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Out to Pasture and the KISS Method of Temporary Fencing

April 9, 2014
King Alfred I presume

King Alfred I presume

It’s that time of year.  The daffodils, cows, breeding calendar, and the hay stores tell me it’s time to get the cows back out to start the grazing season.   Sacrifice is the name of the game.  Sacrifice grass, cows, hay?  I need to get the cows out to get some spring tonic (greens) through them to get them in shape for calving.   Our first calf could be born as soon as May 12th, so if I want to stick to my 30 day rule of grass before calving I need to get on the stick.  You never win on all counts.  If I graze too early I will lose some production on the grass side.  If I leave the cows in I will feed hay that I feel I can’t spare.  Most importantly I want the cows in good shape and ready to calve in May.  The grass will grow, it always seems to take forever and then the next thing you know it’s so tall you can’t believe it.  So you make a choice, and go with it.  Once I start the grazing season I can’t stop until December.  I’m a little wistful about the chore change.  It’s been a nice break to trek to the haybarn and feed the cows.  If there’s a rainstorm, I can duck inside and wait it out.  Not anymore.  Rain or shine, I need to keep to my schedule of moving the cows every day.  At the same time.  Just like milking.  Talk about a relationship.  I am married to my cows.

Coral the Terrible ready for action

Coral the Terrible ready for action

Elk meets temporary fence

Elk meets temporary fence

Transitioning into spring grazing means going through my fencing supplies and making sure every thing is in working order.  That task usually amounts to straightening bent posts, checking insulators for weak spots, and then out to the field to check fencing,  and build some preliminary fences for the first quick rotation of big paddocks.  No small paddocks this time of year, I need to baby the grass like the salad plants in the greenhouse – a leaf here and a leaf there.  Tender spring baby grass = big paddocks, tall summer grass = small paddocks.

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The pickup bumper is always handy for straightening posts.

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Or if you have a spare bulldozer, you can use the tracks for the same job.  In the field you can use the ground too in a pinch.

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Straight enough for another season.  That’s why I like rebar posts for temporary electric fencing.  They are inexpensive, and they last for years and can be recycled right on the farm when they suffer from metal fatigue from being bent too many times.

Gates in the middle of a run.  One side electrified, one side being held taut.

Gates in the middle of a run. One side electrified, one side being held taut.

I have learned over the years that if I leave some of my temporary fence up (un-electrified) during winter, the deer know it’s there and either go over it or under.  This saves a lot of time the first week of grazing because not much is new except the cows are back, and the deer aren’t surprised by a fence that suddenly appeared overnight.  This two-way gate pictured above actually was a three-way gate for pasture division during winter, but I took out the third one when we moved the cows to the feeding shed for the deep bedding period.

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I won’t be dividing the pastures small at first so these gates are not needed this early on,  this just becomes a line fence.  Tomorrow it will be but a dim memory of what happened here in January because the cows will be onto the next paddock.  We will cut hay here so the pasture will grazed lightly for one day, and then rested until hay time in July.  Now I will remove all these fences and put them into service in other pastures.

Fence hub

Fence hub

Most of our electric fence is powered by a 12 volt battery system.  Maintenance here at the fence hub consists of checking the ground rod connections, mounting the energizer, and installing a freshly charged battery.  This hub is placed at an end brace in one of our permanent cross fences.  Three separate pastures are powered from this hub, gate handles at the terminus or beginning (depending on how you look at it) allow me to unhook the power to the fences I am not using so I can conserve my battery, and not have to spend time to check fences I don’t plan to use immediately.

