Portable fencing tips for rotational grazing of cattle

“No matter how many fence posts you have and how many rolls of poly wire, it won’t work if you’re not thinking ahead,” says Tim Hoven

Brian Chrisp places feed along an electric fence, running the wire over the feeder and on both sides.  Photo: Supplied by Brian Chrisp

Many stockmen who graze rotationally create permanent paddocks with traditional fencing or electric hard wire, such as high tensile wire. They then divide those paddocks with portable fencing such as poly wire. A portable fence can be moved every few days, daily, or even several times daily to strip graze or mob graze. There are many ways to create temporary fences.

Tim Hoven, farming near Eckville, in central Alberta, says the key to using portable fence is a good grazing plan.

“You have to know where you want the cattle, for what day, and for what purpose,” Hoven says. “If you know you’ll be gone for the weekend, you must make sure the animals have enough grass. No matter how many fence posts you have and how many rolls of poly wire, it won’t work if you’re not thinking ahead.”

This means thinking a week ahead, a month ahead, three months ahead and a season ahead, Hoven says. The plan will change from year to year with different conditions, he adds, and past experience will inform the plan.

Tim Hoven uses a variety of posts on the farm, choosing a post to fit the circumstance. photo: Supplied by Tim Hoven

If it takes more work to set up division fences in one field, you can plan to graze that field when you have more time and effort to put into it.

“By contrast if you wake up in the morning and try to decide what you are going to do and where the cows will go, you’ll make mistakes that come back to bite you,” says Hoven.

Fence charger

A good fence charger can service fences anywhere you want to put them.

“You need good perimeter fences and a good system for carrying electricity along your main fences,” says Hoven. “Then no matter where you are on your farm, you can put in portable posts and run the tape across, attach to the hot wire and know you have good electricity all the time.”

Brian Chrisp of Misty Hills Charolais, near Vermilion, Alta., has used electric fencing for about 30 years. Many of the materials have improved during that time.

“Some of the energizing units are better now, and more portable. When we first started, we were using 110-volt plug-in units, serviced from the ranch yard,” says Chrisp. “We’d run the electric wires on existing barbed-wire fences — sometimes as far as a couple miles from the source — to pastures where we needed electric fencing for dividing the pastures.”

When electric wire had to cross a road or gateway, this was accomplished with insulated cables under the road, driveway or gate.

“The electric fences have been very reliable. Some people say you need the 110 plug-in unit for the necessary voltage, but I found that the portable units that run off a 12-volt battery or even solar power are just as good,” says Chrisp. Once cattle know about the hot wire and are trained to respect it, just about any kind of electric fence will hold them.

In recent years Chrisp has been using small solar units with a small enclosed battery. The 12-volt batteries were always a worry because of the lead poisoning risk if cattle gained access to them.

“We’d generally put batteries in plywood boxes or some other protective covering but solar units today are worry-free and low cost,” says Chrisp, adding he paid about $200 for a solar unit. Today if the fence needs to cross a gate or alleyway, Chrisp uses a small portable unit on each side, rather than spanning the gap with underground cable.

Hoven still prefers the plug-in charger in his yard, however. “If you have to take time to move portable chargers and make sure batteries are charged, this just adds another level of complexity to the system,” he says.

Hoven finds that a good hot wire around the perimeter, or anywhere he can latch onto it, makes life easier. It saves time, and is often a more dependable source of power than a battery charger or solar power. For gates Hoven often uses electric fence gate handles.

One thing Hoven finds very helpful is a remote control for the fence charger. “When I’m out patching wire, or find a spot that needs patching, I can just turn off the fence from a remote location and fix the fence, and turn it back on,” he says.

A remote control also helps with gates, allowing Hoven to simply turn off the fence, go through it, then wrap it tight again before turning it back on and ensuring the current is adequate.

“It’s more expensive to get a fence charger with remote control, but it saves a lot of time,” says Hoven. “I might be fixing fence three miles away from home, and the fence is all connected. Before I had the remote control I always had to call my wife or a kid to go turn it off and back on again. Now, with one click, I can just do it, fix the fence, and it’s ready to go again.”

His remote control is also a digital voltmeter and amp meter, allowing him to test the fence when he’s working animals or in the field. It tells him the level at the fencer, and helps him figure out where he’s losing power, how he can fix it and whether the fix worked.

“The remote control is something I always carry in my pocket. I can connect it to the fence anywhere on the farm and it tells me if there’s a fault — and exactly what voltage is in the fence and what amperage I’m losing,” he says.

“One thing that really helps for maintaining electric fences is fence testers that find the shorts,” Chrisp says. These fence testers help zero in on the problem area.

“It might be a wire touching something that shorts it out, or an insulator that’s not insulating,” says Chrisp. “You can check a couple miles of fence very quickly with a fence tester and find where it’s shorting out.”

Posts and wire

Today there are many products available for temporary fences, with different kinds of wire, tapes and cords.

Chrisp has used insulated posts and insulators, but has also had good luck running electric wires on barbed-wire stapled posts most of the time.

“Some years ago we switched to using 1/16-inch steel cable,” says Chrisp. “It’s very light and flexible and can be rolled and unrolled off reels. It’s durable, tough and flexible; it doesn’t coil like a high-tensile wire does.”

He uses a lot of that wire on steel rebar cut into post length, with any kind of insulators on them. Those are very easy to pound into hard or frozen ground, compared to plastic posts that break readily.

“We just give the post a couple twists with a set of vice grips and they come out readily,” Chrisp explains. Portable posts or stakes installed during summer can be difficult to take out in the winter, he adds, but anything pounded into frozen ground will come out easily.

