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Frugal fencing and the stockpiling update

October 31, 2009

I discovered something – I like to watch grass grow.  And I really like watching it grow for a long season.  Not only have we lengthened our gardening season by changing our habits, we have extended our grass growing season too.  It struck me the other day on a pasture walk, that growing up with our cattle being continuous grazed that I never really did see the grass growing much.  The cows did – but we didn’t.  They sought out the most tender morsels of regrowth as soon as the grass poked its little shoots out.  I never had heard of the law of the second bite, and how detrimental it was to the grass plants, causing them to be less productive and never able to really reach their potential.   Now I know how important it is, that the cows do not get to regraze an area until it is fully recovered.


I have moved the cows to the final stockpiled pasture this past week, it has not been grazed since June 5th.  That is 140 days rest!  Not all the forage is top quality, what won’t be eaten, will hopefully be trampled and manured on, creating the perfect carbon to nitrogen ratio.  No composting, just animals eating, and leaving a deposit.  Pretty low tech and low-cost, with a huge carbon sequestering potential.  And I am excited!!  You see, the previous two grazing seasons, I kind of backslid – I had emergency surgery, and limped (figuratively) through one grazing season, and the next season I was just plain lazy.  Cheating on the back fence and watering sites, and this season I was paying for it with weed pressure I hadn’t seen for 6 or 7 years.  This year I vowed to be faithful, and having read Comeback Farms, by Greg Judy twice, I was ready to dive in.  Hangdog and I are pretty much self-taught in everything we are doing.  We look, listen and do, and make mistakes, misinterpret and learn.  Books never can convey the whole story, and biological farming is a continuously changing situation.  Some guidelines can guide you but, expect to be on your own.  Your grass, your animals and your expectations will be different than those of others.


The concept of High Density Planned Grazing is hard for most people to get their mind around.  I alluded to the disconnect most people have about cattle in an earlier post about chickens.  Cattle can’t free range?  But chickens should?  Cattle have been made out to be the bad guy lately, but if managed and fed correctly, are much easier on the land than chickens, or other grain consuming animals.  My cattle harvest their own feed most of the year without much fossil fuel, and definitely without a plow touching our land.  When we had chickens and sold pastured eggs, quite a bit of fossil fuel, and plowing was required just to grow the crops to feed our chickens, let alone transport it to our farm from some faraway place.  Talk about food miles, I think if you’re going to calculate food miles, you should add in all the miles of what it takes to get that particular food to your plate.  My thoughts lately have been leaning to bio-regional everything, instead of all of us being the same, maybe pork and chicken should be seasonal foods where the grain grows plentiful, and maybe we will be eating salmon and huckleberries here.  I recently saw some local chicken feed being sold, the big draw, no soybeans, just local grain, but to make up the missing protein from discarding the soy in the  feed recipe, fish and crab meal (which are by-products of the ocean fishing industry or worse factory aqua farming) have been substituted.  If I had my druthers, I would rather feed the soybeans, instead of those meat meals.  Soybeans can at least be grown organically.  Crabs, I doubt it… .

But I’m digressing, back to grazing. 

The question I get asked the most is:  How big to make the paddocks?  The question should be how small to make the paddocks.  Plan how much your stock will eat in one day, and build your temporary fence accordingly.  That’s the beauty of temporary fencing – it’s temporary – if you miscalculate, you get a chance to made amends tomorrow.  The cows and the grass will forgive you.


No need to apologize here – one day, high impact.  The cattle will not be back here until next spring.


Three days, grass growth starting. 

This is during the fall (grass is growing slow now), if it was June, the regrowth would be immediate and this shows perfectly that tender new growth that would be grazed, if the cows weren’t moved.  That is why the daily moves are so important, and leaving the stock longer causes a decline in grass production.


10 days, more green showing than brown and well fertilized too. 

