We use solar powered, plug-in powered, permanent, portable, high tensile, aircraft cable, polywire, and many combinations of such in our grazing operations. Electric fence has increased our production over four times in comparison to the same acres left unfenced, extended many pastures past the 20 year mark, allowed us to effectively eliminate waste in our winter grazing program and it keeps our saddle horses and our family on their toes.
We use a lot of temporary/semipermanent type of fence on our operation. These types of fences are really nice as they give us a ton of flexibility to match cows to available forage. We currently use rebar posts with screw on insulators for a lot of our fencing. I know that some people prefer step-ins or fibreglass or some of the other options, and I think that’s great. For us the rebar works well. They are cost effective, and we can easily add insulators and make two or three wire fences if required (very rarely). The two downsides are that rebar is cold when it is -40 C and if the wires touch the post, they ground out very readily. The upside is the cost and the fact that you can straighten any rebar post using the hitch on the back of your truck. Simply insert the rebar through the hole for the hitch pin and bend.
The greatest strength of temporary fencing is flexibility. This year with the added moisture, we were able to rapidly create smaller paddocks, thus reducing the time the cattle spent on each paddock. This is important in wet years, as we want our cattle off the grass before it starts its regrowth. We don’t want to “rehay” our grass a week after it has been hayed. On dry years, we actually extend the time on each paddock so the grass has a longer recovery time before we come around again. Portable fencing gives us this tremendous flexibility.
We had a new experiment this fall with a steel reel and 5,000 feet of aircraft cable. We are using this in the wintertime (and the rest of the year) to create an alleyway to access water. Historically, we have built alleyways, placed gates, dug wires under the gates to connect everything and then thought we should have put an extra gate in. The steel reel sits at one end of the field (nearest the water) about 20 feet from a permanent perimeter fence. By pulling out the cable, it creates an instant, infinitely adjustable alleyway. If you want another gate, you just pound in a post.
It is significantly cheaper than a pasture pipeline or building a more permanent alleyway, although that may be in the cards as we develop. The other advantage is the reel is portable and I can use this same application in several other locations. To be honest I actually stole this idea from my brother who has a grass operation at Grande Prairie, but I beat him in the race to implementation.
Two of the most important things we have learned about temporary fencing are equipment related. Buy a good quality geared reel, and shell out the extra money for tinned copper polywire. The tinned copper carries current significantly better than the regular polywire. These products usually have a fancy name like Ultra or Turbo, but the easiest way to tell if the product is tinned copper is that a roll will be $60 to $80 instead of $15 to $30. You will more than make that up in the time you don’t spend chasing cows. I know some people that use low cost aluminium wire (17 gauge) and swear by it. We have tried using aluminium and it did not work well for us. Wildlife seemed to damage it and we have spent a lot of time picking wire out of the bush from fences that were demolished many years previous. This is a huge issue for us as we do our cow work on horseback and there is nothing worse than tangled wire where it is not supposed to be. The other thing we have learned is not to drop plastic reels on the ground when it is 40 below.
The one challenge I often hear asked (or inferred) is the issue of time. Moving cattle is a balance of time versus reward. I know folks that move cattle more than once a day, and others that move cattle twice a year. I know many people think we are crazy to move cattle as much as we do in the summertime. We have chosen a balance that works for us, and move our cattle roughly every two to three days. This process takes roughly 15 minutes. If I want to go on a holiday, I may take an hour and lay out enough reels for a month. As we have discovered areas that we fence in the same way over time, we will sometimes put in a more permanent high tensile fence.
As we get later in the season, or once winter sets in, we often use less cross-fencing on our pastures as the plants aren’t growing and the snow provides a water source across the entire field. We can readily control movement at this stage with placement of mineral. It is the opposite on our swathgrazing where we will spend 15 to 30 minutes a week cross-fencing. If there is a stretch of nice days, I may put out enough reels to control a month of grazing.
Many people spend more time than that checking their crops, while their cattle are “on pasture” all summer. Others check their cattle regularly (eg: daily) and don’t exercise the choice to move cattle. For us pasture is our crop. Protecting and improving that crop with fencing is no different than protecting a canola crop with fungicide or encouraging growth with fertilizer.
At our place the key purpose of fencing for us is to eliminate overgrazing and match cows to forage. The investment in carefully controlling livestock has resulted in more forage, significantly better quality of pastures, better animal health and greatly reduced costs.
(Read more about intensive grazing and fencing on Page 34).