Fencing ranks right up there when it comes to ranking least favourite pastimes on the farm and Erickson farmer Adele Popp is no exception.
But Popp was happy to pass along some of the things she’s learned about fencing as part of the South Parkland Beef Seminar pasture tour for women last week.
She admits, however, her first thought upon being asked to do a demonstration was, “the electric fence, is it my friend or foe?”
Popp grew up on a Saskatchewan grain farm and had little experience with fencing until she and husband, John came back to his family’s farm about 13 years ago. With John also working full time off the farm, she had to learn how to fence largely by trial and error.
The dread of fencing seemed widespread among the 15 participants, especially when it came to electric fences. “I have an electric fence but I don’t really understand it,” said one participant.
But with rotational grazing, bale-and swath-grazing systems becoming more prevalent, both temporary and permanent fencing are becoming a bigger part of the regular routine.
Grounding is the most important part of an electric fence system, says Popp. She uses two-metre-long galvanized steel ground rods, which she says are particularly useful for permanent fencing as they are pounded completely into the ground.
Ground rods are most effective in permanently moist ground and in dry years she has even gone out and watered them.
Spacing is also important. She recommends rods be spaced evenly about three feet apart. For example with an 18-joule fencer, she would use around three ground rods per three joules of stored energy.
“If you notice the power going down try adding more ground rods,” suggests Popp, adding it’s best to use galvanized clamps to connect them.
High-quality tensile wire is essential, says Popp, who uses a sturdy 12 gauge for permanent fencing. She often uses aircraft wire for temporary fences, as it’s a reasonable cost and seems to work well.
She has tried tape or twine that has the electrical wire wound into it. It has the advantage of higher visibility than bare wire, but she found it was less reliable. “Over time I found the wire inside the tape or twine breaks,” she said. “It’s not my favourite.”
Overtightening the wire can dislodge the brace post, says Popp. She likes to make sure the wire has just a small amount of give when the cattle touch it.
Popp uses a combination of solar-powered and plug-in electric fence systems around the farm. The largest puts out a hefty 36 joules of power, which is capable of powering around 200 miles of fence. One thing she really values is the portable remote that shows the amperage level, automatically senses faults in the fence, and displays an arrow to indicate the direction of the fault.
Solar-powered fencers require a deep cycle battery, and it’s always a good idea to have a second backup battery charged and ready to go, says Popp. To determine the correct angle for the solar panel Popp sets a pencil or nail in the centre of the panel at noon; if it’s at the optimum angle there should be no shadow.
With rotational and bale-grazing systems now in use on the farm, Popp finds herself doing a lot more temporary cross-fencing than in the past. The job is made easier thanks to the step-in insulators she purchased with help matching funds through a cross-fencing program offered through the Little Saskatchewan River Conservation District.
Popp prefers using wire reels as the plastic ones tend to crack in colder weather. Her current favourite design came from 7-L Livestock in Langruth. It’s a sturdy, heavy-duty reel that can easily be hung on a wire fence or a wooden board and has a handy attachment that allows Popp to use a cordless drill to wind the wire up rather than hand cranking.
The problem of carrying power through gates and under roads was a common one with many of the participants, and all had found various ways of dealing with it, from using a coated, insulated underground wire to burying galvanized wire inside PVC pipe. No one method seemed to work better than another.
“I lose a lot of power under every road,” said one.
“The important thing is finding a method that works best for you,” says Popp.
Training animals to respect the electric fence is also crucial, says Popp. “If they have never seen an electric fence before I usually get them into a smaller area and juice it up nice and hot so they quickly figure it out,” she says. “Once they are used to it, the fence becomes as much a psychological barrier as a physical one.”
Many of the participants had different training methods for young animals, which included attaching dampened socks, aluminum foil or cut-up soft drink cans to the fence to encourage the cattle to investigate the electric fence for the first time.
Finally Popp mentioned troubleshooting.
“If there’s no power in the fence the first thing you’ll need is a portable fence tester to try and pinpoint the fault,” says Popp, who adds she usually checks the battery on the solar system first before heading out along the fenceline. She’s also had instances where cattle have chewed through the battery cables or dislodged the solar panel, so she recommends placing the equipment on the other side of the fence.
Popp will be the first to admit that fencing still isn’t her favourite job on the farm, but it can be made a lot easier by investing in good-quality materials from the outset.
One of the first lessons Popp learned was that buying cheap materials is a false economy that ends up costing much more in time and labour. “You do get what you pay for,” says Popp. “To do it properly may be painful at first. But it pays in the long run.”