Backdrop - I've got about 15 acres of pasture, separated into 5 distinct pastures of varying sizes and terrain. The pasture health is ok, but has LOTS of room for improvement. I got cattle back in winter of 2018 and its been a learning experience!
One of the frustrating aspects of fencing is I find lots on HOW to BUILD (or purchase) fencing, but a lot less on the theory of fencing to guide decisions on where fencing goes. Starting from nothing there are a LOT of questions just about placement of gates, widths, should the fence be on this-side or that-side of the trees, and of course there is tremendous frustration with the guidance that you should "size paddocks to give cattle the exact pounds of grass they need for the time they are in the paddock". Thank You Captain Obvious, but given that a) the herd is growing b) the pasture is improving c) I don't know what the lbs/acre of forage is d) there is tremendous seasonal variation and e)it takes time and money to build fencing, so I'd like to install as little of it as possible, thank you... Thus the fencing problem is dynamic, not static. Eventually the herd size will stabilize, the pasture will reach an improved plateau, I'll know from experience how much forage is in a given pasture at a time of year, etc and then I will have the data needed to properly make these decisions. Until then its really hard to commit to buying gates, setting wood posts, etc.
So I set out to play with fencing and see what worked for me and to try to maximize fence utility without having much sunk-cost to keep me from adapting. I've been using polywire and t-posts and geared reels. I'm definitely doing some re-invention of the wheel here, but it allows me to understand the "why" and not just the "should" of fencing.
I wanted a central spine of fencing the run the property and to function as a laneway to move the cattle from one end to the other. Off of the laneway I want to have easy access to paddocks in each pasture, thrown up by using spooled wire and portable pig-tail posts - these allow me to size the paddock as my eye evaluates the amount of forage. Creating a laneway is really easy... getting the cows through it and into pasture is more difficult as I have to punch holes in the laneway while maintaining its structure (containment and transmission of electricity). Easy in a permanent system ... use a gate, bury an insulated connecting line. A truly temporary system just involves a boat load of fiberglass posts and reels and is a huge time-suck (and its easy to lose containment of cows while re-configuring...). I wanted something in between that would allow me to easily open and resize.
Enter the Gallagher 3-Way Gate Anchor. Its a fancy name for a t-post clip with a piece of galvanized metal with three holes in it that works well with spring handle gate systems. But $7.50 a pop. Ouch. Of course, I can buy pin-lock clips for just 75 cents, drop a piece of metal in there and pocket the difference. So here's where that took me...
This is V1 - aluminum bar cut to length and then drilled. I chose aluminum b/c its easy to machine and highly conductive. But I found I wanted to grind the corners and the rough edges off the holes. I found that the polywire, even when double-wrapped through the hole, would in some instances not get enough contact area and would arc. I'm not sure if this is partly because of the anodizing on the aluminum or if the tight bend was hard on the fine metal in the polywire. I seem to have addressed this in later versions...
I tried cutting a slot in some, just to see if it would be helpful to be able to slip a loop of polywire in there. I think these were made on the bandsaw, with others made more cleanly on the tablesaw (although stacking up a bunch of aluminum plates to cut an angle is a potentially dangerous activity). I've given up on these as I never use that slot.
Aluminum is relatively expensive ... so I discovered there was pre-punched steel. This is much faster and less expensive to make. My first ones I tried to us the existing holes to mount in the pin-lock, but that required grinding out the back of the plate so it would fit. Not a time saver! V2 of the steel (not yet pictured) just involves drilling a mounting hole.
Wrapping the line through two holes seems to work very well, its provides lots of contact area and it also functions as a "ladder lock" that helps to tighten the polywire.
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even Soil:SandyLoam pH6 Flat
A benefit of using polywire is the ease of working with it. Its more expensive than steel and its not going to last nearly as long, but there is a lot to be said for minimizing labor when still exploring grazing parameters. It is easily cut with a knife, tensions up well with a simple pull of the hand, is easily spooled up for re-use elsewhere, and can be knotted easily.
I use just two knots ... the classic bowline and the lesser known tautline hitch. I don't seem to have a photo of a tautline, but its a simple knot that resists loosening but is easy to tighten. As the polywire stretches its very easy to tighten up the knot and restore tension to the line.
