Simple is Best for Rotational Grazing Fencing
When it comes to using temporary fencing for rotational grazing, rancher Gary Howie says the less complicated the better. Putting up fence can prove challenging for those new to the task and, even more so, for those learning on their own.
Howie quickly learned this fact when he began his stint in ranching in western South Dakota about five years ago. A newcomer to the lifestyle at a time when many of his counterparts were preparing for retirement, his saving grace was the fact he was a blank slate with no preconceived ideas of how things should be done.
"What we were doing was crude rotational grazing at the time," says Howie. "We bought some cheap wire and cheap reels. We would divide the big pastures in thirds and leave cattle on them for a week or two."
Howie notes, however it was not all smooth sailing, "When we started I had two helpers. I think it took us about four hours or so to put up half a mile of fence. I quickly realized this wouldn't work. Everything was far more complicated than it needed to be."
Since that day, Howie has been on a mission to simplify his fencing routine as much as possible. Today, he runs his approximately 300 head of cattle across a 4,000-acre spread. Pastures are subdivided using temporary fencing, often into 20 or 30 smaller paddocks, and vary in size with changes in forage availability and stocking rate.
Through research Howie soon learned frequent moves were more advantageous for forage production and animal performance. He began investing in higher quality fencing materials and began to move cattle more frequently. Today, he implements daily moves and hopes to eventually get up to multiple moves per day.
Howie determines the size of paddocks needed according to estimates of the forage amount cattle will require for each day. This is done using a rule of thumb described in Jim Gerrish's book, Kick The Hay Habit. Pastures are rated on a numerical scale for yield. A relatively thin pasture might get scored a 5, a moderate pasture at 10, and a thick pasture at 15.
"If you have a pasture you rate as 10 with moderate density and you are taking off ten inches, that's 100 animal units per acre," says Howie. "Figuring out how many acres you need for the cattle you have then lets you know how long and wide the new strip has to be."
New fence is put up daily in preparation for the next day's move. Howie uses a well-equipped four-wheeler to make set-up and take-down of temporary fence quick and easy. Using binoculars, he identifies a land feature in the distance as his end point. He then drives along in-line with the feature stopping methodically to set posts, noting it's not vital that every fence line be perfectly straight.
"On the four-wheeler, I can tell from the sound I am doing five miles per hour and I just count 1001, 1002, all the way up to 1005 or 1006," says Howie. "That way I know I've gone about 50 to 60 feet."
Post spacing is varied according to terrain - 50 to 70 feet for flat areas, closer for hilly terrain. While he uses a variety of post types including pigtail and fiberglass step-in, Howie has found pigtail posts to be the most reliable. A side-benefit to these post styles is insulators are not required.
A piece of square steel tubing is mounted on the front left-hand side of Howie's four-wheeler. Here he mounts his 3:1 ratio geared reel. As he drives along, the reel turns to release polybraid wire which Howie runs through each post. A brake installed on the reel mount helps to keep the reel from free spooling. Once the fence line is set-up, reels are hung on Howie's self-designed steel end posts which feature a special holder to hook on reels.
The 3:1 geared ratio on Howie's reels allow one turn of the reel to wind up three times the amount of wire of a non-geared reel. This helps make spooling up polybraid wire quick and efficient during fence take-down as well.
Three 6-joule energizers carry electric current through the polybraid wire intertwined with stainless steel conductors surrounding Howie's pastures. He runs his chargers off deep-cycle marine 12-volt batteries, switching them out for freshly-charged ones every other day. A one-wire ground system completes the circuit and ensures animals receive an electric shock when in contact with the fence.
Howie's current fencing system using temporary fencing exclusively which offers the advantages of flexibility in changing paddock sizes and quick, easy set-up and take-down. However, he has plans to upgrade his fencing with a high-tensile perimeter fence and lanes in the near future. In addition, he hopes to install solar panels to trickle-charge energizer batteries. All of these changes will assist Howie in his quest to continually make his fencing regime even simpler.
For those new to the fencing game for managed grazing, Howie says it's important to realize, "It takes a while to get acclimated and familiar with what you are doing and make some progress."
There's an initial trial-and-error period everyone goes through. Luckily, there are ways to make the learning curve slightly more manageable. Howie recommends seeking out the help of others versed in rotational grazing fencing practices. This could be a neighboring rancher, grazing consultant, extension agent, or even a Facebook friend or discussion group. In addition, there are a plethora of YouTube videos which address various fencing concerns.
In the end, producers must remember fencing skill and knowledge will take time to build. The important thing, says Howie, is to never stop asking yourself, "How can I make this less complicated?"
Authored by Jesse Bussard a agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.