Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Types of Fence

I recently had another great question, that asked this:
Looking at your posts I had a question. Is there a reason that so many different types of fencing are used? Sometimes it is prefab metal units, sometimes it is all wooden and other times it is wood with wire between the openings. Since it appears that it is all for cattle, I was wondering why it seemed to change style randomly.
First, thank you for your question! There wasn't a name with the comment, so hopefully you check back, and I am able to sufficiently answer it. If anyone else ever has questions, please don't hesitate to ask. I am happy to answer, and it lets me know what you're interested in reading about that I haven't previously covered.
Second, be warned that this is a long post.
We're going to split the types of fence we use into two categories, line fences, which are those we fence large pastures with (what was referred to as the wood with wire between the openings in the question), and corral fences (that would be the prefab metal stuff and wooden stuff), which are those used in the areas we work our animals in. Line fences are just to keep animals in specific areas, which are hundreds or thousands of acres in size, and corral fences are in small, concentrated areas that receive more stress. It's like the strength of materials you would need in a high traffic area, like an airport, versus your own home.
There are many different kinds of fence for a number of reasons. My photos will include fences from multiple ranches, which is part of why you've seen many different types. Another reason is the wire used for line fences lasts a long time (sometimes over 100 years where I'm from), so as people rebuild, different materials that are most available and affordable at that time are used, and then they last for several decades. The result is a variety of fences on a single ranch in many cases. It's not economical, or timely, to just change it all at once, especially when you consider there is around 25 miles of fence on our place alone.

We use three primary kinds of line fence on our ranch.  The first is called a barbwire fence, which is shown here. If you were to see the wire up close, it has barbs on it to cause discomfort if an animal tries to crawl through it. We use either wood or steel (T-posts) fence posts, and they are planted in the ground at carefully and evenly spaced intervals when the fence is first built. Then, as the posts decay from things such as termites or wind in our area, new posts are put in until enough are bad, or the wire is so worn out, that the boss decides it's time to rebuild it.
These fences are described by the number of wires they include. Different people string a different number of wires depending on how much stress a fence will receive (if it's a high or low pressure area), or if they have sheep or just cattle (with sheep, there are usually more wires),

 So, this is a four wire fence. Different ranchers also use different combinations of wood and steel posts, depending on area and personal preference. Wood is more solid, and it's much easier to stretch the wires on a fence with wood fence posts because of the way the wire is attached to the post. Steel posts are faster to put in, and are less susceptible to wind and termites, but you have to detach the wires from steel posts when you stretch it, and they're not as tough as wood if a cow or sheep decides to try to run through the fence.

Here's a barbwire fence that's older than me, that needs some attention. Can you spot the new post? Note that the new post is nice and round, and was purchased, whereas the other posts were likely cut on the ranch by the rancher, then used as fence posts. But, it costs up to $5,000 per mile, in materials, to completely rebuild a fence like this one, which is another reason you don't see every ranch sporting all new fence.

 The second type of line fence is called woven wire, and is a wire twisted into several small squares that you roll out, stretch, and hang from either wood or steel posts. This is great stuff for sheep, and calves, because they have a much harder time getting out of this than a barbwire fence. It is often topped with one, or two, strands of barbwire, as seen here.

The squares come in varying sizes, and the rolls of fence in varying heights, depending on what you want. There is a lot of this fence left over in the part of Wyoming I live in from when almost everyone raised sheep. It also works well in areas that may receive a little more stress, like by a gate.When we replace this kind of fence on our ranch, we typically put in a different kind of line fence.

This photo is from my boyfriend's place. His fence posts are a lot closer together than ours due largely to the amount of snow they get where he lives. Snow is heavy, and hard on fences. Having more fence posts helps keep it standing through winters with lots of snow.

The third type of line fence we use, and like in a lot of situations, is electric fence. It's just what it sounds like, a fence that will shock you if you touch it when it's plugged in. We have both traditional electric fence chargers, and solar chargers that run off the sun. Why is this around, and used? Because it's cheaper to build than conventional fences - you use lighter wire, fewer strands of wire, and fewer posts because the animals aren't going to challenge it physically more than once or twice - it's a lighter fence so things like wind and snow don't affect it as much, and the posts are fiberglass, so no termites.

Here are some of the fiberglass posts we use next to some normal wood posts, to give you an idea of how they compare in size. Since they're so straight and slick, they don't do a very good job of holding the fence down in low areas (We stretch fence wires on all line fences tight, so a post has to hold it either up, or down, as you cross hills and draws). To hold the fence at the proper height, we bury a deadman (don't know where it got that name), which for electric fences is that steel thing with the hook at one end and the flat square at the other laying across the posts. We  bury that in the ground, and hook the lowest fence wire to it, which holds it down. The wire pictured is smooth wire, and that's the size of barbwire. Electric fence wire is much smaller in diameter, and is a single strand instead of two wound together. The coffee can is holding the pieces we use to connect the wire to the fiberglass posts, which is like a big bobby pin in shape. You put the wire in the middle of the bobby pin, then thread it through the hole in the post, then bend and wrap each end of the bobby pin back around.