I'm a fan of the step-ins. Yes they take time but i don't know how people say it takes more than a few minutes. Greg Judy makes bundles of them and drops them in place while spooling out polybraid from an ATV, one person walking behind and setting posts and braid. So it is a two person operation but could be modified to one (I'll let you know my UTV should be working in a few weeks). The critical element is training the animals to one wire! Yes this takes a few months but so far it is as easy as he says with my sheep. I backfence with one wire after six weeks, tasty tempting stuff gets two wires.
The bigger issue I see with cows is water, they drink a lot more. Water point placement defines paddock possibilities.
For sheep, I don't think i have remotely used the same paddock so far. This is important to prevent compaction. There will be some by a water point with cows per Greg. His videos explain this in great depth, and I have been modifying them to small (10 acres) application.
My implementation was perimeter hot fence- step one
Temporary (light green) divider fence which stays up for 3-4 weeks.
Paddock division set up every 4 days or so- only about 20 posts per paddock line on a mini-reel (darker green). These can be leapfrogged so the water point is accessible- no back fence. With sheep they don't drink enough to matter.
Total time to set up the divider fence ~ 30 minutes every three weeks. Each paddock division is probably 10 minutes. If I am in a rush I just drop the hot side on the perimeter and open a few sections by the light green fence and clean it up later. I use a total of three minireels and one big reel at a time. I could get by with two minireels without a back fence. Setting up the new paddocks on the other side requires one more large reel and two available minireels. The sheep will follow grain to the new paddock but you could also make an alley with minireels like Greg.
Get some bungees to keep the bundles of step-ins from getting crazy and I can easily carry all the necessary step-ins in two trips. If I didnt have the UTV coming on line, I would modify a wheelbarrow to spool out wire while I throw posts out at intervals (this would be as simple as a clamp on the wheelbarrow handle). One pass to get materials out, another to set posts and clip in the braid.
Where to put the fence? I have silvopasture alleys, immature trees and likely to get bark stripped. So I double the posts on either side of the trees right now (step 0.5). Still one minireel is enough to cover the spoke from the perimeter to the main divider fence. At this point I have seen what they will strip and what they won't and I am letting them graze in the hedge/tree area as much as possible. Winter they will probably need complete exclusion. Until the trees mature this almost doubles the paddock division setup and teardown. Its worth it I think, probably one more year everything will be big enough to let them in the trees.
Then the paddocks can be divided right down between the hedgerows like Mark Shepard does. Animals get shade and variety of forage. Sheep are less destructive than cows (which is one of the reasons I vetoed the cows) and I figure on average this takes me 15 minutes a week. MAybe 20 depending on the complexity of the paddock (this is a simplified drawing).
Materials- three spools of polybraid line, two big reels, five minireels, and I think I have about 120 step-ins. Total is $40 per braid spool, $40 per big reel, $15 per minireel, and $2.20 per step in. So total of around $400. Energizer is the perimeter.
The cool thing is that with the minireels there are places I can put the sheep that would be impossible with even semipermanent fencing. They are - no joke- currently outside the kitchen maybe 20' from me. There is no more decorative yard space, just paddocks and TV substitute. I suspect I will spend under two hours mowing this year (I clipped the grass trying to seed out a couple weeks ago on the side the sheep are off). One pass per side, kill the tree seedlings and set the grass back to vegetative mode. When the numbers increase I will move them more frequently which means more time setting fence and no mowing per Greg- and he hasn't lied yet.
Semipermanent fencing sounds good but simply saves the time moving posts- nothing more. It would make it very tough to mow in my configuration with alleys. Insulators degrade at the worst times. And its not attractive. You could do it with birdhouses on the posts or something to make it a little more attractive I guess. Cost is at least 3x. going to get cattle paths because they will be in the sme configuration and do the same thing they did the last time. Still better than permanent paddocks.
I would have gotten the better step ins- the ones from New Zealand, they are almost twice the price but much better built. Sadly I couldn't get them when I was building out. Maybe someday...
Standing on the shoulders of giants. Giants with dirt under their nails
Great post, Elliot and TJ! Really helpful discussion.
I have about 3.5 acres of pasture perimeter fenced, and use step-in posts and poly-wire to divide it into 3 paddocks. This is fairly recently cleared land, so it is a bit of a struggle to get good forage established with two hungry horses, Rotating them every week has done a lot to get the grasses and clover established as compared to last year where they ranged the entire pasture.
