June 26-29, 2017
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but it’s easier for us to contain a 1500 pound bull, than a five pound chicken, thanks to the advent of electric fencing technology. Before this type of fence was developed, it took a steel, woven wire fortress to keep a bull away from the cows, or sheep where you want them, and chickens roamed wherever they wanted. Nowadays, we use several types of fencing at Elmwood Stock Farm to perform the various functions required to manage our stock to optimize their performance.
When driving down a rural road, you will see tree lines that separate fields, or farms, from one another. Most likely at the base of those trees there will be a stretch of steel fencing material steepled to a row of wooden posts, or clipped to steel posts, and the trees have been left to grow up adjacent to the fence. (Steeples are big staples that get hammered into the post to hold the wire in place.)Rarely are the locations of these fence rows random. Most commonly they separate good cropping ground from hilly land suitable for pasture, or carve out a homestead from the rest of the farm. Often fields were further sub-divided to allow for rotation of cattle, but erecting woven wire fence is a big job, expensive, and still requires quite a bit of maintenance.
At Elmwood Stock Farm, we continue to maintain, or replace, these fences built generations ago because of the value of the trees for shade in the summer, windbreak in the winter, beneficial insect habitat, song-bird nesting sites, wildlife corridors, and general aesthetics. Also, it is comforting at night to know the livestock are behind these strong structures where no harm can come to them, and they are not likely to stray.
Within the large boundary fences we employ temporary electric fence systems. The technology has expanded the options available to us, allowing us to control where the animals are contained to fully utilize the forages, or to trample weeds, or to keep them out of creeks or crops. You will see several types of these systems on an Elmwood farm tour, but basically the fencing material is a type of plastic string, with stainless steel fibers intertwined that is strung by hand from post to post. It is easily taken down and rolled up to move, and can be set back up in any shape that fits the situation. The string is connected to a ‘hot box’, which sends a specialized electric current through the wires which will shock any animal that encounters it. It is a psychological barrier, not a physical barrier. The electric charge gives a jolt of current that startles the animals without doing any harm. We have all accidentally been shocked while working with it, or removing a fallen branch or weed, and it is truly a memorable experience. So, once an animal figures it out, they do not need to test it again.
Some hot boxes are plugged into an outlet, modifying household current to the specific type for the fence. Others run off car batteries, and some are even solar powered. Remote locations can easily be set up to contain animals and expand our rotations for good grazing management. Sometimes there is only that ‘one little string’ separating a herd of hungry bovines from a field of vegetables. We have learned to trust it fully, but still check that it is hot and working.
Unlike cattle and pigs, most of a sheep’s body is insulated from the shock effect of electric fencing because of their wool, so we might use multiple strands, so they cannot avoid it with their nose. But more typically we use the electric netting for sheep, which is a three foot high grid of wires that has built in posts for ease of handling. With this netting, we can easily make new fields every few days to allow the sheep to consistently move to fresh pasture and away from any pesky potential parasites.
Poultry electric netting is a little taller and a tighter weave than the sheep netting, again so they cannot avoid it with their comb. The net fencing is moved every few days to fresh pasture, and if you look at a satellite view of the farm on your smart phone, you can see the crop circles from the poultry grazing movement. Equally as important to keeping the poultry in, is keeping ground predators out since foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, cats, dogs, minks, and weasels all would like a chicken dinner. The laying hens and turkeys can easily fly out over the electric netting, but they seem to like things as we have it, so rarely do they even try.
So, we thank the early settlers of our farm for providing us with awesome tree lines and structural perimeter fencing. Several generations have benefited from their work. And thanks to the New Zealanders that invented electric fencing technology to allow us to better utilize the farm for the betterment of the animals, and the pastures. The combination of the two, make for a pretty neat system of converting solar energy into wholesome nutritious foods at Elmwood Stock Farm. —Mac Stone
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