Fencing technology has drastically improved over the last 15 years, but breaking out of the old barbed wire fencing mode - lots of posts, several wires, and stretching the wire as tight as a fiddle string - gets people in trouble right away.
The challenge is, with the right fence design and constructed in the right location, coupled with good pasture management principles, a well-built electric fence will earn you money and not cost you money.
Increased pasture subdivisions can stockpile forage for extended wintertime grazing, save forage for early spring pastures, rest/rotate those hard hit areas, change livestock distribution to graze previously un-grazable areas, and stop animals from second biting plant regrowth that depletes root growth...and the list goes on.
Is it that much cheaper? A conventional barbed wire fence can cost up to $1.50-per-foot-plus labor and material. A two-wire, permanent, smooth-wire electrical fence costs somewhere between 10 to 20 cents per foot depending on terrain.
That's a huge savings. I know certain ranchers who hate electric fencing, but are learning to live with it, because with today's livestock prices they cannot afford to build conventional fences.
To successfully make the transition over to new fencing technology, you need a very good understanding of how effective electrical fencing works. First off, this kind of fence works only on the brain of the animal, that is, the remembering power of the shock they receive.
Don't think of this fence as a barrier, but as a psychological fence.
In other words, you need to knock their socks off (so-to-speak) the very first time they touch a smooth wire. Then you have the reverse problem of pushing a barbed-wire fence and shying away from any smooth wire.
Make gates really big for hot fences -- like 30-feet-plus - because with narrow, 12-foot-gates a well-trained animal to a good electric fence will be reluctant to even get near the gate, much less walk right through it.
There are two ways an electric fence works. All hot-wire system. When your soils are deep and somewhat damp it produces a high conductive system to shock animals through their feet. The electrons must make a complete circuit to receive the maximum shock. The electricity passes from the wire, though the animal, out their feet, through the ground and back to the ground rods. If anything is weak in the circuit they will not get a controllable shock.
The advantage to having decent soils is you can actually get away with a single strand of wire that greatly reduces your fence-building cost. You run into problems with very dry, hard soils, or even frozen ground, as the electricity will not flow very well with these types of soils and produces a weak shock.
The second kind of electric fence is a hot-ground system. A ground wire or wires are strung along just under the hot wires.
Another great invention is the use of in-line fence strainers that put tension on each wire. I like to use the kind of in-line strainers that eliminate cutting the wire. You just slip this wheel device onto the slack fence wire and start winding up the wire with this wench, using a special in-line strainer tool. As you start to pull the wire up tight, watch the wire's slack between the line post.
When the wire pulls level, STOP, the wire tension is just right. What's the matter with a tight fence? I once showed a rancher's fencing crew how to build a one-post fence corner and later I found out that the wood posts pulled out of the ground. Why? Well, you see, each year, some overenthusiastic, big-armed, tough cowboy, would come by and tighten the in-line strainer so tight that you could play "Home, Home on the Range" with the fence wire. Over time, this would eventually pull any strong post right out of the ground.
You want the electric fence to act like a rubber band. When something runs into the wire, you don't want to break all the insulators or knock posts out of the ground. If the posts are spread apart far enough - 80- to 100-feet-plus - the wire will just bend to the ground and pop back up.
Labor tips: - I now use my hydraulic post driver to drive in all line posts, even the steel posts. It's fast, easy and saves me from backaches.
I keep telling folks to try one wire, but boy is that a hard sell. I usually recommend cheapening up the fence by reducing the number of wires and let the shocking power of the electric fence do all the work.
Knock their socks off - This is where you don't go cheap, but buy the best, most powerful electric fence energizer you can afford, remembering that one day you may be shocking through a lot of tall, wet vegetation.
These fences only work on the shocking power to the animal's nervous system. It's not the number of wires or how tight the fence, it's the strong pain of shocking power that gives you control over the animals.
"A wimpy fence charger gives you a wimpy fence." Don't skimp here because this is where most fences fail. Build a strong, simple fence and hook it up to a great big fence charger.
Your fence charger should be low-impedance, come from a dependable supplier, and have a warranty and replaceable components. It's also handy to find sales folks with an extra charger they can lend to you while yours is being repaired. Expect some breakdowns, especially from lightning. Certain fence suppliers offer lightning protection with their warranties.
The number one problem with failed electrical fences is improper grounding. Lots of fencers, including myself, still think you can skimp when it comes to adequate earth grounding. What we must all learn to do, is install several ground rods, at least three, that are 6 to 8 feet long, galvanized, and attached with good ground clamps. The electricity must complete a full circle back to the charger through the ground. Poor grounding gives weak shocks. Think of the ground rods as radio antennas - the more reception, the better the shock.
The last fence job that I completed, I was out of conventional ground rods, so I looked in my junk pile, and pulled out a 3-inch, galvanized, 9-feet long, heavy walled pipe. My post driver reaches up nine feet, so I was able to drive this whole pipe deep into the ground. This made an excellent ground rod. Nifty, huh?
For the folks looking for the cheapest ground rods, the cheapest that I know about is to simply hook up the ground side of your fence energizer to an existing barbed wire fence that has steel posts in it. I know that Canada has a shortage of steel "T' posts, but this grounding idea sure works well in the States.
Electric fences require less labor, are safer for wildlife, easier to build and maintain and cost much less than conventional fences. The weakest link in using this technology is learning a different method of animal control. These fences are psychological fences, they work on the remembering power of the animal's brain and are not barrier fences.
Your fence charger should be low-impedance, come from a dependable supplier, and have a warranty and replaceable components. Please buy one that puts out lots of power. During a rainy year, you may have lots of plant growth touching the wires. That's when you will need extra power to shock through the heavy, wet vegetation.
Don't be afraid to try electric smooth wire fencing. Find a good fence supplier and learn some of the tricks of the trade. I know folks who hate electric fencing, but their pocketbook is not big enough to build a conventional fence, which may cost up to $1 per foot or more while an electric fence costs less than one-half to one-third of that.
The next time your animals get in a fight with the neighbor's bull and tear down a fence line, remember that most educated livestock will not touch a wire, the second time, with 5,000 volts running through it.