From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills
In a comment to my last post, a reader asked about fencing that he could make with materials more or less free on the farm or available cheaply. He also was looking for alternatives to digging fence posts holes. Having spent some 60 years trying to figure that one out, I can tell you one thing for sure. Cheap fences are the most expensive. Lazy farmers build the best fences because they don’t want to have to do it a second time. If you want to save money, drive an old pickup and use the thousands of dollars saved to build good fences. This is especially true on small farms and large gardens (I am thinking of 20 acres or thereabouts) because you won’t be running a fence a mile into the sunset and so won’t have a huge outlay for fencing.
The search for a cheap fence brought us electric fencing, which has its place in some kinds of pasture farming where the fence needs to be moved frequently for grazing purposes. But please believe me. Your perimeter fences, your boundary fences between you and your neighbors, should be more formidable, not only to keep your livestock in but big dogs out. If you decide to ignore that advice, you will end up spending about as much money for a really reliable electric fence as you would putting up a good, woven wire fence. And your livestock will sooner or later find a way through the electric one, usually when you are 400 miles away on vacation. One cow causing an accident on the road can cost you plenty.
Here’s some imaginative, cheap (in out-of-pocket cost) fence ideas, from my observations and experiences:
a.) Junked school bus bodies, end to end. Ugly as sin, but the buses double as housing for baby pigs, lambs, whatever. Yes, I have seen this done. No, I do not recommend it.
b.) Old railroad ties laid up like a zigzag rail fence. This makes a fairly good cheap fence (also ugly) if you can get the railroad to give you old ties which they perversely will seldom do anymore.
c.) English-type hedgerows. They will even stop army tanks as America found out in WW II in Europe. But it takes 300 years to grow and prune one that solid, and the dogs can still sift through to kill your lambs. I tried to make an impregnable hedge using honeylocust trees. The only thing it stopped was the tractor because the thorns have great appeal to tractor tires.
d.) English-type hurdles make a fairly good, short term fence if you own a woodlot. I made hurdles by splitting five inch or so diameter saplings in two, using the splits like you would boards to nail a gate together. I sometimes notched holes in the uprights with a chain saw and stuck the lateral splits through the holes. Solider than just nailing. I used maple saplings of which I had a big supply and because they split easily. These hurdles lasted about ten years but of course were time-consuming to make. Also they needed posts or trees to hold them up. In a farm junk pile, I found a huge pile of old steel fence posts with the ends rusted off where the posts had spent their first life sticking in the ground. They were still five feet long and driven into the ground two feet left three feet above ground — enough to hold the hurdles up.
e. Shipping pallets make a fair fence. Often you will see huge piles of them racked up outside factories. If you can affect a sweet Mother Teresa air of supplication and approach the factory officials on bended knee, you might be able to get a truck load or more for nothing, if you have the truck. I’ve used them for short stretches of fence and they last ten years fairly well. Of course, you’ll need posts or trees to anchor them. The rusted off steel posts mentioned above will keep this kind of fence up too. Sometimes you can find used steel posts at farm sales that sell cheap. Doesn’t seem like anyone knows that even after they rust off at the bottom, there are a zillion uses for what’s left.
f.) If you have your own woodlot, you will be tempted to split logs for rails like Abe Lincoln and make an old-fashioned rail fence. I started out to do this when I was young and foolish. After I split out about 20 rails, the idea of buying woven wire became overwhelmingly appealing.
g.) Stone walls laid up dry are the best choice of all the “cheap” fences if you have plenty of more or less flat rocks at your beck and call. After you built about 300 feet you will know how to do it and can start over again if you don’t yet have a herniated disc in your back. Considering that a good stone fence will last forever it might be worth it, but you will be 60 years old by the time you finish fencing your farm, and then you will discover that you really don’t want some of the fence where you built it. Too bad.
Hopefully, I have talked you out of trying to save money on fencing. A woven wire livestock fence with a strand of barbed wire on top, if you are contemplating horses or cows, is a good choice. You need the barb on top to keep horses and cows from sticking their necks over the fence for some imagined goody on the other side and weighing it down. A strand of electric fence in place of the barb is better, or electrify the barb. Again, do not try to save money by buying cheap fencing or posts. The top and bottom horizontal wires should be nine gauge and the middle horizontals no smaller than 11 gauge. I understand that there is now thinner-gauge, woven wire fencing that is not supposed to rust, with built-in stretchers that anyone can master without special skills. Check it out. With posts of slow-rotting wood like black locust or catalpa, sunk four feet in the ground for corner posts or two and a half for line posts, or the heaviest steel posts for line posts, the fence will last 30 years or more if properly stretched. You can however save money on the posts if you can make friends with someone who works for utility companies. Electric and telephone poles are constantly being replaced, and these used posts, especially the butt ends which have been creosoted, make wonderful corner posts. They split fairly easy to make line posts too. Another way I saved a bunch of money was finding where superhighway fencing was being replaced and putting on my Mother Teresa act. The highway crew practically gave me wire and posts both better than new stuff in farm supply stores.
But woven wire fences require special tools and special knowhow and lots of work to stretch them properly. That is why I highly recommend welded wire panel gates for fencing. They come in 16-foot sections that are easy to lift and cost about a dollar a foot. That is more expensive than woven wire, but there are many advantages to justify the higher price, not the least of which is that the panels will last several lifetimes. These panels with posts about every 10 feet, will keep in all livestock and horses, and keep out big dogs, the number one consideration for shepherds. Although of heavy enough gauge that you can climb them, they are bendable enough for many uses. Some people use them around orchards and gardens to discourage deer. I use them as a temporary fence encircling the pond in winter so the stupid sheep don’t walk out on thin ice and drown. (Oh yes it happens — sheep just love to die.) In that situation, no posts required. Unlike woven wire, the panels don’t need stretching and you can curve or zigzag around immovable objects with no problem. If a tree falls on the fence, you can bend the panel crushed by the trunk back into shape and put it up again.
Now envisage a fence line with live red cedar trees growing every 14 feet or so like I have, with wire panels attached to them. That makes the cheapest, lowest-labor, lifelong fence I’ve so far discovered — if you don’t count the eight years or so till the trees get tall enough to support the panels. You can tie the panels to the tree trunks with plastic haybale twine and by the time it rots the trees will have grown into the fence to hold it in place. Seedlings come up constantly to replace trees that blow over. The blow downs make more fence posts someplace else. Trees often last eighty or more years.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Author: The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)
Gene’s latest book: The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life
Image Credits: Evan Logsdon