PHOTO: Pat O'Malley/Flickr
Of all the infrastructure you have on your farm, fencing is possibly the most important. Farm fences serve so many purposes:
- keeping livestock in pastures
- keeping predators out of pastures or gardens
- beautifying your landscape
- providing privacy for your property
If your fencing fails just once in the livestock or predator categories, you’ll never take it for granted again. There are many types of fence that you can choose from, depending on your fencing’s use, your price range and your aesthetic preferences.
How To Choose The Right Fence Type
If you jump right into shopping for farm fences without having a good understanding of its purpose and your limitations, you can easily become overwhelmed by all of the fencing choices. Having a fencing game plan before you head to the store will save you many headaches, and knowing the answers to these questions can help narrow your choices.
What Is The Fence’s Purpose?
Your farm fences need to be sturdy if you’re keeping livestock in or keeping predators out. Cattle, horses and pigs need fencing they can’t knock over. Sheep and goats need fencing they can’t climb. Poultry fencing needs to be high enough that the birds can’t fly over and of a material that they can’t land on top of to jump out. Fencing that is purely for landscaping or privacy purposes needs to have more of an aesthetic consideration, but doesn’t need to be as strong.
What Is The Terrain Surrounding The Fencing?
Some fence types will do better on certain terrains than others. For example, wire-strand and tape fencing will be easier to install in hilly areas than wire-mesh fencing.
Will I Hire Someone To Install The Fencing?
Farm-fence installation is hard work. Installing wooden plank or split-rail fencing so that it’s level and strong is more complicated than you might think it should be. Wire fencing installation might be a less-difficult task, but it still requires some skill. Temporary-fence building is a skill you can learn in an afternoon of working with someone more experienced.
How Well Can I Maintain The Fence?
All types of fence require some maintenance. Wire strands and tape will continually need to be stretched. Wood will need to be repaired. Woven-wire fences and welded-wire fences need to be monitored to be sure they are strong. The Iowa State University Extension finds woven-wire fencing is the most expensive to maintain, while poly-wire fencing is the least expensive to maintain.
Are There Any Zoning Or Neighborhood Requirements?
This question is less of an issue in the country than it is in the suburbs. It’s worth exploring your county fencing requirements before you purchase materials to be sure there are no aesthetic, height or other conditions that need to be met.
What Is My Fencing Budget?
Prepare yourself for this one. Like any construction project, fencing purchases rarely come out on budget by the time you factor in the full length of fence, gates, hardware, labor and more. Purchase the best fence you can afford, but build some cushion into your budget for surprises.
There are more farm fence styles now than ever before. You can find whole books dedicated to the ins and outs of fencing, but here are the basics of popular fence styles.
Barbed Wire Fencing
Barbed wire is a traditional type of fence. It’s easy to find in farm-supply stores and costs costs about $1.48 per foot, including fence posts and installation. Keep in mind, though, it’s a difficult type of fence to work with. If you’ve ever tried handling barbed wire fence without leather gloves or tried to unwind barbed wire fence that has been poorly rolled up, you understand.
Barbed-wire fencing is strong and long-lasting, so it’s most appropriate for cattle or bison. It’s dangerous for horses, because if a horse spooks and runs through the fence, the injuries it can cause to the animal can be immense. Barbed wire can be an appropriate perimeter fence when set up as five strands spaced close together.
Woven Wire Fencing
Also known as hog fence, field fence, no-climb fence, wire-mesh fence or box-wire fence, woven wire is a common choice for most livestock. Animals cannot climb it, run through it or, when appropriately sized, get their hooves stuck in it. You can find woven wire in varying heights and square openings. It’s often buried 6 inches in the ground to prevent predators from digging in and pigs from digging out, and is a popular perimeter fence for keeping out predators.
The top of a woven-wire fence can be weighed down and bent by heavy, icy snow loads or by a large animal reaching over the top to graze on the other side of the fence. A wooden fence board or single strand of electric-wire fence or barbed-wire fence installed just above the top of the woven-wire fence will add a little height to this fencing and keep animals from trying to reach over the fencing to graze on the other side. A woven-wire fence with a single strand of barbed wire around the top will cost $1.93 per foot.
Welded Wire Fencing
Welded-wire fencing is less commonly livestock fields. Instead, it’s used for protecting gardens and trees from hungry animals, closing openings in tube gates that animals can wiggle through and enclosing chicken runs. While woven-wire fencing is made using strong connections of twisted wire to create each square, welded-wire fencing is less durable because it’s constructed by welding pieces of wire together to create squares. This is not a fence that will contain a strong animal that’s trying to get out.
Welded-wire fence can be found at many hardware stores and farm-supply stores, and the cost varies by brand and height. You might find it for $1.30 per foot, more or less.
High-Tensile Wire Fencing
High-tensile wire is a strong wire fence that’s stretched to the max—you could think of it as a high-tension fence. This fencing can be electrified for pigs and other animals that need a reminder that your fencing is not to be tested. Multi-strand high-tensile electric fence is also appropriate for perimeter fencing.
