What Type Of Fence Do I Need?

September 25, 2018

What Type of Fence Do I need?

It's a good question and one that needs to be answered when considering whether to start a sheep or goat enterprise. But the answer depends on a few variables.I once overheard a simple test to see if a fence will hold goats. You simply fill a bucket with water and toss it against the fence. If any water goes through, the fence won't hold goats.While that test gives me a good chuckle, the truth is it depends on the goats or sheep. Fencing for small ruminants does not have to resemble the border wall President Trump wants to build. The first key to containing sheep and goats inexpensively is preconditioning.

If the stock have been trained to respect electric fencing, then they will be much easier to contain. This statement seems redundant however it is quite profound. If the sheep or goats, you begin your operation with, have been trained to respect electric fence. They will give you a lot more grace as you learn what type of fencing works best for your operation. 

If in contrast, the sheep or goats have been trained through preconditioning to not respect electric fence or any other kind of fence (the proverbial wandering herd) than you will soon find yourself a firm believer in my humorous goat fencing proverb.

If goats or sheep have been trained to be escape artists – YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO CHANGE THEM. Do not try, do not attempt. Save yourself the frustration, cost, and agony. There was a reason they were only $50 on craigslist and it wasn’t because the owner just didn’t know what they were worth. 

The second key to containing sheep and goats is spark on the fence. This assumes of course that you are using electric fence. You should. Sheep and goats will destroy my rubbing on or just glide through even the best new 6 wire barb fence. They will also destroy and also go through, over, or under a new woven wire fence. Just two electric wires can prevent all that destruction and frustration but I will cover that more later. 

Back to spark. Assuming your stock are preconditioned to using electric fence, a spark of 4.5 KV should do the trick. I have heard producers say up to 8 KV as a minimum. I would suggest that the real problem in that situation is that the producer has stock that really are not broke to electric fence. 

You HAVE TO maintain that spark. Unlike a good hearted herd of old momma cows that will respect a dummy wire without spark for a few days to a week. Sheep and goats seem to have a built in spark detector. If the spark is off for an hour (sometimes less) your goats will be out. Your sheep may be out (their spark detector is not as refined as the goats and sometimes requires a whole day to realize there is no spark on the fence).

Also keep in mind that you will not contain sheep or goats that are hungry. No matter what the spark is! I have truthfully joked that you can’t graze sheep or goats on a field too long – they just leave. 

So, what type of fencing do I use to contain my sheep and goats?
For external fences I really like a five wire electric fence with the bottom wire at 9 inches. Wire pattern 9, 16, 22, 30, 42. (16in wire as a ground). This fence is low cost, looks good, and will do a great job containing stock (as long as there is spark). 

However, on most of the farms I graze, there was already existing perimeter fences. These have ranged from new six barb to broken down, barely patched, almost nonexistent barb or woven wire fences. For both the new and old my solution is simple, inexpensive, and very effective. 

I use a stand off wire. Except I don’t use the clumbsy metal standoffs. They are expensive, fail often, and do a poor job at maintaining the correct wire height. They also don’t work at all on junky fences.  Instead, I use ½ in pre drilled coated fiberglass rods and drive them about 1 foot away from the existing fence. I then pull two high tensile wires parallel with the existing fence. One at 10 inches and the other at 20. I clip the wire to the posts using cotter keys (make sure you get pre drilled posts) and use the same corner posts as the existing fence. This builds very fast, doesn’t cost much, and perfectly contains my stock. 

Please note. ½ in posts are flimsy and will bend. I typically set them at 30 foot centers and add more posts to keep bottom wire height correct with terrain changes. At corners I use a 1in fiberglass post (without wire clips) to set between the high tensile wires and the barb wires as they are quite close at this point.  The parallel fence will not be perfectly straight and it isn’t supposed to be. I don’t even clear the brush out of an old worn out fence. I just pull the line right against it and go on. The point of this system is not to construct the most eye appealing fence. It is to cost effectively contain sheep and goats to make a great profit. 

Why it works. While they could easily jump over a 20 in wire, they don’t want to land on an old junky fence. Similarly they could probably find a high spot on my low wire and go under but they have to bend themselves in a U shape to do this. They can’t do that if there is a second fence behind the electric wire, and if they try they will get a well grounded shock. 

My general rule for this working on an old run down fence is the “calf test”. If your existing perimeter fence would stop a calf (not of course a spooked baby calf – I do not believe there is any fence that would stop one) then adding the two off set electric wires should be adequate to contain sheep and goats. If not, then you need to replace the fence or just build a new minimum 4 strand electric fence inside the existing fence. 

Now onto interior fencing. If your sheep or goats were to get out of an interior paddock it is far less of a problem than for them to go onto the neighbor’s pasture, corn field, orchard, flower garden etc. For that reason interior fencing can be even less intense than exterior fencing (which wasn’t all that intense anyway). 

I like to have 10-30 acre permanent paddocks for the sheep and goats. I use a three or four wire electric fence to contain them and it works quite nicely. I use 1in posts on 30 foot centers. Three wire spacing is 10, 20, 32. Four wire spacing is 10, 16, 22, 32 (16 in wire used as a ground). These are relatively inexpensive to construct. Mostly we just added two wires to existing 1 wire cow pasture divisions. If I am building a new fence, I prefer the four wire because of the ground but it is not essential. 

Alternative Interior fencing options. Electronetting can work for both internal or external fencing. It is just laborious to take up and down. In my experience it still needs to carry a spark (eventually some of my stock just walked through it without a spark). It is also quite expensive. If you are on a property you will likely have for several years I would just use high tensile wire and save yourself a lot of work putting up and taking down netting. 

I have successfully used 3 wire poly fence to subdivide fields. I used Obrian’s multi lug posts and it worked well. The downside is the time it takes to set up and take down 3 independent poli-wires. Time consuming (probably more a mental block than a physical one) but it is effective. There is a four wire self contained fencing system call Smart Fence from Gallagher. I have used it extensively for 4+ years. It works very well to quickly build a four wire fence and largely prevents the tangling that occurs with 3 poly lines. However it is fairly expensive and after four years a lot of the plastic on the systems is starting to fail. That being said it is about twice as fast as the 3 poli wire option to both set up and take down. 

After having a discussion with another sheep producer about “what can’t be done” I embarked to train my sheep to a single line of poliwire fencing. It took 3 weeks of training but it worked. That has been a huge time and labor saver! I will save the details of that story for another article but believe me if you are willing to work at it, it can be done!

Fencing a farm for sheep and goats should not be a wallet breaking process. Start with stock that are conditioned to electric fence.  Use inexpensive high tensile offsets and get creative on your internal fencing. Always keep a spark! Remember the point of getting sheep and goats was to convert your “weeds” into extremely high value protein to add an additional profit stream to your farm as well as cut costs (like mowing and brush control). The purpose is NOT to create a show farm; so who cares what it looks like as long as it works. 

Don’t be daunted by the thought of endless fencing. Build a few paddocks quickly and inexpensively and get some sheep or goats!

David Boatright
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