I know it may seem strange that this is exciting to me, but it is.  Will it work?  I hope so, but I don’t have to have the exact answer right now, about next year.  Biological farming means people need to get out there and do it, experience it, and figure out what is right and wrong.  The class room is in your pasture not in the kitchen microwaving grass, or looking at graphs and charts to see how much grass you have.  What I have learned in my classroom this summer, (some of this I already knew) is that even if I make the paddock size too small, and the trampling didn’t occur because the cows ate it, that is all I am missing.  I have still been successful at getting the cows to fertilize almost all of each paddock.  And the cows have been there for one day – period, that is it, no manure concentration that my pasture can’t handle, no pugging from constant hoof action, and most importantly no second bite on tender grass shoots.  Or the flip side of that coin, if I make the paddock too big, and trampling doesn’t happen and the manure coverage is sparse, it still is a step in the right direction.

The idea of rotational grazing is that you can be flexible and strict at the same time.  For time management sake, I have to let Della free-range.  So her and my daughter’s horse, and two calves have the run of one pasture.  I do not have time to walk a mile to get Della for milking and then take her back to the beef herd, they are at the far end of our place.  Plus she wouldn’t want to leave them, and they would think she is getting something they weren’t – that is too stressful.  Building flexibility into your chores is a must.  If tasks are too complicated, they will cease to be done in an orderly fashion, if at all.  And if the supplies are too expensive you may never start, which brings me to the frugal part of this post – electric fencing on the cheap.

The first order of business is that electric fencing is not a legal fence in most areas, meaning not that it is illegal, but it cannot be your only fence.  Electric fencing is only a psychological barrier, and prone to disruptions.  Legal fencing is a permanent fence, that keeps your livestock on your property, and out of harms way.  A permanent fence is a physical barrier, which varies for different livestock.  I have cattle, and we use 5 strand barbed wire fences for the perimeter fences and 4 strand for some cross fences.  In some areas we have field fence, but it is cost prohibitive on large tracts.  It all depends on what type of livestock you have, what you like, what you can afford, and what is allowed in your area.


When we were in the research phase of rotational grazing, we were dizzy with all the supplies that were available, and how much money you could spend.  We weren’t really sure we were ready to sink a lot of money into something that we may not want to continue.  Joel Salatin’s poor boy fence appealed to us.  Fence charger, re-purposed welding wire spools, rebar, smooth fencing wire, insulators, and a hammer.  Not much expense there, and easy to walk away from if it didn’t work.

We were reluctant though, the guy at the feed store counseled us a little differently, rebar posts will not work, you need visible fencing tape, and here, buy this charger too.  We came home with a little diagram and Hangdog went to work putting in T-posts and stringing up two runs of polytape.  He pounded the ground rods in and hooked up the fence charger.  Next all we needed were the cows, who had never seen electric fence in their lives.  Not knowing what size to make a paddock, we ended up with about a 3 acre spot, figuring that would work and last hopefully awhile, since it took so blasted long to set up. 

The cows were compliant enough and curious.  They all filed in and began to graze.  We had put a water trough in the paddock for their convenience, which they promptly checked out.  All was fine, until someone just decided to walk through the fence to the next paddock.  Luckily everyone was bomb-proof, but they looked liked they had been TP’d, some had the tape wrapped around them, and the rest was just trampled.   Secretly, being a member of the Barbwire Society, I knew this would never work :O  It was too much work and the cattle just went right through the fence.  We kicked the cows out, and back to their continuous grazing they went.

We went back to the drawing board, and the feed store with more questions to prod the clerk with.  The clerk there was against a wall, he had no idea what we wanted or needed.  His answer was more electricity and “Burn them buggers, that’ll learn ’em!”  I wanted to burn him!  Luckily the owner overheard and steered us to a low impedance energizer.  We were more than happy to try the new energizer, and while we where there we picked up some wire, and insulators for rebar, since our polytape was in shambles. 


That was a long time ago, and I still am using those same supplies every day.  What I appreciate about this simple solution to our electric cattle fence is that it is simple, inexpensive and easy to use. 

POSTS – step-in posts are popular, making people think they don’t need a hammer, just step in the post and go.  That’s fine when the ground is soft, but if your pasture is poor, the soil is poor, and it is hard to step those posts in.  Most of the time they are plastic or fiberglass and don’t last, and you can’t pound them in with a hammer.  Care to pack a cordless drill with you?  My hammer fits in my back pocket, and doesn’t require batteries. The rebar posts last and last.  If they get bent, I can re-bend them in the cat tracks or in my pickup bumper.  And I could always use them for rebar if we don’t need them as posts anymore.

