Thursday, April 23, 2009


Mike and I have been constructing new fence lately. Fencing is a continuous activity around here and the explanation is lengthy. Probably, for many, too much information but I actually will try and edit for length.
I believe the poet Robert Frost is credited with the quote "Good fences make good neighbors."
The increased appreciation for naturally grown, pasture-fed animal protein should modify the quote to "Good fences make good farmers."
For the past few decades nearly all farmers were busy pulling out fences and plowing up the fence rows. Reasons being - good land going to waste, the larger tractors and equipment needing more room, and Extension promoting the efficiency of mechanical harvesting over pasturing. Of course, fuel was 35 cents a gallon, labor was $2.00 an hour and a new tractor was similarly a quarter of today's cost. Important also to remember that manure was considered a waste product barely worth the cost of spreading.
By the time we got to Loop Rd. in 1971 the fences here, many constructed after the timber was cut off, were gone. Some wire remained in the trees along the boundary lines and a few lonely posts were standing, but the fences were worse than gone - all the wire remained. Rusted, fallen, still stapled to rotted posts, overgrown and grown into brush and sod. Fence karma seemed to be that for every roll of wire put up, we pulled out two. But fencing has always been a part of the program around here. It is essential to land utilization and protection and necessary for proper rotation, both long term and short term.
Fence is a regular part of the outlay, like buildings, equipment and land improvement. Even when we worked all winter to save a thousand dollars for spring start up money, a hundred dollars would be set aside for fence materials. We mostly bought wire. Posts were cut from the Putney's cedar swamp and used to fence both our property and 60 acres of their farmland east of us. Rod by rod wire was pulled and fence was built: property lines, roadsides, fields, paddocks, barnyards, and chicken yards. Critters were fenced in and critters were fenced out.
We now have about 6 miles of permanent fence, 160 acres 'under wire' with over 3 miles of that being woven wire mostly around our perimeter and the winter cattle paddocks. The remaining fence is mostly 2 and 3 strand barbed hot wire - the perimeter of the Putney's, and the cross- fencing that divides those larger acreages into smaller fields. If the average distance between posts is one rod(16 1/2') and the average life of a cedar post is 12-15 years it takes about 150 posts a year just to stay even. Recently we have begun using some steel posts. Costly but quicker and longer lasting. In some idling moment (probably driving), I once counted the number of gates we had and came up with 75 in various forms and styles. 
  In addition to 4 barnyards and three chicken yards, there are now 19 fenced fields ranging in size from 1 to 35 acres. The 3 largest fenced fields are usually divided by temporary hot wire depending on what crop is growing and the time of year. Most of the fields are about four acres-a size big enough to rotate crops and cattle through with reasonable efficiency. A whole chapter could and will be written on  soils and rotation, but for now it will suffice to say that the goal is to grow good grass. When land comes out of sod, it spends 3 or 4 years growing feed crops and green manure, then is planted back to hay, usually alfalfa and grass. This will ultimately give way to the finer, shorter, more rapidly growing grass that is then maintained as pasture. On the better ground it takes about 20 years to get through the rotation. The sandier soils have been managed differently in an attempt to rebuild humus levels on some land that was burned out by bad stewardship and tenancy practices.
So our latest fencing project was to square off an existing hayfield and build a large paddock next to the existing winter paddock at the Ervin place. This has been in sod since the early 90's and is about 4 1/2 acres. We have moved the new mothers and calves into this area and plowed up the adjoining paddock for oats. After most of the calves are born and everyone has moved out to pasture for the summer we will plow up this paddock and plant it to field corn. Then in the fall after the corn is picked we will move them back on the corn stalks for the winter. Both paddocks are adjacent to the barns and water.
As fencing goes, this construction was very uncomplicated - a straight run of 42" woven wire, about 1000', gates at both ends. Put in big old power poles at the end to stretch and hang the gates from. Brace and stretch the wire to other poles at 20 rods, and heavy cedar posts on the knoll tops and down in the dips, pound steel posts every 6 paces, attach with stays and staples. Done - for now. Stretched with the loader tractor it twangs like piano wire. "Horse high, hog tight and bull strong."  The cattle are in it munching a little new grass along with dry hay. The calves of course treat it like a new playground. We also turned out 17 steers born last spring so the playground has kindergardeners tagging after adolescents. 
This is one more reason why we farm.       

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