BY PAUL DORRANCE
I have to be honest — I struggled mightily to write this article. I just felt like there was very little I could do to make the tools I use on a daily basis “sexy.” I mean … who really cares about posts, twine, and reels?! Nothing I have is fancy. I am a simple man at heart and the equipment I use day-to-day reflects that.
As I lost a few nights’ sleep over the lack of libido in my grazing operation, I had an epiphany: the sexy is in the simplicity itself. In a world where technology is booming and new gadgets are released every week, the tools and equipment I use every day shine because they are based on a set of tried and true concepts. At their core, they are:
- Multipurpose in nature
- Effective and efficient
- Robust (a.k.a.: farmer proof)
I hope that in these next few minutes I can share some insight into the sexy that exists on my farm, scantily disguised as simplicity.
Fencing Has Come A Long Way
James Anderson wrote in his Essays Relating to Agriculture and Rural Affairs, that “A farmer who has a large pasture should have it divided into 15 or 20 divisions, nearly of equal value: it would please the animal palate to induce them to eat it greedily, and fill their bellies before they thought of roaming about, and thus destroying it with their feet … I am satisfied that in some cases, the actual produce of the same field, by a judicious management in this respect, compared with bad management, may be augmented fourfold in the same season.”
The most important part about that essay is the date. Mr. Anderson penned that essay in 1797! Clearly rotational grazing is not a new concept, but what has changed is the technology that allows us to “induce them to eat it greedily” through pasture division. It has never been easier to practice the art of rotational grazing on our farms. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that most people have no excuse not to adopt some form of rotational grazing. At the basic level, all you need are some step-in posts, electrified twine, a reel for said twine and a connection to an electric shock.
There are a multitude of posts out there, including step-ins, pigtails, stirrups and ring tops, to name just a few. Most are plastic, poly or fiberglass. After trying several brands, including those worthless ones at your big-box “farm” store, I have found that I really like the PowerPost from Premier 1 Supplies. I buy the 48” posts instead of the 35” because you can always use a shorter connection on the taller post, but you can’t create an extra connection out of thin air if you need a taller option for some reason. Early on I bought green posts, which in hindsight was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done … think about it. Nowadays, Premier 1 has adjusted their product for geniuses like me and only sells a gray option, which will at least stand out a little better against the grass when you drop one. Or in my case, when they start bouncing out of the back of my RTV as I race across my pastures at breakneck speed!
The key with posts is that they have to be multi-purpose. Avoid pigtails, which are only good for one species (cow), and go with something that has multiple options for fence height. Even if you only have cows now, you never know what the future holds. The vertical adjustment allows me to use the exact same equipment to contain hogs, cows, sheep, and livestock guardian animals. Chickens I’m still working on … they have proven a little more difficult! The vertical adjustment also allows you to vary the fence height as you move over terrain, bringing it lower as you dip into a valley or higher as you crest a hill.
Now that the posts are in place, what do you string along them to actually make your fence? Fortunately, there are relatively fewer options for the actual fencing compared to the posts. Whether you choose twine, rope or tape, the concept is pretty much the same: a visual barrier of poly material intertwined with flexible wire filament that carries a shock to your animal. Most products are a mixed dark/light color pattern to allow maximum visibility in most conditions. I often need long runs of twine, and so I use the poly twine for my fence; it has served me well.
One way to delineate products is to check for number of filament lines in any given product. For example, Gallagher’s “Turbo Wire” has nine conductive lines running through it, and is therefore able to carry more electricity and make better contact than a competitor’s twine that only has six filaments.
Whatever product you choose, you’ll need a way to carry it around your farm and deploy it for containment. For this purpose, you need a reel. Again, not too much in the way of innovation here. The biggest thing I can say is that you MUST have a geared reel. Normal gearing is 3:1, meaning that each turn of the handle results in 3 revolutions of the reel, which is absolutely necessary to have any shred of efficiency. I typically roll up and unroll an entire section of fence every day during my rotations, and I truly can’t imagine trying to do that with an un-geared reel!
There are some reel options that have knuckle protectors, which are totally unnecessary. You can also purchase them pre-wound with twine, which is fine I suppose. “Loading” your own doesn’t take that long though, and is only done once. Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, a reel is a reel. Do pay attention to how much it holds, as you don’t want to buy a ton of twine and a reel that won’t hold it all. My reels hold 1,650 feet of twine, which is heavy enough that I don’t really want to carry more than that on a daily basis. There are plenty of times that I only need 300 feet, but that works fine and the rest is there waiting for the occasion that you’ll need the entire reel’s worth of fence. Unless your middle name is “Beefcake” or you are into self-punishment, avoid the “Mega” versions that carry 2,600+ feet of twine.
The final step in the process is connecting your fence to the shock that it is designed to carry. For this purpose, you use a very simple alligator clip concept, which has a different name depending on the company you choose. Longer is better … I’ve never been out in the field and said to myself, “shoot, this connection is just a little too long.”
One last word of wisdom on these links: buy twice as many as you think you’ll need. They are relatively inexpensive, and it always seems like I’ve got everything I need to build fence except the part to actually electrify it!
Want to Practice Your Cursing?