Chrisp used to use plastic rollers and roll up the wire with a power drill, but some of those rollers didn’t last long. A few years ago he started building his own spools and winder for putting up and taking down wire.

“Now with the lightweight steel wire, our reels are very simple,” he says. “We use a piece of fence post for the core, with round plywood ends on it and a bolt through it. This enables us to put it on a 3/4-inch rod — either hand held or on the back of a quad or side-by-side — and use a portable electric drill to wind it up again.”

Chrisp can use the quad winter or summer with this system, which saves a lot of walking and a lot of time. When he partitions stubble fields for grazing in the fall, some of the stretches are half a mile or even a mile.

Hoven uses a variety of posts.

“We generally choose a post to fit the circumstance,” says Hoven. “When we have pigs, we use plastic posts with six or seven height options, so we can pick the right height for the pigs. For cows, the Gallagher (ring) posts are excellent.”

About 20 years ago Hoven was using the cheap, yellow fiberglass posts, but finds they aren’t strong enough for hard ground.

“We still have a lot of them on the farm, and sometimes use them as spares, or if we have a low spot in the perimeter fence where there’s a gap,” he says. “We can stick one of those posts in the hole and leave it there, and it’s good for a long time.”

For wire, Hoven prefers the Gallagher turbo wire. This is a cord containing nine strands of wire, which is a mix of stainless steel and copper that provide long-lasting conductivity about 40 times greater than regular poly wire. It’s white, and clearly visible to livestock.

“I am a fan of Gallagher products, because even though they may cost a bit more, they last a long time and seem to work better,” says Hoven. Gallagher has two wire strengths, but Hoven prefers the stronger one, as it has more metal strands and less breakage risk.

“It conducts electricity better,” says Hoven. “You can buy the cheaper stuff but the little wires break more often and you lose voltage, and the fence isn’t as effective.”

He uses a geared reel for unrolling and rolling wire, which is handy when he has to roll up a 300-metre fence. “These are more expensive, but they save so much time, compared to a cheaper reel,” says Hoven.

Trained cattle respect fences

Bulls seem to respect an electric fence even more than cows or calves do. They don’t want to get shocked.

“I don’t know whether they ground better or whether they are wimpy, but they definitely want to stay away from electricity,” says Chrisp. “In May when we’re calving out on grass and rotating the cattle to new areas every few days or every week, we often hear a young calf bellow, and know that the calves are beginning to learn about the fence.”

Training bulls to respect electric fence in the summer makes it easier to manage them over the winter. photo: Supplied by Brian Chrisp

Trained cattle will respect anything that even looks like an electric fence. “If we are moving cattle along a road and there are gaps or gates, we can just use bale twine across the gateways and they won’t even think about trying to go through it,” says Chrisp.

The twine actually works better than people or vehicles blocking a driveway or intersection, he adds. If people are there, the cattle may be curious or balk, but if there’s just a single strand of baling twine they respect it and go merrily on their way, assuming it’s an electric fence.

“We have to move cattle past a couple acreages that are open-fronted, but it’s no problem when we simply put twine across those openings,” Chrisp says.

When Chrisp sorts cattle, there might be a few bulls he wants to sort out of a group of 30 bulls in a 40-acre paddock. He can convince them to come down into a corner with what he calls a dummy wire. He can then move around within the group confined in the corner, and sort off the ones he wants. The dummy wire could be wire with no juice in it, or just a plastic twine. The cattle don’t question it once they learn about electric fences.

Training cattle to a hot wire makes moving and managing them very simple. A few years ago Chrisp had to move cattle across a quarter section, that he didn’t want them on, by himself. He was able to build a half mile of portable fence and move the cows in one hour.

In the spring, if he is still feeding cattle, Chrisp often puts up a single strand in the middle of nowhere, and feeds along the fence. This creates a boundary and prevents the cattle from walking through all the feed.

“This saves feed, with less waste, especially in the spring when everything is muddy. We can put the electric wire along a hilltop and feed along it with the processor or silage wagon, and the cattle eat along that line and don’t tramp the feed into the mud.”

Some people have problems with deer, moose or elk tearing down electric fences, but wildlife can also be trained to it. Naïve ones coming through may tear it down, but the resident deer seem to learn to respect it, just as the cattle do.

“We don’t have moose or elk here, but we have plenty of deer,” says Chrisp. “After a time they seem to respect a single wire in the middle of nowhere.”

Winter fences

Training cattle to respect electric fencing pays off during the winter months, Chrisp says. “Winter facilities can be built or changed easily, at low cost, with electric fence, compared with having to build permanent pens or fences.”

Chrisp winters 65 young bulls that are approaching sale age on 80 acres. In many spots, it’s just a simple barbed wire fence, he says.

“If we want to make the 80 acres into 40 or 20, or five, we can do it quickly on a whim, and create alleyways to the corrals, at very low cost. They don’t have to be steel planks or something durable to keep the bulls confined,” he says.

Chrisp says they used to use a lot of steel panels to split cattle into groups at the water source. This can be quite challenging with several bulls, as they’re always fighting and pushing each other against the fences.

“We were always having to deal with that, but now we have a single strand of electrified wire coming to the water,” says Chrisp. “We rarely have a problem anymore. Even when the bulls are fighting, they move away from that hot wire.”

Years ago, Chrisp worked for Alberta Agriculture, and then taught at a local college. Someone asked him, after being exposed to all that modern technology, which ones he gained the most from.

“I said that for me, and my operation, it was electric fences. It wasn’t big motors or fancy equipment. Being able to use electric fences for rotational grazing was the biggest gain,” says Chrisp. c

Heather Smith Thomas raises beef cattle with her husband on their ranch in Idaho. She also writes articles for ag publications as well as books on horse care and cattle management.

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