Out to Pasture and the KISS Method of Temporary Fencing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.