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Corralling Cattle — Summer 2009 | Out Here Magazine

There's more to keeping them in than simply stringing wire

By Heather Loveridge
Photograph courtesy of Keystone Steel & Wire

If you've experienced the frustration of chasing down a runaway cow, you know that good fencing is essential to keeping cattle, whether you have one or 100.

Three basic fence types are best suited for cattle: traditional barbed wire, woven wire and high tensile smooth wire, says Ken Edwards, a longtime cattle owner and technical support manager with Red Brand-Keystone Steel & Wire.

Good cattle fencing contains two vital characteristics: a physical barrier and visual barrier, Edwards says.

Barbed wire, the most commonly used cattle fence, has a built-in physical barrier.

Five strands of barbed wire is recommended, but that can vary. A Wyoming rancher running one cow per 100 acres might be satisfied with three strands, while a Florida rancher with 10 cows per 10 acres needs five strands.

Woven wire offers an excellent visual and physical barrier because of the amount of wire per foot. But cattle are notorious for destroying fences, unless there's a deterrent.

A strand of barbed wire or electric wire along the top of a woven wire fence prevents cattle from leaning over the fence, Edwards says.

"But what people forget is that if a cow gets an itch, it will look for the closest place to relieve that itch, which can be the fence," he says. "They'll do a belly rub down the fence and cause the woven wire to bow out."

Prevent that by installing one strand of barbed wire 24 inches down from the top of the fence, Edwards recommends.

High tensile smooth wire — to construct an electric fence — is an economical way to install fencing. Indeed, the cost per running foot is 25 to 75 percent less than barbed or woven wire. It also is durable, and will last 20 to 30 years with little maintenance when it's properly installed.

High tensile wire can withstand more than 1,000 pounds of livestock pressure and low-temperature contraction without losing elasticity, according to the University of Michigan Extension Service. It also requires fewer posts and less time to erect and repair.

When you finally decide on fencing, Edwards offers four bits of sage advice:

Install a gate — "If you're trying to get a cow back in, she's not going to use the hole she went through or the one you cut," he says. "Why destroy fence when you could just open a gate?"

Use proper bracing — "Bracing is vital," he says. "No matter what material used, the brace member that goes across needs to be twice the length of the fence height."

Don't cut corners — "If a cross fence joins a perimeter fence or even is just a corner of the property and the angle is less than 90 degrees, it creates a place for a cow to get hemmed in," he says. "Make it 90 degrees or more so the cattle can walk the fence or you can mow the fence without having a pinch point in the corner."

Plan properly — "A little bit of planning and research goes a long way when it comes to a long-term investment like fencing."

Heather Loveridge is a Georgia-based writer.