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PHOTO: Mario Goebbels/Flickr
Let’s face it: Most farms need fences and lots of them. If you’re looking for an inexpensive, safe and easy-to-maintain type of fencing, electric fencing is the perfect option!
Advantages Of Electric Fencing
Electric fences are jack-of-all-trades in the fencing world, with the added benefit that they’re frequently the best choice in many situations.
One of the greatest advantages of electric fencing is cost, according to John W. Worley, extension engineer for the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. In his “Fences on the Farm” research, he states that electric fences cost less than 10 percent of the price of a typical four-rail board fence. Electric-fence wires often cost between $0.02 to $0.06 per foot, with posts ranging from a few dollars to around $15 for a large wooden corner post, making the fences very inexpensive to construct. The electric charger for your fence will cost more, but many can be purchased for less than $100. Don’t skimp here: Be sure to purchase a safe, quality charger for your fence.
Furthermore, electric fences are ideal for containing a wide variety of livestock. Just about any large farm animal you can think of, including horses and cattle, can be kept inside an electric fence, and the system works for smaller animals, as well, if the gap between each wire is small enough so that they can’t slip between or underneath the wires. All animals will need to be carefully introduced to the electric fence so that they understand they will receive an electric shock if they get too close, and while some species—sheep, for instance—are trickier to contain, they too can be trained to respect an electric fence, particularly if introduced to it at a young age.
When turning an animal out in an electric-fenced pasture for the first time, be sure to supervise them until after they touch the fence a time or two, just to make sure that they don’t overreact and injure themselves. Also, don’t get too close to your livestock when they’re investigating the new fence: You want them to associate the shock with touching the fence, not with being near you. On the other hand, some animals can sense that the fence is electrified just by getting close to it and might not ever touch the wires.
Another benefit is that electric fences are very durable: A well-maintained electric fence can last for nearly 25 years. Best of all, electric fences are considered to be among the safest types of fencing, and they’re relatively easy to install and maintain.
Of course, electric fences do have a few disadvantages. If a power outage shuts off the electricity, the fence becomes much less of a barrier, and strong or clever animals can break through or slip between the wires. Electric fences are also much less of a visual barrier than other types of fencing, another reason why it’s important to carefully introduce your animals to the fence to let them know it’s there.
Choose The Right Electric Fence
Part of the appeal of electric fences is their versatility; they can be built in many different ways. The number and type of wires to use is your first consideration. Depending on the type of livestock you’ll be keeping in, or the type of predators you’re trying to keep out, a suitable electric fence can be made from one wire or as many as 10 or more.
The wires can be made from a variety of materials. High-tensile 12.5-gauge wire is common for containing large animals, including cattle; lighter 14-gauge wire is also common. For smaller, portable pastures, polywire or polytape made of metal wires and polyethylene are popular choices.
Choosing an appropriate fence charger is also important. The key is to find a low-impedance charger that can provide a high enough voltage to control your livestock while maintaining power throughout the length of your fence; it will be necessary to measure the total length of your electric fence and purchase a charger rated for that length of fence or longer.
For the voltage—which determines whether the current will be strong enough for the animals to feel a shock—anywhere from 700 to more than 4,000 volts may be needed depending on the type of animals you’ll be keeping in the pasture. Long-haired animals require more voltage than short-haired animals, and sheep might require even more, due to their thick wool.
For the sake of simplicity, it’s best to purchase a fence charger that can be plugged into a regular power outlet to receive continuous power; if no outlets exist near your pastures, you’ll likely need to choose a battery-powered charger that can be recharged when it runs out of power. Solar-powered electric fence chargers, some of them coupled with batteries, also exist, and offer the benefit of less maintenance than battery-powered chargers. However, these off-grid solar-powered chargers are not as strong as “on the grid” chargers and might not be able to power large pastures; they are much more ideal for smaller electric fence setups, such as portable pastures.
Installing Electric Fences
The installation process for electric fences is relatively simple. Unlike many other types of fences, electric fences don’t require as many posts to hold them in place. Whereas board fences require posts every eight feet or so, a permanent electric fence can easily span gaps of 50 feet or more in certain situations, meaning that for every 10 posts needed to construct a board fence, you might only need one or two for an electric fence.
Fence posts can be made of wood, steel, plastic or fiberglass. While wooden posts require the most effort to install, their strength and durability make them the most ideal for large pastures. Wooden posts are sometimes combined with steel, fiberglass or even plastic posts to bring down the cost of the fence, but wooden posts with a diameter of at least 8 inches should be used for the corner posts of the fence, which will be bearing the pull of the tightened wires. Steel or fiberglass posts can be used for the spacer posts in between corner posts, or you can use wooden posts with a diameter of 4 to 5 inches.
The grounding rods are among the most important elements of an electric fence, because they complete the electric circuit so that livestock will feel a shock when they touch the wires. Generally, at least three 6-foot rods will be needed, but for larger systems that need to deliver strong electric shocks, two or three times as many rods might be necessary. Each rod should be pounded deep into the ground with only 6 inches visible above the soil; furthermore, the rods should be placed far apart from each other, with 6 to 10 feet or even more distance between each rod.
One of the keys to properly maintaining electric fences is keeping vegetation growth under control along the fence lines. Plants that grow up underneath the wires, such as grass, can touch the wires and ground the fence, weakening the electric current and making the fence much less effective. A routine check of the fence lines is a must; if plants are starting to touch the wires, mowing them down will be necessary. Be sure to check the wires several times each year, especially in the spring, when the wires can be loose after months of winter weather. Be sure to turn off the electricity before you begin!
It’s also important to keep an eye on the tension of the wires. Over time, the wires can start to sag, raising the possibility that clever animals could slip between the wires and escape from the pasture. Loose wires also make the fence more dangerous, as animals can become tangled in the wires. Be sure to check the tension of the wires every so often to make sure they haven’t become too loose.
Electric fences are a great choice for a wide variety of situations, being inexpensive, safe and relatively easy to maintain. If you’re planning to construct a new pasture, be sure to strongly consider electric fencing!