The first time Ted Unruh came across the idea of an automatic fence lifter, it was over social media.
Unruh, along with a number of other farmers, had been chatting about a fence lifter that could take the place of a conventional gate, with some suggesting that a water jug could be used as a counterweight, with a hole as a sort of primitive timer as water dribbled out.
It was a conversation that started the wheels spinning for Unruh, a Cromer-area producer, and eventually sent him to his farm’s shop to experiment.
Like most beef producers, Unruh figured he had better things to do than spend hours fencing, and fencing on the Unruh farm was extensive. One of the producers to embrace high stock density grazing, Unruh was moving cattle multiple times a day — at stocking rates that, today, he has increased to 200,000 pounds per acre with four daily moves.
Unruh believed in the system, which he hoped would help beat back the saplings encroaching on his pasture while increasing soil health. At the same time, like many producers looking at the more intensive management involved in high stock density systems, he knew the labour would soon start to wear. Multiple moves meant multiple trips to the field, while the sheer amount of temporary fencing to move cattle through four paddocks a day took up precious time.
“All of a sudden, I realized that I’ve got these Batt-Latches that I could make a pole and attach it and I could have a specific (release) time, a very accurate time,” he said.
The result, he said, was a “game changer.”
The Batt-Latch — an automatic, solar-powered gate release that opens gates via a timer — is marketed to reduce time and effort when moving animals, even without Unruh’s additions. The timer, which retails for $525 each in Canada, promises producers the ability to move cattle without a farmer being present and is usually installed with a spring gate, to retract on its own once tension is released.
More typically marketed for dairy in the rest of the world, ads for the Batt-Latch in Europe or Australia promise greater ease moving cattle to and from milkings, decreased labour cost, as well as lower stress for animals suddenly able to move between paddocks on their own time.
In Western Canada, however, the product has dug out a niche among beef producers like Unruh. Like dairy, intensive grazing systems like Unruh’s also involve frequent animal moves and human labour (in the form of fencing and animal movement) is among the greatest costs in adopting the system.
Barbara Dennis of Redvers, Sask., and the Canadian distributor for Batt-Latch, says most of her customers are beef producers, although some dairy and equine operations have also bought in.
Her late husband, Neil Dennis, had developed a well-known reputation in holistic management circles, and had originally tapped the Batt-Latch to help with his own system, which moved cattle every two hours.
Unruh, however, figured he could now find a modified use for the timers.
Unruh had already been using the Batt-Latch with the typical 12-foot spring gate. Those gates, however, were a problem. They added precious time to his fencing, he said, and created crowding problems as cattle rushed the relatively narrow opening, sometimes snagging or dragging the fence.
But if he could build a lifter, something that lifted an entire section of fence and also eliminated gates, something that did not require him to run back to the pasture four times a day to move cattle, that would solve many of those problems and save him time besides.
Unruh attached the Batt-Latch to a spring-loaded lever, topped by a pig’s tail curl to hold the fence wire. The mechanism was then mounted on a portable post, held stationary by a fibreglass rod driven into the ground. When released, the lever swung up, carrying the wire along with it and giving cattle room to move underneath.
The lifted section of fence is much wider than a standard gate, Unruh noted, avoiding his previous issues with snags. Perhaps more critical for Unruh’s workday, however, the system takes only a fraction of the time it would to set up a conventional gate. Unruh estimates that he can now string a quarter-mile of temporary fence in under 10 minutes.
“And then, my cross fences, they’re shorter of course,” he said.
A single day’s worth of fencing, with all four paddocks, might take him half an hour, he noted, while the timed latches have eliminated any need to run back to the pasture during the day, something that, “has saved an enormous amount of time,” he said.
Unruh’s family is also not necessarily tethered to the farm, despite the frequent animal moves. The timer system can be set up to seven days in advance, he said, allowing him to shift his grazing plan as needed.
“I could do one day moves for four days,” he said. “I have enough stuff to do that.”
Spreading the word
For anyone hoping to follow Unruh’s example, he says the design was fairly simple, and, although he admits that he is among those people who enjoys tinkering, it could likely be replicated with little trouble.
The lifter’s final version took only a few hours of experimentation in the farm’s shop, he said, and could likely even be adapted for a farm using high tensile wire.
“I believe it would be possible if you had a stronger spring on there,” he said. “I’ve never had a need to do it, but I’m pretty sure that it could be done.”
Alexis Stockford is a reporter for the Manitoba Co-operator. Her article appeared in the July 30, 2020 issue.