Coyote Run Farm

Lessons Learned - Subdivisions

Sketch of lots of little paddocks

1. An average fence for your pawns

Let's start with page fencing, since this is embarrassingly simple.

If you take a look at the wire, you will notice that the vertical spacing gets smaller from top to bottom. Although having the smaller spacing at the top may look more aesthetically pleasing, it goes the other way around. Smaller spacing stops smaller critters, who tend to be closer to the ground because (wait for it) they're small.

Oh, and when you're putting the posts in, get someone with a good eye for straight lines. No need for yards of string. Place your two end posts first, and then keep bisecting. It works like a charm, and it's quite possible to make enviously straight fence lines.

As for keeping them plumb, try to envision the entire landscape and horizon, not just the local area. And remember that trees usually grow upwards. You could also use a level, but that doesn't build as much character.

Now on to penning.

Penning is the more solid fencing used inside the barn where it has to take more inadvertent abuse. It has to be disassembled for mucking out the barn. It is also a more efficient use of space if it can be rearranged into various configurations way too often during the year.

Steel penning We use strong steel sections held together with long metal pins. Sort of like a giant Mechano set, but awfully heavy. Sheep will press hard against feeding stations and anything near them. So the panels must be very strong. Aluminum is strong but not durable enough. You really can't skimp on weight or cost here or they will be bent until they are useless. These interior barn panels and the race are the only things that need have such considerable strength. A race is a collection, holding, and sorting contraption. If you have more than a dozen sheep you absolutely need one of these. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It can turn 3-5 man jobs into something a single person can do, albeit sometimes slowly.

Those of you who haven't fallen asleep at the back of the class will note that I said heavy fencing outside the barn isn't needed. This is because fencing is only partly about containment. It's mostly about control and deterrence. Well maintained, light fencing of any sort will be sufficient to keep happy animals in. No amount of fencing will keep a hungry animal in.

2. Running electric interference

Now that we've established that fencing doesn't need to resemble a Roman fort, we can look at more economical containment over the larger areas of a farm.

An electric fence may be unpleasant for the livestock (once -- maybe twice if they're especially dim), but it keeps them out of trouble and safe. It is much cheaper than solid fencing and can be re-arranged at will. That is, assuming you haven't lost your will yet.

The fence has to be charged to a sufficient degree to deliver a shock through the thicker hides of farm animals. High voltage with low amperage delivered in short pulses does the trick. This packs a punch that won't do any real harm to you, but you will not enjoy the experience. And yes, sooner or later, everyone accidentally touches the line. I did it while repairing a battery operated unit mounted on a post in a remote field. I was fixing the main connection points when the charging unit fell off its mount and each terminal landed squarely on my hands. It didn't knock me over, but you're completely useless for a second or two as you leap around ineffectually in shock, pain, and anger. I may have said a few untoward words as well.

The infernal trap electric fence consists simply of a grounded charging unit connected to a single long string of wire that forms the fence. Those of you who know about electric circuits will wonder how the circuit closes. The answer is that it doesn't. At least, it doesn't until an animal touches the wire and provides a connection to the ground. This is the famous single-pole, single-throw "Dorset switch".

As such, it does not require alternating live and ground wires along the fence. Alternating lines can be useful if placed close enough together that the animal must push its way between them, thus contacting both. However that many lines is expensive, difficult to set up, and prone to shorting out whenever a line falls down (which is often enough).

Plants that sheep don't like to eat will grow up under the line and eventually contact it. Because plants don't make very good conductors, this will not completely disable the line, but it will reduce the charge. Enough weeds will render the line ineffective. Just cut the weeds out from under the line or move the supporting stakes over a foot or so to a freshly cut swath of pasture. Do remember to turn the fence off before doing this.

You can tell how strong the charge is with a little meter you can purchase at farm supply stores. If you don't have it with you, it is still possible to determine if the fence is on or not. Pluck a green blade of grass from the ground, hold one end, and place the other end on the wire. If it's on, you will feel a slight tingle with every pulse on the line. If the stalk is too brown and dry, it won't conduct well enough and you won't feel anything regardless.

Any old AM radio will easily detect the pulses within a few feet of the fence.

I only have a statistical sample size of one, since most seem to innately know about electric fences. However, it would seem that cats spin in circles for several seconds after touching a live wire. Poor kitty. I tried to warn it.

Arcing, which should obviously be avoided, is easily seen at night. Mark the location at night and fix it in the day.

Finally, the charging unit has a ground of its own. This should be connected to a metal ground post driven as far into the ground as you can get it. During droughts the ground can become very dry. Dry earth will not conduct very well and will prevent the unit from working well. If it has been exceptionally dry and your fence is losing strength, try pouring several buckets of water onto the ground around the ground post.

3. The gates of hell

So you've built all this wonderful fencing to partition your land into workable chunks. Now you need to get through the fencing to get any work done.

Building or purchasing a gate is simple enough. However, sheep scratch any itches they have by rubbing against any edges they can find. Since nature tends to provide round or blunted objects, this means the livestock usually go to town on your fences and gates. Thus you need to make sure it's sufficiently proof against animals.

After ensuring a strong enough gate, all that's left to do is secure it with some sort of closing mechanism.

Gate tied with string
We hate string

Sure, using string is easy and time-honoured. If you're running a farm, you've got string not only lying around but probably in your pocket. It even gives the place that down-home look. Unfortunately tying things shut with string always seems to create more grief than it mitigates.

Invariably the knot gets stuck and you have to cut it apart. And that's when you find that, for the first time in months, you don't have any string in your pocket. Or it rots and breaks. Or it gets chewed on -- and breaks. Or it just plain breaks. And all this tying and un-tying has to be done with bare hands while it's freezing rain. Why would you be out in the freezing rain? Because it's an emergency of course, and you don't have time to fight with knots and rips and snags while half the herd escapes and tramples the neighbour's prized collection of something-more-valuable-than-sheep.

Even more fun is the quick-fix. You know when you go to swing open a gate and it pivots about its horizontal axis and falls to the ground because someone didn't hang it properly on hinges but tied the end with a *single* piece of string. And then half the ewes get in with the rams before your carefully selected breeding time. This is usually when the guns come out.

The correct answer is: String is for bales and the post office.

Try to avoid using string for most things on the farm. It's a half measure. And a half measure is worth a thousand curse words.

Gate with hook Gate with clasp
Here are our next two contestants

Okay, you've got the drill and you're going to do this properly. Your first impulse will be to do something straight-forward like a hook-and-eye or a clasp, as shown above. They are durable and strong.

These work well in the city. Rural gates, however, are much more mobile. Between pushy animals, annual freezing, and occasional tractor accidents, the posts shift often. This means you constantly have to adjust or completely re-seat the hardware so that it slots into the eye. Also, you can't work them easily with a gloved hand in the winter. So you get cold hands, and gloves dropped into cold water, and wasted time.

Some animals even learn to open the simple hook and eye arrangement.

So what does work?

Gate with chain and peg
Here you have it: chain and peg

Flexible, all-weather, and sturdy

Back to the Legends page

Back to homepage

Copyright © 2000-2010 by Craig Routledge.
All rights reserved.