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For the first day the cows will be in a small field adjacent to where this fence has been all winter, and since this fence was already here, I just needed to change how it ended and have it almost ready for the second day of grazing.  Electric fencing does not need to be connected in a continuous circuit, it can just end.  This is the goofy fence with the gate in the middle in the photos above, so basically I have two spools of fence running from the insulator with two loops from the middle of the run and they end with spools at opposite ends of the pasture.  Many of my fences are long runs for a strip built along a keyline, with shorter cross fences for making paddock divisions.  From a top view it looks like a ladder – the sides are the long runs and cross fences are the rungs.  I confess to some OCDness, but I draw the line at measuring out electric fencing on a daily basis.  (Acreage measurements aren’t as important as teaching yourself to use a grass eye.  You need to be able to judge forage instead of space.)  So I walk twenty paces (I’ve got long legs, my daughter is shorter and she needs to go twenty-four steps to go the same distance) and put in a post, and continue in this manner until I reach the end of the line.  Kind of.  To keep things simple (because this fence won’t be here very long) and to use what I have on hand, I place the second to last post less than ten paces from the end to act as brace for the long fencing runs.  At the end I use two posts close together to hold and store my fence spool, rather than tying it off with twine to something or just hoping it will stay put on one post.  If you figure I have just spooled out 200 yards of wire I need something solid at the end or the weight of that fence will pull over my spool.   Hence the brace post placed with closer spacing near the fence end.  I pull the fence taut, wrap the wire on the insulator on the brace post and then reel out the wire to the end two posts, wrap the wire on the insulators and install the wire spool on the two posts making sure no wire is touching the metal rebar post.  Using the brace post close to the end insures that my fence won’t get pulled over in the night either by sheer tension, or any shenanigans that happen in the dark…

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Electric fencing works because it is a psychological barrier, so I have no need to build Fort Knox every single day.  It’s too much work just to be taken down again the next day.  I can end my fence “near” the permanent fence.  The cows will not get near that gap because they fear that shock.  That’s why you can turn off your fence, build your new fence and the cows will stay put.  It’s all psychological really, they know the fence is likely to be on, or could be, and they also know because your such a diligent farmer that you are there to “feed” them with new pasture.  So if you’re committed to rotational grazing your cows, make sure you don’t damage the relationship with a skewed schedule, strive for about the same time for paddock shift everyday, just like milking a cow.  You have to be there or plan accordingly.

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Day two for that spool that wasn’t connected? I’ll release a loop and lightly twist it onto the hot wire that comes from the hub and runs along my permanent cross fence, now this section is the electrifying portion and I can drop the first fence from the system.  This is just one scenario, and the way the fence is yesterday and today.  Next time it may be a gate hooked into the hot wire instead of the spool.  Just remember to keep the temporary idea in temporary fencing.  The “gate” is also a state of mind.  This morning I released the spool and moved the cows through here instead of making them go to where the actual gate handle was.  We see gate handles, cows see a hole in the fence, they are much more flexible than humans.

Coming to water

Coming to water

Since we’re easing back into daily moves, I try to take every opportunity to call the cows and reinforce that when I call them, they need to come to me.  Water trough placement depends on where your fence is going to be, so many times I don’t move the trough until the new fence is in place, trying to take into consideration if I can span two paddocks and save a day of hauling water.  The cows weren’t thirsty yet yesterday when this photo was taken, but they still came when I called.  They politely took a drink, checked the minerals, gave a cow shrug and then walked off to graze, run and play.  This type of remedial training helps the young ones understand what is expected of them.

Some key points to remember:

♥  Don’t build temporary fence like a permanent fence.  If you make the system too complicated, you won’t be as apt to move it often enough.  Cows are the simplest animals to confine with electric fencing, a single wire does the trick.  Anything more is overkill, which in turn takes more time to set up and then you can defeat the purpose of rotational grazing.  Keep it simple.

♥  Provide fresh range and fresh water daily.  This goes for any species – if you don’t want to drink  the water your animals would prefer not to also.

♥  Transition your animals onto fresh grass slowly, watch their left side for rumen fill and if they are indented a little in front of the hipbone, feed some hay to help them balance their digestive system.   Spring grass is a tonic, and doesn’t offer much in the way of feed value, offer free choice loose minerals too for balance.

♥  Take notes or make a grazing map and date it.  Paddock size depends on time of year and grass growth, you’ll be amazed at what you forget.  My forage changes so much that where I have one large paddock now, come July that same portion of the field may yield twenty-one days of grazing instead of one.  Seeing it on my maps later is helpful information.

♥  If your cows are reluctant to move to the next paddock you’ve made your paddock too big, if they are chomping at the bit, you’ve not allotted enough grass.  Adjust your plans to  match the cows.

♥  Most of all remember that you’ll misjudge the forage from time to time.  Don’t sweat it, and strive to make amends with your cows on the next opportunity.  They won’t hold it against you, I promise.

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Now off to stare at cow rumens!  Happy grazing!

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2014 6:57 pm

    We really enjoyed your Cow Class last Saturday. This posting is a great follow-up to the class. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • April 10, 2014 5:12 am

      Cathy, thank you so much – it was a great day, all except the weather! So nice to meet you, Bob and Beth.