You can expect to pay $1.24 per foot for nonelectrified high-tensile fencing and $0.98 per foot for electrified high-tensile fencing. The electrified fence cost is lower because they assume fewer strands of fence when it’s electrified. This does not factor in cost of electricity.
Electric Wire Fencing
Electric wire fencing is most effective when it’s high-tensile fencing that has been electrified. If a high-tensile fence is not an option for you, it’s possible to run a strand of simple electric wire, not stretched with tension, across fence posts. This is not ideal, as it is more of a psychological barrier than an actual physical barrier for animals. If an animal wants to run through a wire that’s not stretched, it can do so, causing damage to itself and the fencing. Non-tensile electric-wire fencing is not a good choice for perimeter fencing, though it can be used to divide pastures and for temporary fencing that is moved regularly.
A strand of non-tensile electric-wire fencing is often used more effectively in conjunction with other fence types: on the top of the inside of a fence to keep livestock from leaning on the fence or reaching over the fence, on the bottom of the inside of a fence to keep pigs from rooting too close to the fence and digging themselves out, and on the top or bottom of the outside of the fence to keep predators from entering.
Electric fencing of any kind requires an electrical source, such as a solar-powered charger or an energizer that runs off of power from an outlet. It’s vital to keep electric fencing electrified, because if animals test the fence once and find that it’s not hot, they will continue to test it and could eventually find a way out. Check electric fencing’s charge every day—twice a day, if possible. Electric fence costs approximately $1,600 per mile, or $0.30 per foot.
Electric Net Fencing
Electric-net fencing is a dream for setting up temporary paddocks in a rotational-grazing system, though electric-net fencing should not be considered as a perimeter fence. This fencing is visible, and as long as it’s electrified, it’s not climbable. It’s usually effective for keeping in poultry, sheep, goats and cattle, and keeping out predators.
A perk of electric-net fencing is that it’s self contained—the fence is attached to the posts, and it’s easy to put up, take down and bundle together for storage. A downside is that the fence is subject to shorting out, particularly when it’s set up in an area that’s full of brush, tall grass and uneven ground. There are a number of brands of electric-net fencing, and each varies in height and price. Expect to pay somewhere around $1 per foot.
Poly Tape/Polywire Fencing
Poly-tape or polywire fencing are usually electrified and may also be called electric-tape fence, electric-braid fence or rope fence. Poly-tape and poly-wire fences are inexpensive, though they are subject to fraying and damage. These are not suitable for perimeter fencing but are easy to install and take down as temporary fencing for rotational grazing. Polywire fence and poly-tape fence are lightweight, so they don’t require heavy-duty posts for installation. These are not predator-tight and aren’t usually used for poultry. They are, however, the most economical at approximately $0.20 per foot.
Underground Dog Fencing
Underground dog fencing might not be something you’d think of as traditional farm fencing, but it has its place on a farm. Underground dog fencing is a buried wire that emits a radio frequency. Your dog wears a collar that picks up this frequency, and when the dog gets close to the buried-fence perimeter, the collar first emits a warning beep or vibration and then gives the dog a shock. These are also called invisible fences, because unless you install a physical barrier, you don’t see the fence above ground.
You have to train your dog to respect and understand the fence when it is installed. Underground dog fences only keep dogs in—they do not keep other animals out. Another negative to invisible fence is the need for power: If your power goes out, so does the fence; plus, you have to be sure the battery is always fresh in your dog’s collar.
The cost of invisible fencing varies by brand, the area you live in and the complexity of installing a fence underground in your yard.
Wooden fencing is a great option if you’re looking for a fence as a landscaping feature, if you need a nice perimeter fence or if you’re containing most livestock. There are multiple wooden-fence types to choose from: post and rail, split rail, picket, wood panel and more.
Wooden fencing is expensive, and it requires regular upkeep in the form of painting and replacing pieces that have weathered and split. It’s possible for animals to break the fence boards and posts, too—particularly if you have two groups of horses that are challenging each other over a fence line. A strand of wire strung around the top inside of the fence perimeter is helpful in keeping livestock away from the fence. Prices change throughout the year as lumber inventories change.
Fence Post Options
With your fencing type decided, you need to find the right type of fence post for your farm. It’s likely that you’ll need a combination of these post types, depending on what kind of fencing material you’re stringing up between them.
Metal T-posts are ubiquitous—you can find them at any farm-supply store, though finding the height you want (from 4- to 8-feet tall) might take some searching. With a fence-post driver, T-posts are easy to install and a great upper-body workout. Unlike wood posts, they’re easy to move and reuse elsewhere. If you’re doing your own fence installation, metal T-posts are almost certainly the way to go.
T-posts are good for installing barbed-wire, electric-wire, poly-tape or poly-wire fence. You need plastic insulators for these installations, and you can move the insulators up and down the fence post to whatever height is necessary. With a metal bracket, you can conveniently hang reels of poly-tape fence and polywire fence from the T-post.
Metal T-posts are not as sturdy as wooden fence posts for use as corner posts, though they are better than plastic fence posts for this purpose. Eventually, metal T-posts will rust and need to be replaced.