My soil tends toward heavy clay and rocky, so unless it is good and wet, it can be a challenge to get the step posts in the ground. For that reason, I leave each paddock in place, and just move around the opening to each. The openings all face the barn.
Every Sunday, I put them in the paddock that has rested for two weeks, and it is amazing how quickly they have picked up on the routine since March - they know when it is time for new forage!
I mow the paddock they were just on to top off the weeds they don’t eat so they don't go to seed, drag it with a chain harrow behind the ATV to break up the manure, and then play a game I call sticks and stones - yep, that’s right, picking up sticks and stones! I have quite a collection of both!
Will be Interesting to see how this holds up as we enter dryer weather here - obviously would like to rotate more frequently, but started from scratch here, and it does take time to get good Forage and pasture systems in place, and temp fencing is a great way to go to do figure out flow.
I think the hardest part about rotational grazing is water access.
“All good things are wild, and free.” Henry David Thoreau
I was trying to not go to a "what should I do" format, but I guess the issues I'm facing - and the need to experiment a bit - are inextricably linked to the geography. So down below I'm attaching an outline of the areas I have for the cows - the vertical scale is 1/8" mile (660') and the pastures run about 3/8" mile horizontally. My main problem is the need for a laneway to move the cows between these pastures. I really don't see a time-economical way to do this without a semi-permanent installation.
Within the pastures, I agree with TJ that the step-ins are great. I love my Gallagher step-ins with the orange top and I should buy about ten more. I've got a boatload of fiberglass poles too, but I've mostly relegated those to supporting the polywire in between the t-posts.
I'm not familiar with the "mini reel" - I've found I use three of the reels at a time - two to define the sides of a paddock, running from the laneway to a perimeter and the third just defines the next paddock up so I have the next day ready to go. In some areas I don't have a good perimeter fence to reach, and then I have to wrap the line around a bit more. That's sort of ok, but the reels are really designed to hang on a tensioned wire... and the step-ins and the polywire don't work well. The polywire between t-posts is also not willing to support that weight so I generally figure a way to mount the reel sideways on the t-post - NOT recommended but I haven't got an alternative yet.
My cows have always been ok with the single wire - but they are super chill. If they are out of a fence it means they are expressing dissatisfaction with forage - or it snowed and all the fence lines sagged. The calves sneak under the single line and tease their mothers - little brats! The laneway is double-line, but the paddocks are all single. I used to try and do a double line paddock, back when there wasn't a good laneway and a paddock was more like a portable barnyard.
We keep all our cattle on this big farm behind polywires.
You can train them to walk over a pinned down wire quite easily.
Sometimes I split up their paddocks in such a way that I'm not near the end so I just pin it down with two pigtails. Once they know they just skip over the hot wire.
The beauty of poly wires in big paddocks is the ability to alter break sizes daily as spring warmth ramps up grass growth.
We have short and tall pigtails, I start training the calves after weaning on short ones.
All single wire except perimeter fences of big paddocks.
Measuring grass sucks once you've done it for a while though you get an eye for it. Now I just eyeometer everything.
TJ - after re-reading your post a few times I'd just like to highlight a few items:
Water - yep, that's important. On a still developing property I don't have water distribution, so the laneway is relevant to getting the cows to the water since I can't get water to the cows. Interesting that sheep use so little water that it seems an afterthought.
Perimeter fence - that's your permanent fencing! Its the essential piece of infrastructure that makes it so easy for you to toss up the paddock fencing. My perimeter is an aging, decaying, unreliable and totally not electrified frankenstein of pasture fence and barb wire. And as my pasture blob indicates, very little of my pasture actually contacts the property line. Thus my need for an equivalent. And not be combative, but half the point of semi-permanent or permanent fencing is to save time and not have to recreate the same passageway every time I plan to move the cows to the Eastern end.
Compaction/cattle paths - this is indeed a loss I'm incurring. Between pastures, I don't know how else I can do this without converting a bunch of forest. Degrading a strip seems preferable. Within a pasture I agree that randomizing paddocks makes sense but I don't see a good way to do it. A semi-permanent laneway allows me to alter the size of each paddock, and every year or so I could pull up the t-posts and shift some of the laneway over.
Not attractive - well, yeah. But its a farm, not a National Park postcard.
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