  2. April 9, 2014 9:31 pm

    Thanks for that. I have duly passed on the information to hubby, since he is the one that deals with all this kind of stuff and I just carry on doing the research :D

  3. A.A. permalink
    April 9, 2014 11:21 pm

    Oh I wish! In a month’s time over here we just might get there!

    Had to laugh at the fence hub :) Maintenance consist of avoiding deadly entanglements and safety inspections! ;) I know I have seen this before somewhere..?

  4. April 10, 2014 4:03 am

    Your cows are certainly blessed to have you as their cow mama. Or spouse.

  5. Elizabeth permalink
    April 10, 2014 4:18 am

    I am very jealous of your grass at this time of year. We have just a few blades peeking thru here and there. The big beef guys don’t even let their herds out to pasture for another 6 weeks! (somebody told me that….I’m not sure I believe all I hear. That would mean that they only keep their cattle on pasture for 4-5 months and feed hay the other 6-7 months. How can anyone remain solvent in the beef industry if they have to feed for more than 1/2 the year?) Anyway…..thanks for your diligence in posting the daily cow activities. I’m sure it feels tedious to document every movement but it really helps us cow newbies. :)

    • April 10, 2014 5:06 am

      Elizabeth, ugh we used to do that before we started rotating. That is a lot of hay.

      You’re welcome!

  6. Kristin permalink
    April 10, 2014 4:21 am

    I still can’t believe you have a dozer. So how long is your grass in this post? I’m holding off until I have about 4000 lbs of dry matter per acre…..12-14 inches. I know it is hard to judge. Everything seems slow to start again this year in the Southeast.

    • April 10, 2014 5:04 am

      Kristin, the dozer is pretty necessary, we have a lot more timberland than grass land. We don’t have gators or ATVs so does that help offset that?

      The grass is about 4 – 6 inches, shorter than some recommend but I don’t want to buy hay this time of year, usually it’s high priced and many times my cows won’t eat it, so I just don’t do that. I have never had an ideal year yet in farming. Here we are usually praying for rain for the pastures and cussing the rain because it’s delaying gardening. Ideal for me would be not to put cows out on lush tall grass in spring, but to put them out on stockpile that has been waiting since last year. To do that I either need less cows or more land.

      • Elizabeth permalink
        April 10, 2014 11:26 am

        “Ideal for me would be not to put cows out on lush tall grass in spring, but to put them out on stockpile that has been waiting since last year.”

        Really? It’s better to put them out on last year’s brown-snowed-on-dead-looking-grass-that-is-just-seeing-green-come-through? That would be great! That’s what we have now! Do you put the cows out then supplement them with hay? I’m not sure there’s enough out there to sustain them yet.

        • April 10, 2014 11:39 am

          Yes, supplement if they need it. That’s the quickest way to great pasture, but oh so hard to pull off with limited acreage.

  7. Chris permalink
    April 10, 2014 6:53 am

    Ok, my head is spinning, so I’m off the fence! :) I would like to know though…how do you call your cows? Whistle? Each by name? :)

    • April 10, 2014 7:02 am

      Commmmme Bossssss! Usually though at paddock shift, I just say OK in a normal voice, that gets them moving and I walk to where I am going open the gate or fence for them. When I say OK, they answer me with their version of OK which is just a short, low moo. This will sound crazy, but they do talk to me, “Hi”, “Feed me”, “Where have you been?” That kind of thing.

  8. April 10, 2014 6:54 am

    Spare dozer? SPARE Dozer! I don’t even have a primary dozer. Geez. Think of the ponds I could build if I just had one…

    Apparently I haven’t worked hard enough.

    • April 10, 2014 7:05 am

      Or been in the right place at the right time. Only one has a blade so that is the dozer. The other one is a collectors item with low serial numbers.

      I can’t build a pond but I have a cat, you don’t have a cat but you can build a pond on your farm. What’s wrong with that picture?

      • April 10, 2014 7:07 am

        I could build about 10 ponds…one big pond down low. Many smaller up high..even if they are just seasonal duck ponds. Well, no problem money won’t solve. Sigh…

        • April 10, 2014 7:27 am

          This is what we contend with – pretty much equals no ponds.