Treated-wood posts purchased from a lumber yard or farm-supply store are perhaps the most versatile type of fence post for farm fences. Treated wood is not allowed for use under USDA National Organic Program rules, though, so if you plan to go for Organic Certification, be sure you understand the fencing standards. The chemicals used to treat the wood make the fence post resistant to rot (always a concern of wood that’s exposed to the elements) but aren’t NOP-approved.
Treated-wood fence posts are used for all types of permanent farm fences:
- wood fencing
- barbed-wire fencing
- woven-wire fencing
- high-tensile fencing
- welded-wire fencing
Usually found in 6- to 8-foot heights, treated-wood fence posts can be found at lumber yards, farm-supply stores and many hardware stores.
The fencing material is secured to the wood post using screws (for wood slats) or staples (for other types of fencing material). If used with electrified farm fences, you’ll need insulators to secure the wire to the post.
Wooden fence posts are heavy-duty, but when they do break, they’re cumbersome to replace. Installation requires a post-hole digger and a lot of strength and patience or a tractor with a PTO-driven auger. You need a 1- to 2-foot hole to secure a wooden fence post in the ground.
Locust posts are an alternative to treated-wood fence posts, as locust wood is durable, even when not treated with chemicals. Black locust fence posts can last 20 years or more, according to the University of Georgia Extension—among the longest life expectancy of all the natural-wood posts.
Locust posts may be more difficult to find than treated-wood fence posts, as not every farm-supply store, lumber yard and hardware store will carry these.
Step-in posts are the way to go for setting up temporary fencing, such as electric-wire, polywire and poly-tape paddocks. They’re useful for adding stability to electric-net fencing, as well, such as in corners or across uneven ground. These plastic posts are easy to step into the ground. (There’s usually a metal stake that secures the fence.) You can move them, transport them and store them easily, as step-in posts are lightweight and don’t take up much space. You can set your fencing strands at multiple heights using the built-in insulators on the posts.
Step-in posts are more inexpensive than other types of fence posts, but they are less durable. They are not suitable for permanent fence installations.
The last piece in the farm-fence puzzle is your gate. The width of your gate will depend on the equipment you want to move in and out of the area, such as a utility tractor with a manure spreader versus a walk-behind tractor with a tiller attachment. The type of gate you choose also depends on what you’re keeping in—or out—of your fenced-in enclosure.
Tube gates are among the strongest farm-fence gates you’ll find. There are lighter-weight aluminum gates and heavier steel gates. They’re safe for livestock—no sharp edges for animals to get caught on—though an ambitious animal can bend the gate if it runs into it or jumps on top of it. If you’re housing young or small livestock, you can secure woven-wire fencing or welded-wire fencing to the gate to prevent animals from entering or leaving through the gate openings.
Tube gates are available at any farm store and often come in a various colors and sizes, ranging from 3 to 16 feet long. They require some installation skill, as getting the gates to hang level is tricky. Once you master this skill, though, you can hang any tube gate on a wooden post without much thought.
If you really want to spoil yourself, look into gate openers for tube gates. These are nice options for entrance/exit gates to your property so you’re not having to jump in and out of your truck every time you come and go from your farm.
Wooden gates are nice DIY farm projects. You can build your own out of reclaimed materials or new wood in any length and height you want. Like wood farm fences, wooden gates require upkeep to prevent rotting and require repairs when they split. Wooden gates can be more economical than tube gates because you’re in control of the material costs.
Gate handles are an easy way to make a gate out of your electric fence, barbed-wire fence, poly-tape fence or polywire fence. These are especially nice for temporary-fence paddocks so you’re not trying to move a heavy wooden or metal gate from place to place. Gate handles are the weak point in your wire- or poly-fence system—the point most likely to break if challenged by an animal—so keep an eye on their condition and replace them when they’re showing wear.
Tools for Building and Maintaining Fences
Even if you are hiring someone to build your farm fences, you need to have basic tools on hand for the inevitable maintenance involved with fencing systems. Get these now—do not wait until you actually have a need for them—to save yourself the stress of a fencing emergency. Some tools you want to have on hand include:
- leather gloves, especially for barbed-wire fences
- claw hammer for prying staples out of wooden fence posts
- post-hole digger, because you’re going to need to dig a post hole by hand eventually
- wire cutters for all types of wire fence
- fence tensioner for high-tensile fence
- come-along tool for high-tensile fence
- fence-post driver for installing metal T-posts
- tamping tool for tamping the ground around a wooden fence post that you just set
- fence pliers—possibly the most useful tool in your fencing arsenal for pulling staples, pounding staples, cutting wire fence, splicing wire fence, twisting wire fence and more
- electric-fence tester, because having a tool to gauge the strength of your electric fence is always better than testing it yourself!
- extra step-in fence posts
- extra fence wire
- extra wood-fence boards
- extra wood-fence screws
The fencing options and combination of fence types you can have on your farm are endless. With some research, a careful look at your budget and discussions with other small-scale farmers, you’ll figure out the types of fence you need for the livestock, gardens and landscaping on your farm.