In the Fields of Home: What’s the Best Farm Fence?

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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.

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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
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9 Comments

Ryan,
send me email offblog so I can arrange to visit you. I’m heading down your way soon,
Ian in Dundas
iagraham@rogers.com

we’ve got quite a thread going here!
I didn’t realize your fencing work is so recent. very helpful as your prices are current too!
I have a 23 acre farm of which 15 is workable, the rest, buildings a pond and a woods. I need to at least get a perimeter fence around that 15 acres, and then some paddock fencing for rotational grazing. I have been at this a year, have two cows, on my way to 4 -5, 2 doz chickens and that’s it. As I learn, it seems sheep are a viable option, more than goats for me.
Ian
(www.sustainablelifestyles.ca is my site.)

Hi Ian, I am in Belleville. I put the HT wire up a few weeks ago. I cut the posts myself from my property so I did not pay for posts. I compared the cost of HT, Page wire and panels based on 2000 ft sections. The HT was about $600, the page wire about $1100 and panels about $3000. I bought the HT wire and components in Canada as the cost was very similar to the US. However the page wire and panels are significantly cheaper in the US and the prices above are based on US prices. You can get 12.5 gauge 47 inch page wife with 12 inch spacining in the us for about 160 per 330 feet. Panels are about $24 per 16 foot section. I am not a big fan of page wire as it always seems to sag, or a post breaks and you have to retighten it which is quite a pain. That is why I say I would go with the panels, they are easy to put up and replace, and if you ever want to change configuration or put a gate in, you pop the staples and there you are. My paddocks are cedar rails set up for cattle. The posts are 8 feet apart. I simply stapled the panels on the inside of the posts with the rails on the outside of the panels. The panels just keep the sheep and lambs from slipping between the rails. One other thing, page wire is now out there that is made from HT wire. Apparently you don’t need as many posts,( which in my case were free, but still time consuming to cut, limb, drill and tamp) and will not sage as much. It is also class 3 galvanized so it doesn’t rust as quick. It alson seems to be cheaper because they use a thinner gauge, 14 I think. How much acerage are you looking to fence? What kind of animals?

Hello Ryan,
good to see this site is visited by us Canucks too!
Where are you in ON?
Could you say when you did this fencing (recently?) and what the actual cost were?
You would go with panels, if not using HT, even tho twice the cost?
How did you use the panels to line cedar rail paddocks?
thanks for the brand names for US product.

Ian in Dundas

Ian, I am also in Ontario and have a little experience with the cattle panels you are talking about. In my experience, sheep will not climb them, but I have heard goats will. I considered fencing a new parcel of land (140 acres) but found the price of the panels and the number of posts required to be too much for me. I instead opted for High Tensile wire fencing. 6 wires with post every 50 feet and every other live energized seems to be excellent for sheep containment and coyote protection for half the price of page wire and about 1/3 the price of the panels. On another property that I have cattle on I only use 3 HT wires. If you do not want to do HT wire and you are choosing between Page wire and cattle panels, I would suggest the panels. Both require about the same number of posts, although the panels will cost you about twice as much. If a tree falls on the page wire it could severly damage it, however the panels can be bent back into shape. HT wire on the other hand will spring back into place once the tree is removed. But back to your question, the panels will hold up to limited climbing if they are securly fastened. I think they use 4 guauge wire and so are very stiff. I use them to line my cedar rail paddocks to keep the sheep in and the kids and wife quite often will climb over the rails instead of using the gate. If you do decide to go with either page wire of panels, I suggest you look into purchasing your supplies in the US. With the dollar so close in value now you can save a substantial amount. There is no duty to bring them into Canada if you buy Red Brand or Gaucho products as they are made in the US and not subject to tarrifs under Canada-US free trade.

Hello again. I’m wondering, have others experience with the welded wire fencing approach? I wonder for example about the climbing on them, will they hold up since not stretched. Is the advantage of being in sections something that you actually benefit from, or are they up and in place for good (in the case of perimeter or other permanent fencing).
Ian

thank you for the detailed reply. I have not been back to your blog since july, and missed this till now. (when you get cross-posted to energybulletin.net on occasion, I surf over, end up reading a few dozen links and posts of yours.
The equipment list you described on Sept 16 post is just the ticket for me, except I’m not a lifetime experienced farmer, more a wannabe startup farmer with 50 years of unrelated experience behind me. I’m pleased that some of what I am doing on my 20 acres is in keeping with your practice, (have bought a bit too much heavy iron though).
When you say you raise two small cows with calves, 10 sheep with lambs and 30 hens, I cam imagine myself being able to do that scale too. What I am wondering is whether the cashflow is positive enough each year to keep up maintenance and replacement of things that wear out: buildings, equipment, tools, etc. Does the farm need a good writer/speaker to earn the extra bit? maybe this is covered in All Flesh is Grass, if not, could you comment?
Ian in Dundas, practising permaculture homesteading.

Ian, from Gene Logsdon. I’d skip the Internet on this one. Farm supply stores almost always carry welded wire panels and almost every town in the country has at least one such store. If there is a choice of gauges, I don’t know. Don’t think so. They are 16 feet long and either 4 feet high (for hogs and maybe get by for sheep) and about 5.5 feet tall for horses and cows. The taller one is about $18 each, the other a little less. I think it is better to get the taller so as to discourage dogs more. Some of the taller stuff comes with parallel wires closer together at the bottom to keep little lambs and piglets in. A little more expensive. The upper wires are all about six inches more or less apart both ways or maybe a little more. Here’s where to be careful. There are wire panels with closer mesh that sell for about $28 each but are not necessary for farm fence. f the price tag says $28, look around for the $18 ones which will be close by in another pile. Sheep sometimes will stick their heads through the $18 mesh and not have the brains to pull back out but if you are around your animals every day, you can free them if they don’t free themselves. Gene Logsdon

This post of yours comes at just the right moment. I have a 15 acre field with old fenceline perimeter thick with buckthorn and hawthorn and I need to fence it securely for livestock.
Your solution of welded wire gate panels might just be the ticket. could you help identify more exactly: gauge of wire, perhaps a manufacturer or website where can see options?
Ian in Dundas ON

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