Answering Reader Mail: Fence, Labor, Stress?

Answering Reader Mail: Fence, Labor, Stress?

It’s been awhile. Well past time for an update.

A prospective shepherd messaged with some questions/concerns, which I thought I would be better answered at length, so this venue seemed more suitable.

His message:

I am wondering about your use of electric netting. It looks like you use it on a large scale? Is it effective for you and a herd this size? I’m not in the sheep business yet, because the farm I manage does not have the proper fences. With electric net, I could move along with sheep, but I’m worried about the labor and stress that might come about with moving it often in a regen system.

This kind of message is fun to read, because it brushes most all the relevant questions for someone in his position, and I am perfectly teed up to give the answer(/update) that follows. I promise, I will answer, it just might not look straight-forward.

“Nature is both complex and simple.” -Johann Zietsman

The logic of the non-selective grazing approach is simple. Communicating its application is complex.

I will make a subsequent post to describe non-selective grazing.

Dear reader,

I can only describe my use of electric net fence as definitely effective. Combined with sufficient charging from (usually) high impedance solar chargers, net fence is the most versatile and reliable tool I think I could use in my system, to suit my goals.

To approach an idea of whether net fence might be most effective for you, or whether strands of polybraid might be better, you will need to refer to your goals and objectives.

My goal is maximum sustainable profit per acre.

… While reducing my labor per animal (and hopefully capping total labor per day below five hours).

I’m not only trying regenerate the land, I’m trying construct a lifestyle, or time schedule, that finally seizes the promise a technologically advance civilization: less time spent working.

My main objective is to essentially use standing forage for twelve months, via non-selective grazing, to produce high quality sheep and lamb.

What is your goal?

In order to pursue mine, I must strive to (1) hold the maximum stocking rate at any given time, (2) commit to high-utilization grazing, which (3) relies on (and can unlock) high inherent body condition and high relative fertility.

I will stick to covering 1 and 2 in this post.

In order to do meet these objectives in conjunction, I need to expect that my animals will be where I need them to be (they do break out, but we’re progressing).

I do not think–at this point–that I can get my sheep to eat 80-95% of the plant material in a paddock while constrained by a strand fence.

I have seasonal trouble with lambs that go through net fence; I do not think four strands would not offer me peace of mind. I suppose a better charge is to be considered, but I’m not optimistic. When I heard David Boatright (Sedalia, MO) speak in late 2018, he was on the verge of switching from one or two poly strands, to nets, to manage a flerd, as well as chickens. A friend in Canada trialed Gallagher’s multi-strand product a couple years ago for his 400-ewe operation (some non-selective); I noticed that his subsequent photos contained nets.

The next question that comes up is time related to choice of fence. I can remove a fence in one minute or less, if I want to move that fast (I don’t). An average removal and placement of a stretch of net fence is about 7 minutes, depending on field conditions.

I use six to seven 164-foot fences at any given time to manage 175 ewe pairs. I own around 20 of these fences (Premier1 Supplies single and double spike). Having several more than necessary allows for operational flexibility and time savings. As the flock moves from one side of a 40-acre field to the other, the strands that comprise one side are left in place to be used on the return pass.

164 feet squared amounts to 6/10ths of one acre. I hope to reach the day that that square feeds 350 ewe pairs for one day.

Create a second square adjacent to the first, with three more fences, and you’re set move the flock from A to B, and move the three ‘A’ fences forward.

Two “squares” can be seen in the left and right. In the top third of the photo, the fences that made the far side remain in place.

There is a chance that I could save some time by using two strands of polybraid–perhaps 15 minutes versus 20-30 with nets–but could I keep the sheep contained?

High plant utilization is the reason I am able to push stocking rate.

Net fence is the key to high plant utilization (versus sheep pushing through fence).

If I cannot attain a stocking rate in excess of 4 ewes per acre, I cannot compete with soybeans.

When I ran the numbers to start this venture, I thought I could net $100+ per ewe, and that I could stock at least 3.14 ewes per acre.

When I tabulated my Year 1 data on a plot of established fescue, the harvested ewe-days per acre accounted for a stocking rate of 4.18 ewes per acre per year, blowing away my estimate. I thought I left plenty on the table.

Year 2 data exceeded 5 (5.2? I don’t remember.), and I think I still left forage on the table.

I’m not just aiming for 6 ewes per acre–more than twice the conventional cattle-equivalent stocking rate–I’m aiming for 12.

This all revolves around net fence.

I state all this before addressing labor and stress because readers might want to ask themselves, “How hard am I willing to work to do something incredible?” And “Do I want to fit [livestock] into my present routine, or would I prefer to adjust my life to reap the benefits of an intensive grazing system?”