If you are familiar with portable fencing options, you are probably starting to ask yourself “well, what about …?” I know, I know. I’m getting there. There is another option besides twine that I have to mention, but cannot recommend: electrified netting. If you don’t curse now, you will. If you already curse occasionally, then you’ll practically be a professional by the time you get done messing with this stuff. If I had to choose between setting up and taking down netting every day or stabbing myself in the eye with an ice pick … I’d need a minute to weigh the pros and cons. I believe that electrified netting was conjured up by the devil himself in an effort to make us lose our religion. It gets caught on everything, is bulky and cumbersome, and seems to have a mind of its own.
The real problem with the netting is that it is so darn … effective. It contains poultry and sheep, protects stock against ground predators, and even comes in an option that theoretically prevents hogs from rooting dirt over it and shorting it out (false advertising by the way — don’t waste your money). The truth of the matter is that netting works, but it is an absolute bear to move around. If you need a semi-permanent solution, are in a high-threat predator scenario or just want the chance to throw out a few f-bombs, then consider netting. Otherwise, join me in keeping your religion and let someone else buy that stuff.
A trend that I’m seeing more and more in rotational grazing circles is the “all-in-one” option. In theory, these systems combine up to four reels, twine, posts and support in a single easy-to-use solution. That said, my epiphany says otherwise. If the sexy is in the simple, then these things are anything but. In the hands of a practiced salesman demonstrating it at your local farm show they may seem easy, but in reality you completely lose the flexibility and multi-purpose benefits that we’ve discussed so far. Will they work in a very specific scenario for a very specific species? Sure, but step outside that narrow view and they become practically useless. Plus they are much flimsier than any brand’s equivalent products; they almost have to be in order to remain semi-portable by an adult.
Electrifying Your Farm Life
All of this effort in building a fence does nothing if it doesn’t ultimately connect to a fencer that will knock the socks off of anything that touches it. Remember, these fences are a psychological barrier only; anything contained within could walk under/over/through it whenever they want! The trick in this game is to make it clear that they don’t want to. I screamed like a little girl the first time I accidentally touched my fence. My dad looked like he was gonna pass out after he brushed against it, resting his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. That’s what you want in a fencer. Name brand really doesn’t matter — just go big. As big as you can afford.
It used to be that a plug-in fencer was the only way you could get that kind of punch, but technology has changed for the better over the past few years. Solar has really come into its own and you can get a strong fencer powered only by our closest star. This has even opened up rotational grazing options to the Plain People, as many Bishops in Plain communities have permitted the use of solar power in specific instances.
Regardless of which type of fencer you use, you will probably need a tester of some sort … unless you have a 10-year-old son around the house who still takes your dare every time you offer it. My advice, in keeping with the trend of this article, is to go simple here. Does it benefit you to know which way a short is in the line? Maybe. Do you need a remote that turns the fencer on and off from anywhere in your field? As cool as that is, not likely. In the spirit of maintaining a psychological barrier to contain my animals, I really just want to know the amount of voltage carried on the line. If the number is 0.0, then I have a problem. Portability is key for me, which is why I avoid the testers that have a bunch of wires and a ground probe; that is a tangled rat’s nest just waiting to happen.
Don’t Underestimate Rotational Grazing
Just like that I find myself at 2,200+ words talking about rotational grazing tools. Maybe this subject was sexier than I originally thought! I do want to take the chance to mention that I am not a paid spokesman for any company, and any recommendations of name brands come from my personal experiences only. That said, there are few companies that absolutely deserve mention if you happen to find yourself looking for tools and supplies. I personally use:
- Premier 1 Supplies (premier1supplies.com): 48” PowerPost line post, 48” FiberTuff for ends/90 degree turns, solar energizer kits, 48” PowerLinks, portable, f-bomb-inducing netting of all types
- Kencove Farm Fence (kencove.com): Stafix geared reel
- Gallagher Fence (gallagherfence.net): Turbo Wire
All of the tools and equipment listed pass the most important test on my farm: plain, simple and sexy … because they work. They serve me well in a multi-purpose capacity across multiple species, they have taken every bit of the beating that I have put them through, and they are effective at containing my animals on a daily basis. I’m certain that there are other products that will do the same for you. Regardless of which color, brand or name we use, we should take pleasure in the fact that, now more than ever, we have the technology to recognize John Anderson’s wisdom from 1797 and “please the animal palate” on our farms — for the betterment of our land, our livestock and our bottom line!
About Paul Dorrance
Paul Dorrance is an author, speaker, consultant and regenerative agriculture advocate. Paul owns and operates Pastured Providence Farmstead — a pasture-based livestock operation in Ohio, marketing 100 percent grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as pastured non-GMO pork, poultry and eggs directly to consumers. He is the author of Farming Without Losing Your Hat – a guide to the economic business of farming.
Paul writes for Acres U.S.A. magazine and speaks at agricultural conferences and gatherings around the country. Previously an active-duty Air Force officer, Paul still serves our nation as a pilot in the Air Force Reserves. He is the chairman of the American Farm Bureau’s Issue Advisory Committee on Organic and Direct Marketing and serves on the board of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
Learn more about Paul’s Eco-Ag U Online course – Proven Lessons for Success in the Business of Farming at Learn.AcresUSA.com.