WIRE – I am using steel wire because it is the cheapest.  Aluminum would be a good choice, it doesn’t rust, and is supposed to conduct better.  But, any time I have been shocked by the fence, I have realized I don’t need to experience the better conductivity of aluminum.  The cows respect our fence, so I guess it is working  just fine, even if I can’t recite the joule output when quizzed.   I think the use of polytape or polywire is highly overrated.  We humans think it is necessary because it is easier to see for us.  But the cattle don’t need to see it, they feel the pulse of the electricity.  Over time those little wires weaken from flexing in the wind or from normal use and they break, and then the connection is not as strong and then the fence becomes merely a suggestion.  However, if you’re using temporary fences with horses, then by all means get the highly visible poly product.  Horses are notoriously hard to rotationally graze.  They tend to run through electric fence because of their different flight response. Most horses I know need to be on a restricted diet, not full on grazing.  Most horses are just maintaining condition so they don’t need the intensive caloric intake like animals raised for meat or milk. .

SPOOLS – my favorite, the plastic, recycled spools.  We noticed that everyone wants handles for reeling the wire in and out, and I watched Joel do the same thing.  It’s harder work than just reeling the wire on by hand, or letting it feed out by putting my fingers in the center hole.  I have to walk far enough putting up the fence I don’ t need to make it a workout too.  Hangdog decided he wanted handles too, and drilled some bolt holes in several of our spools, and attached bolts for handles.  It made a simple job more complicated, and ruined the spools eventually to boot.  Sometimes in the kitchen, a knife does the job just fine, no need for a food processor, this seems the same.

I may have forgotten something,  and this post from last year shows more, but the most important thing about whatever type of fencing, is that your stock stays where you want it to, and it is easy to set up and take down.  If your fence building takes much more than an hour a day, including travel time, restocking minerals, moving the water and the stock, you are spending too much time, or your fencing is overly complicated.  Simplify is the answer.  Just start, and take the grazing one day at a time, the next thing you know, you will be talking about next year and what you will do differently, and you will be excited too.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2009 9:06 am

    Excellent fencing post! I have come to rotational grazing by way of experience and am famous for saying to my kids, ” Wait! I think I heard the grass growing!” I haven’t gotten to the daily rotation but every year it gets better. Now what used to be one large pasture is 6 subdivisions which will all be divided again next year. The thing that blows my mind is that here, in Maine’s extremely short zone 4 growing season, my dairy cows have been grazing, with no hay supplementation since May 10th! They still have a couple more paddocks left too. I can’t believe we will make it to 6 months of grazing. Normally here in this county you figure on feeding hay for 8 months. Thanks for more inspiration to do even better!

    • November 1, 2009 6:05 am

      Jessika, that’s great, anytime you can feed less hay, all the better. Some of our neighbors have been feeding hay since July. We haven’t fed any yet and won’t need to for some time. Rotational grazing is the answer for sure.

  2. Marcia in Wyoming permalink
    October 31, 2009 3:01 pm

    I will need to re-read your post more in-depth – good stuff. Here in Wyoming we are a “fence-out” state – meaning you don’t have to fence at all – just enough to keep out the neighbor’s livestock if you wish – exceptions are pigs, sheep and stud horses. Even the highway department has to keep up the highway fences and if a motorist hits and kills livestock they can be financially responsible for that animal. We have spent a small fortune fencing to keep OUT the neighbors very hungry cattle.

    • November 1, 2009 6:11 am

      Marci in WY, most of our state is that way too, but I live in the populated section, so a fence is required. I wish I could figure out a fence that would keep out trespassers. The cattle are much more compliant 😉

      I hear you on the neighbors, we have one whose horses continually get out and run about a mile up the road to our place to eat. We have helped his teenagers (who are embarrassed) catch them and get them home safely many times. One morning as he was jogging by, one of our dogs (who had wiggled out through the fence)chased him and scared him but did not bite him – he promptly went home and called Animal Control on us! They realized it was not a common occurence with our dog, so it was fine, but I really could not believe he would do that since we had led those horses home more times than I can remember. We never did see much in the way of hay stored there either when we took the horses back. Pretty sad.

