Livestock Lessons: A Fencing Primer

There are several reasons why a landowner might choose to construct a fence. Fences contain livestock and other animals, they can also exclude livestock and other animals, and in other cases the land owner might consider a fence esthetically pleasing. The options range from a single wire of electric to a 5 rail board fence and all points in between. The decision depends upon goals and budget. For purposes of this article, I’ll confine it to livestock fences.

All landowners are responsible for ½ of the fences on property lines even if you do not own any livestock and is governed by Wisconsin Chapter 90, available online at .

Broadly speaking, fences can be broken down into 2 categories, physical fences and psychological fences.

  • Physical fences include barb wire, woven wire, board fences, etc. They create a visible and physical boundary limiting livestock movement.  They also need to be constructed stronger than the animals they are designed to contain, as the animals may choose to rub on or reach through or over the fence to graze on the opposite side of the fence. Think about a 1200-1400 pound cow with her head reaching through a traditional barb wire fence, or a 1000 pound horse reaching over the fence.
  •  Psychological fence, is not physically strong. These are electric fences and they operate on a fear or avoidance principle.  Animals that have contacted a sufficiently energized electric fence incur a sharp painful shock causing them to choose to avoid future pain and thus avoid contact with the fence.

A physical fence will be more expensive to construct than a psychological fence, the costs are additional materials to add strength to resist animal pressure and more labor to install the fence.  A couple other key ideas to keep in mind as you plan for a fencing project. On a per unit basis, a larger field is cheaper to fence than a smaller field.  If you own 1 acre, and its square, it will take about 835 feet of fence to enclose the property. If you own 5 acres and it’s square, it will take about 1867 feet to enclose it. Just over twice the perimeter gives you 5 times the area, fencing a 40 gets cheaper still on per acre basis. Outside of a circle (which is highly impractical) fencing something square is the least amount of materials compared with long and narrow fences and is therefore less costly. We may not always be able to fence square, but from an expense standpoint, we should do so wherever possible.

Other issue to consider might be safety. Do you live along a very busy highway were loose animals would be a threat to public safety and themselves?  A good perimeter fence is essential. You do not want loose livestock at your neighbors, nor on public roads, this represents a liability. If they are loose but are still on your property, while annoying, it isn’t the end of good relationships with neighbors. Are you in a higher predator area?  Fencing can be part of a deterrent system, but few fences are 100% effective to all predators, at least that we can economically construct.

If you are planning on building a lot of fence, and have time and some skills, it is something that can be learned. If not, there are numerous skilled contractors that can be hired to build fence. They have specialized tools and experience, allowing them to complete projects quickly.

Regardless of the type of fence, occasionally we run into an individual that simply has no respect for any type of fence we can affordably construct.  I’ve had a bull that way and a couple sheep over the years. The best bet is to administer a full dose of “trailermycin” before they “teach” the other herd or flock mates this trick.

Here are some examples of fencing that can work for different livestock.
Single wire, High Tensile Electric
Dairy Cows, Possibly Beef Cows, Possible Stockers.

Not a legal boundary fence in WI.

5-Wire High Tensile – Middle wire electric
Dairy, Beef, Horses Sheep/Goats -3 or more wires need electric.
Can be a legal boundary fence

5 Strand barb wire
Dairy, Beef, Horse
Can be a legal boundary fence

Woven wire with electric offset
Dairy, Beef, Horses, Sheep, Goats
Can be a legal boundary fence

Four Rail Fence
Dairy, Beef, Sheep, Goats
Can be a legal boundary fence

Author: Gene Schriefer
Interim Agriculture Educator- Iowa County UWEX

Originally Published: The Weekend Farmer, Spring 2009