electric fencing.  Portable fence is handy for creating inexpensive temporary fences, and is usually the fence of choice on leased ground; if you have to give up a lease and move, you haven’t invested a lot of money in fencing, and can take the portable fence material with you.

Jim Gerrish, American Grazinglands Services (May, Idaho) has been involved with innovative grazing systems for many years, first as a grazing specialist at the University at Missouri and now as a stockman and consultant in eastern central Idaho. His ranch has very little permanent fence.  He runs 500 pairs and moves them once a day, sometimes twice daily.  “To walk out of the house, go to the pasture, move fence, and get back to the house takes about 45 minutes.  If I ride the ATV it takes about 25 minutes,” he says.

It’s not time-consuming if you plan it right.  “Each time I move cattle, I’m moving about 1000 feet of poly wire.”  He uses 2 fences, putting the next one up before he takes the one in front of the cows down.

“We graze in strips.  On a center pivot, these are round strips.  On square fields we do parallel strips,” says Gerrish.  He likes working with strips 600 to 800 feet wide, up to a mile long.  A strip 660 feet wide and a mile long is 80 acres.

If the cattle need 20 acres per day, it would take four days to get across one of those strips.  “You might graze it in four or five-acre pieces by making several moves per day.”  This gives flexibility to increase or decrease the number of moves per day.

“If you had a square section laid out in eight 80-acre strips, you’d be moving the same length of fence every day.  It would take about 12 minutes to make the 660 foot shift,” he says.  This makes the system very efficient.

Avoid designs where you’d have to move more than a quarter mile of poly wire; a standard fence reel holds a quarter mile.  The number of step-in posts for that length of fence is easy to carry.  “If you go longer distances you need a bigger reel, more posts, and it’s harder to get the job done quickly,” explains Gerrish.

If you have electric fence dividing a paddock and want to move cattle and leave the wire in place, and don’t have an electric gate handle, he suggests using a piece of PVC pipe (eight or 10 feet long) to lift up the wire and let the cattle walk under it.  Once they learn they can go under the wire when you lift and prop it up, it’s easy to move the herd.

“The main thing when setting up fences on your place is to think of it as a network.  Everything ties together and the different sections should come together at single points and not be looped back to any other segment of the fence.  Then if you do need to turn off a certain section of fence to fix something, maybe it’s only 20% of the fence on the ranch and can be done with the flip of a switch.

You can turn that off and work on just that part.  When it’s segmented in a network, it’s easy to trace down the actual point of a problem.”

The nice thing about electric fencing is that these systems are easily modified if you need to change something.  If you want to create another split in a pasture, it’s fairly easy to do.  There may be challenges in certain pastures and different kinds of terrain but you can be very creative with electric fencing.

“We are now more able to tackle difficult terrain with temporary fence than we used to be able to do.  Once you have the basic techniques figured out, and the right tools in your toolbox, putting temporary fence up the foot of a mountain isn’t a big deal—as long as you are not doing miles and miles of it,” says Gerrish.  It is better than trying to put permanent fences in some places where you may not want a fence there forever.

Suspension Fence
Advantages to suspension fencing include fewer posts (an advantage in rocky terrain, and less cost and labor for installation and maintenance), more resilience when struck by animals or vehicles--and therefore less damage to the fence from wildlife or highway accidents.  Posts can be set wider apart, with lightweight stays between them.

Southwest Fence Systems and Southwest Fence and Supply Company, Inc. have been working for several decades to improve suspension fencing.  According to Chris Hanneken, president, their unique braces and lightweight stays make their fencing highly durable, minimizing maintenance.  The Hanneken family developed their first products in the 1970’s, originally to create better fencing on their own ranches.  Today their system is used on many farms and ranches and by county and state municipalities, oilfields, the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Department of Transportation, park districts, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and other entities that utilize fencing.

Early suspension fences used wooden stays, which provided good visibility to livestock and wildlife but were labor intensive and costly to install.  Then ranchers tried metal twist stays but those provided poor visibility and were not always easy to install.  Twist stays are easily bent by wildlife hitting the fence or going under or over it, leaving the stays permanently bent, compromising height or position of wires and effectiveness of a fence, and are almost impossible to remove without bolt cutters.  