  3. October 31, 2009 4:20 pm

    I’ve always thought about using rebar for fence posts but just never did. I was wondering what size you used. It was a great post and very informative.

    • November 1, 2009 6:14 am

      Darrell, the 3/8″ works the best, not too light and not too heavy. I can carry 15 posts easily, which is what I need for some of my runs. It is the most economical in long lengths cut to the size with bolt cutters. And the posts last and last.

  4. Angrywhiteman permalink
    October 31, 2009 4:58 pm

    Those flat places on the hammer, you know, out there on the ends, work a lot better for driving posts than the handle. I see you have the handle wrapped in some sort of protective armor, but the steel part of the head works best. I know from experience. I’ve also numbed a few knuckles while trying to protect the posts from damage and hitting my hand as a substitute. I finally gave up on that idea and just let those post heads mushroom over.

    • November 1, 2009 6:16 am

      AWW, Oh come on, you know I can hit the “nail” on the head 😉 My hubby just wanted me to have something pretty so he braided that decoration on there. You know – one of those romantic gifts like the studded wheelbarrow tire he got me for ice and snow!

  5. October 31, 2009 11:53 pm

    Here in north central Oklahoma, common commercial electric fence posts, including the rebar, run from 3/8ths inch to half inch diameter. 3/8ths is most common. This is important, because that is the size range many commercial insulators expect. 1/4th inch posts can turn out to be awfully light, unless you keep them fairly close together, and handle them gently. 5/16th posts are a bit better.

    I hadn’t considered actually picking up, or ordering, sections of rebar and cutting them myself. That would take a large bolt cutter, a lot of hack sawing (but not prohibitive), an angle grinder with a “razor” 16th of an inch cutting blade, or a chop saw. Be really careful with the thin cutting disc on an angle grinder – they can shatter easily, at high speeds, and throw chunks with great energy. Any power solution throws lots of hot metal sparks – eye protection and hand and body protection have to be taken seriously. Even with the bolt cutters, there can be a lot of energy when you cut, that can throw pieces of post around.

    The plate anchors on t-posts and on electric fence posts (small rod type, including rebar) often come off after much use. I haven’t noticed that makes them much less useful, you just lose the ability to step the post in, or have a handy “this is as far in the ground as it needs to be” mark. I push the (mostly standard length) post until the top is about to my hip; on me, that leaves the post tall enough for where the insulators go. I am 6’2″, and usually string two wires, the low wire at mid-knee on me, the top wire at the knuckles at the bottom of the palm of my extended hand, standing straight next to the fence, hand hanging loosely down at my side. This lets the cows graze right to the fence line.

  6. November 1, 2009 6:24 am

    Brad K, the 3/8″ work the best with the insulators. It is easy to cut them with bolt cutters. If you watch Lowe’s or Home Depot puts the rebar on sale, and that is the time to buy. Of course, it is more expensive now than when we made these posts up but still economical when you consider the life of the posts.

    I have had to replace insulators once in awhile, they either get chewed by teething coyotes, or when the deer or elk decide to blow through the fence sometimes the stress of that breaks the insulators.

    Why are you using two wires? I only use two wires for pigs. But for the cows, I just use one at about 32″. It’s takes too much time to string two, and the cows stay in just fine.

  7. November 1, 2009 7:48 am


    Two wires work nicely all the time – but especially for cow/calf herds.

    If you use the bolt cutters, be careful the first couple of times you drive them in the ground – the bolt cutters will leave sharp cut ends. Judicious use of the hammer when driving should blunt that over nicely. That or a few seconds each with an angle grinder (with grinding disk) or bench grinder to square the top.

    Did I mention gloves help, lots? I find that leather shop gloves wear well, and the darling pigskin 3300 Wells LaMont leather/denim gloves are comfy as all get out, just use with care as they wear well but tear easily.

    • November 1, 2009 7:55 am

      Brad, yes gloves are essential! Never had a problem with the sharp ends, but the posts are so old now any semblance of a sharp end is long gone.

      I’m still curious why you are using two wires though? Are you moving fence each day? Or is it more lax rotation? I have cows, part-time bull, two year olds, yearlings and calves, and one wire does the job, but I move them each day so that does make a difference since they know they are going to a fresh paddock at the same time each day. When the calves are tiny they do creep feed out ahead but that is fine with me since we have strong perimeter fencing, so if they get “out” of a paddock they aren’t really out.