I do not want to spend the warm months working eight to fourteen-hour days to manage crop land and its companion machinery.

If I could manage 350+ ewes in the span of 4 hours, and devote the rest of the day to fun and marketing, then why the hell not?

It’s a process in progress.

Labor of Love? (Of course.)

I said that I can take down a net fence in one minute. I do not want to. I typically spend two minutes on the down, and three to four on the up. I’m also usually using the UTV to push down a path for the fence to get it to to the ground. Getting the bottom (non-metallic) strand within three inches of the soil surface is a good way to avoid sheep and dogs attempting to escape.

Again, I estimate the time to manage one strand at seven to eight minutes. The minimum strands to handle, in plentiful forage, is three per day. Most days, this is a casual affair for me. I’m not trying to hit a PR.

Move the water/shade wagons, feed the dogs, get a look at individual sheep… That’s 45 to 60 minutes. Travel one mile roundtrip to refill a 300-gallon water tank: add another 20 minutes.

I’m seldom in a hurry, and what can be done in one hour, I often spread across two.

I have frequently had two groups of sheep at separate locations, so I have spent two to four hours per day tending sheep over the past two years. This includes making two or three “moves” per day.

If I want to be gone for three days, I can set things up for someone else to do everything in an hour or less. I would prefer to not be gone during the extremes of heat or ice/snow.

As far as stand-ins go, I want them to practice setting fence with me, and for the dogs to know them.

Is it worth it?

Again, I want us all to stop using glyphosate, and I am tired of the mere idea of a fleet of tractors and implements that revolve through the mechanic’s shop. The entire premise is worth it. If I end up having ONLY a flerd, but managing them for six to eight hours per day, I will live. I mean it; I will LIVE.

What do you want?

Whose Stress? About What?

Yes, sheep and goats will get stuck in the fence and die. Others will get stuck and survive, while allowing the rest of the flock to escape the paddock. There have been tricks and avoidable pitfalls learned, but it still happens, even when I’m pretty sure that I have done a great job.

Are net fences clunky? Maybe a little, but making use of them requires controlling your klutz-iness.

I could not offer you a perfect fencing system. I can offer you a robust or anti-fragile grazing system, which includes culling all sheep that violate the boundaries.

I keep the fence electrified as much as possible–including WHILE I am moving fence. Otherwise, within minutes of moving to a new paddock, lambs are prone to going for choice plants beyond the boundary. Move to new ground, unhook the back strands, turn on fence, then move the back (old) paddock strands (stretches).

This video demonstrates how to fold net fence. (The audio is disrupted by wind.) I rest the bottom end of the posts on my hip.

Practice makes perfect. You’re going to screw up this folding process. You will have a mess, a mess which is almost always preferable to wadded-up polywire. You’ll need to coach your helper how to not muck it up.

Tips for Not Mucking it Up

  • Line up the BOTTOMS of the posts as you fold
  • When moving fences from one pasture to another pasture, roll the fence into its as-sold form
  • Get plants to either side of the fence, not mashed under it
  • Purchase by quality over cost (Premier1)
  • Buy stabilizer posts to hold ends, twists, corners, and dips
  • When high winds or heavy rains are expected, stagger posts into a wavy line, so that the 164′ strand spans only 155-160′

Eliminating variables favoring chaos is a way of reducing stressful events. There’s been plenty of stress in the last two years since expanding the flock. Though I have dreamt of a faster, multi-strand fence, it’s difficult to paint that over the past and expect that my stress and anxiety levels would have been lower. And I am very doubtful I could have accomplished so much… There’s a ways to go yet, but an amazing transformation of the land is beginning. Hard to be stressed about that.

As with anything, one must themselves in positions to succeed. All animals must learn that the fence is shocking. Some will have to learn that by being stuck in it for several seconds.

What are the alternatives? Selective grazing that tends toward reducing forage species and imbalanced rations? Less “paddock agility?” With minimal work, I run net fences through wooded draws and along curving boundaries.

A final thought: If I were about to start out with a new flock, even selective grazing, I would want net fences. Even though the cost is about 10x per foot, I would want the (imperfect) security I have experienced.

Leave me your thoughts in Facebook comments or messages, and I will edit this further to address common concerns.

Best regards,

Cary Yates

January 2021 ice storm demonstrates standability and reliability of net fences.
Leaning and sagging, but respected.
This Kencove fence normally weighs 15 lbs. The adhering ice amounted to an excess of 70 lbs. My biggest problem was dragging them to the next position.

Promote-A-Goat: Sponsor Regenerative Development

I have spent much of the last year pondering ways to build regenerative models of farm & community—structures and systems that bring eaters and farmers closer together, bringing both parties closer to the land, strengthening both, preserving and building energy in economies.

At some point, one must step out and try something… Continue reading