Okay, now that we're clear on line fences, lets move on to corral fences. Again, materials last a long time, and are often used based on what's available in an area, and what the cost is. New parts are added, or old parts repaired, in small increments in a lot of instances. Ranchers are also huge on recycling, so in areas where there are oilfields, many use pipe, cable, or sucker rod (part of ours is made from pipe and sucker rod) no longer useful to the oil industry. Likewise, others use old guardrail, old bridge planks (part of ours is made from this too), sheets of steel, railroad ties (again, we use this material) and about anything else sturdy and durable you can think of. Other parts are purchased, or built, to suit a specific ranch's needs, and it's all combined, added on to and rebuilt, as time passes.

Here is part of one set of my uncle's corrals. He purchased this place with these corrals as they are now. The solid wood fence helps block the wind and snow, and it's also good to have solid aspects in corrals where you don't want animals to see out. This can reduce stress for the animals, create a flow through the corral, and a number of other things. Ranchers don't just throw up fences and make it work, a lot of thought and effort goes into designing and building corrals to make it work best for the livestock, and around the landscape.

Here's the alleyway at my uncle's other set of corrals. My great-uncle set all of those tall pitch posts by hand in the late 1960's or early 1970's, after cutting them down, and they're still solid today. This is a high stress area, as animals go down this single file, and those posts were probably the sturdiest thing my family could find at the time. It's about like a bunch of elementary school kids in the lunch line - anything can happen, and as many things as possible are worked into the design to prevent any bad things from happening, with adjustments made over time. For instance, that top board was added to the alleyway after a cow jumped over me when I was baby right where my camera bag is sitting.

In contrast to my uncle's place, we haven't been on ours for generations, and the people before hadn't been big on corral repairs from the look of the place when we bought it. The solid tin area closest in the picture is the only part of the original corral left, and it's slated for replacement next year. The wood in the pen they're putting the sheep into is made from a combination of recycled bridge plank and oilfield pipe. The alleyway the sheep are coming out of is oilfield sucker rod and pipe, and at the opposite end of the alleway is our tub and single file alleyway. The back pen is a combination of wood and pre-fabbed, heavy duty hog panels (same design as woven wire fence, just heavier duty), with recycled railroad ties for posts on part of it, and railroad ties and pre-fabbed steel fence panels called continuous fence on the rest.
Although we do only run cattle today, we did run sheep for over a decade. Several aspects of our corral still reflect the presence of sheep. For instance, the wood fence on the left has a small steel bar running between the two bottom pieces of wood. We left this after selling the sheep because it doesn't hurt anything with running cattle through the corral, and would take a lot of time to remove, so it will stay until that piece of corral is replaced.

This is a brand new fence we rebuilt this fall after our calves ran through the old one just after being weaned, and is our preferred type of corral fence to build. The railroad ties are super-strong, and last a long time since they're treated. The continuous fence panels are also tough, and fast to put up. Each continuous fence panel is 20 feet long, and you screw them onto the railroad ties, and insert smaller pieces of pipe between each panel to create the entire fence.
It's also probably the most economical way we can build corral fence right now,and what you see here cost about $1,200 dollars in materials.

Here is our working tub, and alleyway. Trees are a little harder to come by on the plains we live on compared to the black hills my uncle lives in, and we needed something "now" when we replaced the dilapidated wood alleyway that was here we bought the place. So, we bought a steel, solid-sided tub, and adjustable alleyway. You can see on the left that we also made the moving gates of the tub solid, so the cattle can only see up the alleyway, and theoretically want to go in that direction. The bad part about this setup is the gate at the back of the alleyway is terrible - it's loud, heavy, and cattle don't like going under it, so it's also on the replacement list.

Here are the corrals where we summer our yearling steers, and ship them each fall. These are made from what I'm calling hog panels, with wood posts and reinforcing boards. The side of the barn is also used as a fence for part of these corrals.

And, last but not least, here are the corrals at the grazing association my family belongs to. Again, they're a little closer to the oil and gas industries, which shows from the use of pipe. Having a membership based grazing association means a certain allocation of funds went toward building a nice set of functional corrals that can hold a large number of livestock, and the members most likely voted to build the corrals out of pipe.
So, part of the reason you see so many materials is I take pictures in multiple sets of corrals, and each one is different. Different materials are found in a single set of corrals because it's uneconomical and not time efficient to replace it if it isn't broken.
There are also portable corrals, which are a whole different story...

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