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Pro tips on building durable barbed-wire fences

Most fences for cattle utilize barbed wire, especially for large pastures, since a good barbed-wire fence is effective and much cheaper to build and maintain than rail fences or netting, and will last longer if properly installed. Jason Nelson has a ranch near Longview, in southern Alberta, and does custom fencing for many ranchers in his area. He has some tips and advice for constructing durable fences and making the job easier.

He and his wife Cara have been building fences for 24 years. “We were 17 years old when we bought our first post-pounder,” says Nelson. His main crew consists of his wife, his younger brother Kyle, and a sister-in-law Michelle, but they sometimes have as many as eight people working on various projects during the summer. They build a lot of rail fences as well as barbed-wire fences.

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The key to a good barbed-wire fence is good braces. 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 of it, but with some we just put eight-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’s had to hang an anchor of some kind in the gully, to keep the wires from pulling up the posts, if there is a lot of pull on that part of the fence, but normally he just uses big-diameter eight-foot posts that will hold.

“I also use eight-foot posts for my braces (so they can be set deeper) and use a 12-foot angle brace (going from the top of one post to the bottom of the other). These hold very well,” says Nelson.

  • Read more: Setting posts in difficult ground

Wire spacing — and how many wires — will depend on the situation, such as how big the pasture is and how much pressure there will be on the fence, and whether there will be a lot of wildlife pressure as well. Post spacing can vary as well. “With a normal four-wire fence we usually put posts every 12 to 13 feet. This is pretty standard in range country, but in high-pressure areas some ranchers want a five-wire fence,” he says.

He doesn’t use stays between posts. “I’ve talked to people who use stays, and it’s often because the ground is harder to get posts in; if the posts can’t be set as deeply as you’d like, stays help add stability to the fence. Around here we don’t run into much terrain we can’t get posts into. In the high country there are more rocks, but here on the ranch land where we work it’s rare that we can’t get posts in the ground.”

Most of the time the posts can be set with a pounder. This is fastest, so Nelson tries to drive them all — except in areas where it’s impossible to get a pounder to the fenceline. “In those situations I dig a post hole or pound the post in by hand,” he says. He occasionally uses steel posts in places where it’s difficult to pound in a wood post.

“I don’t use metal T-posts very often. What I use is posts made out of sucker rod, with wire hooks welded on them already. These go through rocks very well 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 frost — a lot easier than trying to set a wood post. We mainly use these whenever we 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 and can fly out when you are pounding them.”

Metal posts also work nicely when a fence must go through wet areas and sloughs where it’s difficult to drive wood posts. “I had to build a fence last summer through some bogs, and actually used seven-foot T-posts for that one. They went far enough down to hit solid ground where they could hold,” says Nelson.

He also did some fencing in rough, steep country where it was impossible to take a tractor and pounder so he borrowed a pounder mounted on a track machine that could get up the steep slopes without tipping over. “I used that in the mountains and also went through some bogs with it. With the tracks it could go across most of the soft ground without sinking in,” he says.

This machine has a pounder mounted on the back. “You just walk beside this machine and drive it from the ground with a joy stick; you don’t have to be on it. This is safer, especially going through areas where it was too steep to take a vehicle or tractor. I had never seen one of these machines, but I have a friend about 2-1/2 hours east of here who does custom fencing and I rented it from him. It’s handy for one person fencing alone because you can drive it as you walk beside it, and stop it wherever you want to set a post.” This saves time and labour and one person can set a lot of posts.

Almost all the fences in his area can be built by driving posts rather than having to dig holes. “If the ground is really bad, we sometimes use a small auger to create a pilot hole for the post we’re going to pound, but we rarely have to do that. We’re fortunate to not have many rocks, though we occasionally run into some sandstone. Normally it’s deep enough that you can get a post in a couple feet before you hit the sandstone, though sometimes you have to break the sandstone with something,” says Nelson.

“On our ranch, we have lots of ridges and some rocks on those ridgetops, but we can always get posts into it; there’s no solid rock. Every place is different, however, with different situations, and we just do whatever we have to do to set the posts. If you are a long ways from home and get into a bad situation you just make do with what you have, and this may mean digging it in or pounding it in by hand, but most of the pounding we do is with a mechanical pounder.”

Nelson uses 1-3/4 inch barbed staples for attaching wires to wood posts. Barbed staples stay in better and don’t pop out as readily as the smooth staples. “Some people use staple guns 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, like a small chain saw for cutting notches into the brace posts. He pulls his post pounder behind his truck, and has a big tool box topper to carry everything he needs. “Chainsaws, 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 you need to have — so you don’t have to go back home and get something when you are stuck back in the bush without what you need. It can be a long ways to get out and get it. 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 that we always have the proper tools we might need that day,” he says.

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