  8. November 1, 2009 8:18 pm

    Thanks for another rotational grazing post. I am still breaking my big pastures into little ones and figuring out how to make my structures simple enough and strong enough to move every day. But we are getting there. This year was all about beating back the brush and regaining the full perimeter (my land hasn’t been grazed in 25 years), rediscovering the fence lines. But we dramatically cut our hay usage this year even though we are keeping twice as many goats. We have a lot of pasture improving to do.

  9. Nan permalink
    November 2, 2009 10:55 am

    I stumbled upon your blog and I am fascinated. I love it. I am a NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers Assoc.) landcare professional and work at a garden center on Cape Cod Ma. I will be coming back again to see what is going on on your farm. Keep up the great work. -nan

  10. November 5, 2009 6:02 am

    We started this years ago with our sheep. Unfortunately we also started with those stupid, ill made, cheap (#$%@#$ –had to throw this in since it’s fun to type ;-D) plastic step in posts. What a waste as you pointed out—-of money, time and peace of mind. I see those things everywhere and sometimes the stores (near us) don’t even carry the wire holder/attachment that will attach to rebar posts. Or they have a small section of a couple bags of them and huge bins of the other types plus hundreds of plastic posts right next to them.
    We also have some metal pig tails and I do like those too though they are a “one size fits all” for height. The rebar are a bit more versatile for wire placement and also ease of getting into hard ground, but depending on where we are using them we have access to both. I like the pig tails for a few areas versus the rebar.
    I gave the remaining plastic step ins away a few years ago and was glad to see them go and never to return to my farm. I try and discourage people from them but they sell like hot cakes at the local feed stores. Too bad…waste of money and plastic.

  11. A.A. permalink
    March 11, 2010 6:51 am

    Dear Matron,

    This isn’t really a comment, and I would’ve emailed if that were available. Would you walk me through a few grazing setup thoughts and questions for this summer?

    The plan is to have about four acres of pasture and five or so Charolais cows. The fields have been used exclusively for hay making for a decade or more, with commercial fertilizer applied. About an acre was hayed just once last season and left standing last fall, the rest was hayed twice. The idea’s to graze the pasture with the old growth from last fall first, and to get nothing but heifers or dry cows to do that. After the first acre, the plan is to go through the rest fairly quickly (sort of skimming), and to go with the growth from there. About an acre of the four tends to get wet during the spring and fall wet seasons, and I’d like to reserve that for a drought pasture in case it’ll get dry, but I don’t know how that’ll turn out. To get enough density and to get the cows to eat aggressively, I thought I’d start with one to two hundred square yard paddocks and move the cows through as many of those a day as necessary, so far as the cows are willing to get into that kind of a rhythm. I don’t know if the pastures will grow enough forage, and I haven’t been able to get good estimates from people who know the fields. I will add a few cockerel pens as well as a tiny eggmobile to try those out and to help with the fertility, and I may be able to get access to a lush old horse pasture nearby in case of an emergency. After the second hay harvest the coming fall, about seven acres will open up for pasture and for some stockpiling, even though those won’t have the fertility to grow much forage then anymore.

    How does the choice of heifers and dry cows sound? I know I won’t be able to get calves until a year or even two from now that way, unless I buy them, but I thought that’d make the dabbling a bit safer for the cows. What about grazing the old “stock” from last fall? It wasn’t hayed because the farmer who would’ve hayed it thought it’d gotten a bit too far ahead. Any points you’d consider important to make? Most of my knowledge, if it can be called that, comes from Joel Salatin’s books and from Greg Judy’s Comeback Farms, and from talking to cattle farmers (who usually have trouble following my thinking, but mostly do like to give advice).

    So many thanks if you care to take the time to reply!

  12. Michelle B permalink
    February 24, 2012 7:54 am

    Do they sell post caps that fit the re bar tops? I would think without protective tops there could possibly be a tragic impalement with a frisky or scared horse.

    • February 24, 2012 9:21 am

      Michelle, I don’t think so, but you’re also not going to find many people who are rotationally grazing their horses like this. This is really about cattle fencing.

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