Hanneken says their stays are more durable and resilient and last much longer.  The first ones were made in an extruded high density polyethylene form, which enabled the company to provide a lifetime guarantee.  A latest design is similar, but created with an injection mold process, providing more strength.  Other improvements include added reinforcement near the attachment lock-pin notches (lock pins for easy installation which is also effective for electric fence) and more visibility.  Another plus is that this stay is made in the USA from recycled material.  The stays are widely used for rejuvenating old fences and making quick repairs.

“These stays only come down to the bottom wire, so the fence is floating free between posts,” says Hanneken.  This makes a better suspension system because it has more give if an animal or car hits it.  If stays come down to the ground it is not truly a suspension fence.  

“We’ve had poly stays in 40-foot wire gates that have been run over by trucks thousands of times when the gates were laid down, and they are still functional.  You can’t do that with metal stays,” he explains.

Posts for a suspension fence can be metal or wood, set anywhere from 16 feet to 50 feet apart (30 feet average distance).  “This allows the fence to give and flex without compromise,” says Hanneken.  Traditional fences along a road usually won’t stay standing enough to hold livestock after a vehicle crashes through them—taking out posts and knocking the fence down.

“When cars hit our suspension fence, the fence usually stays up enough to contain livestock until repairs can be made.  Even if a post is knocked out and there’s an 80-foot section of unsupported fence, the wires generally won’t break, and the fence is still in place, and will hold cattle,” says Hanneken.

Heavy snow can weight down traditional or electric fencing and break wires or push a fence over.  Freezing and thawing can disrupt stability of traditional posts and braces; frost heaves posts upward.  After a few years, posts and braces may not stay in line or may come out of the ground.  

“The bracing system is the key to our suspension fence, designed to withstand freezing and thawing.  Our braces utilize a diagonal rod similar to the anchor system on modular homes.  This is where we got the idea.  No suspension system can be successful without a good brace,” says Hanneken.

His family developed a permanent driven brace, which is quick and foolproof to install, without having to dig post holes.  “The two brace posts are driven into the ground, and there’s a guide tube on each post that’s cut and welded into that post at a 45-degree angle,” says Henneken.  “After you’ve driven the post to the depth of the guide tube, you put the anchor rod through the post (via the guide tube), drive the rod into the ground and bolt it in place,” he says.  The fence is engineered for a brace every quarter mile.

Gate Location
Joel Ham is a fourth generation rancher on a family ranch at Big Lake, Texas.  He utilizes low-stress cattle handling methods and tries to design facilities and fences in ways that take advantage of a cow’s natural behavior, to make things easier when working with them.

“I no longer put a gate in a corner of a pasture when building fence.  I put the gate about 20 feet from the corner.  If you are at a 45-degree angle from a corner and the gate is open, the cow may not see it as readily.  Her depth perception is different from ours; with eyes on the sides of her head she sees two different pictures.  It’s harder for her to look straight ahead, and she has poor depth perception.”

If it’s a corner and the gate is open, you also see the fence running on the other side (at a right angle to the fence with the gate) and it looks like the gate is not open.  If the cow is coming down the fence, she can see the opening when she gets closer, but otherwise she can’t see the opening very well because of the other fence running straight on  the other side of the gate.  “It looks like it’s closed until the cattle get right up to the corner.  So I situate the gate about 20 feet from the corner and use a big wide 20-foot gate.  That way when the cattle are still quite a ways from the corner they can see the gate and see that it is open,” Joel says.

“When you have a gate right in the corner of a pasture and cattle go through, they tend to spread out and come back up the fence on that other side.  Calves or stragglers that miss the gate are attracted to those cattle right through the fence, and it’s hard to get them to go to the corner because they can’t see that opening.”  They want to go straight to the other cattle but the fence is in the way; they don’t realize there is a gate at the corner.

“I move a lot of cattle by myself and I like gates that are not right in the corner; it makes things a lot simpler.”