          Using Water
          Under state law, all water is publicly owned. With some exceptions,
          cities, farmers, factory owners and other users must obtain a permit
          from the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) to use water or
          to store water in a reservoir from any source – whether it is
          underground, or from lakes or streams. Landowners with water
          flowing past, through, or under their property do not automatically have
          the right to use that water without a permit from OWRD. Permits and
          water rights are important because in times of water shortage, the use of
          water under the most recently issued rights may be curtailed.

        • April 10, 2014 7:36 am

          Those water rights regulations would be hilarious if they weren’t so harmful. Are we all better off pushing the rainfall to the ocean as fast as possible or holding it uphill for as long as possible, allowing it to soak and hydrate the landscape over time? Geez. Not that Illinois is exactly the land of the free…

        • April 10, 2014 7:48 am

          Don’t even get me started…

  9. Bee permalink
    April 10, 2014 8:00 am

    Remember the range wars back in the Old West? Lots of them were over water rights. I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of that in the coming years… Your grass looks great, Nita. Mine is still behind because of the drought.

    • April 10, 2014 8:30 am

      Bee, those now are starting up again – mustangs vs. cattle. Ugh. I was little worried when the winter was so dry, then March came along and started dumping, tied the record for the year I was born! Funny I don’t remember that at all ;) I was hoping you’d seen some relief down your way with those March storms.

      • Bee permalink
        April 10, 2014 7:27 pm

        The March rains helped; we’re up to about 75 percent of normal. But we got it in concentrated bursts with lots of runoff instead of a nice gentle soaking. Our grass has just really popped up in the last week or so as the weather got really warm. The cows are thrilled, they’re eating grass and picking at the hay. But they have nice full rumens and everybody’s healthy, which is good. All of our babies are due within a two week stretch the first couple weeks of May and then the midwife can take some time off until the sow farrows in July. Then it’s time to bring the bull back in August, and the cycle starts again — you know how it goes…

  10. Chris permalink
    April 10, 2014 11:45 am

    Of course they talk to you…that isn’t crazy at all…how are they supposed to let you know what they want, if they can’t talk to you? And I’m sure they have different moos, depending on the conversation. Right? I have goats and they have different sounds too. Their “I’m hungry” baa is quite different from their, “Hi” baa. Actually baa is more sheep conversation but you know what I mean! :)

  11. Nancy J permalink
    April 12, 2014 9:01 am

    Hi,
    I have been reading a lot about intensive grazing and want to try it. I’m wondering though, most every thing I have read says that they use temporary fencing and are always “moving” the fence with each rotation. Would it work to just have a permanent fence around the perimeter and have the paddocks fenced with electric fencing and just leave them up? I would rather put the expense into fencing and leave it up than to move it all the time. What am I missing?

    Thanks!

    • April 12, 2014 10:26 am

      Nancy, well, loosely any movement would be rotational grazing, but the temporary fence is to match the grazing with the grass growth. If you make all your paddocks and then start grazing at #1, it may have enough feed for the animals but as you work through the paddocks and the grass growth speeds up pretty soon your animals have too much which isn’t as much problem as not having enough grass, but still a problem. Say you divide you pasture into 12 paddocks, and you move through them in 12 days or maybe a loose rotation of 24 (2 days per paddock) by the time you get back to number one the grass may not be ready to graze yet, but your committed now, you need to keep moving forward because your cows have eaten themselves right back to the beginning. that’s called forward acceleration in grazing, you’re basically moving too fast to match the grass growth. If you graze grass too soon, you set the plants back so it takes even longer for them so recover and pretty soon you’re doing the work of moving the cows but you have no grass! You also have 12 different fields growing because the plants adapt to grazing pressure or lack thereof, so where you once had a nice big diverse pasture now you 12 little different ones. Questions to ask yourself, If I put in all these fences can I mow the grass behind the cows if need be or are the fences going to be in the way? Do I really want to take the trouble to move the cows every day? Maybe intensive grazing isn’t something you really want to do.

      I think what you’re missing is the idea of movement and timing of animal impact on the land. It’s pretty easy to overcomplicate the idea of fencing in our minds. Of course if you go out and build a temporary fence that takes quite a while to build, yeah who wants to move that. Or using electric netting with cattle. TOO MUCH work. A few post, and a single wire is all cows need. Now if you’re doing horses, sheep, pigs, … yeah then you need more than a single strand for temporary fencing.

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