DIY Fence Installation and Maintenance on the Homestead
Tips for Building Livestock and Homestead Fencing
By Heather Smith Thomas – When building a new fence, you need to consider whether to go with DIY fence installation or hire it to be done. Probably the most crucial part of fence maintenance is whether the fence was put up well, with quality materials. Then it will last longer, and cost you less time and money to keep it going.
“If this is something you are not completely comfortable doing because you don’t have the experience you may not do it correctly,” says Dr. Bob Coleman, Extension Specialist at the University of Kentucky. “It’s wise to price it all out and put a value on your time.” Regarding maintenance on existing fences, to extend their life and reduce the maintenance or replacement costs, many fences can be helped by keeping the animals from chewing, leaning or rubbing on them. Putting up a hot wire inside the fence can often serve this purpose. “This will keep them back away from the fence. It’s often quite easy to just put up an electric wire, and the animals will leave the fence alone,” he says. This will protect a wooden fence from chewing by horses, or keep any fence protected from livestock rubbing on it or reaching over or under. Keeping them away from it will help prolong the life of any fence.
Fence maintenance is no different than changing the oil in your vehicles or machinery. It needs to be done regularly and on time. If you see a post with a problem, fix it, before an animal gets out or gets hurt or a longer stretch of fence is compromised, adding to your expenses. If wires get loose or a post is leaning, eventually a lot more of the fence is in need of maintenance. Timely repairs save time and expense later.
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It is often prudent to buy things you know you will eventually need for DIY fence installation or maintenance, when the price is lowest. “You may want to buy a few extra posts, even if you only need a couple right now, if the price is reasonable. This might be the time to have a stockpile of things you know you will need later,” says Coleman. If you need it right now, and you already have it, you are more apt to go fix the fence in a timely fashion, rather than putting it off till the next time you go to town. It’s wise to have a plan about what you might need and when you might need it, and keep those things on hand, purchasing ahead of time at the most favorable prices. Store the extra supplies in a handy, weatherproof place so they will be useful and easy to access when you need them. It’s nice to have an extra rail, so you can fix a board that breaks.
“It also pays to do some scheduled maintenance, to make repairs before something breaks or comes loose,” he says. This is where many people fall short, waiting until something is a real problem before it gets attention. If you can do periodic scheduled maintenance, a lot of things can be taken care of swiftly and easily before they need a major repair on any homestead fencing.
Walking your fences should be done at least twice a year, such as every spring and fall. If you go around the pastures and pound in all the nails that came loose over winter, or retighten any sagging wires or mesh, this will keep your fence safer and lasting longer. “It may save additional costs or a vet bill. It also pays to monitor fences that go through trees, in case limbs or trees fall over the fence. It’s great to have the trees for shade, but you may need to prune off some limbs or take out a dead tree before it falls down and takes the fence with it.”
Regular maintenance in spring and fall will go a long way toward prolonging the life of a fence and saving money in the process. All types of fence eventually need maintenance. Wire fences need to be re-stretched occasionally, regardless of how well you put the corner posts in. Sometimes wildlife stretch or break the wires, or a tree falls down over a fence, or your animals rub on or lean over a fence.
The sturdier the fence, the less often it will be stretched or broken, but over time most fences will need some repairs. Even though PVC (plastic polymer) fences and/or wide strip fences require less maintenance than wire or wood, they still require periodic checking and maintenance, to make sure all the clips and suspensions are in place and will withstand the winter, or the extensive livestock use in the summer. Electric fencing for horses or any livestock presents a different range of challenges. It needs to be checked frequently because it has insulation and connections, and you have to make sure these are all intact and working properly. Just like any other type of fence, you need to carefully address the construction, regarding durability. Also make sure that the fence is well grounded, or moisture and weeds, etc. will present more problems.
Fencing in Rocky Ground
DIY fence installation can be a challenge in rocky terrain, making it difficult or impossible to dig postholes. Michael Thomas, a rancher near Salmon, Idaho — a town known for its rich homestead heritage — has been building fence in very rocky country all his life and also doing contract fencing. He generally uses a post-pounder wherever terrain is feasible (not too steep) to take a tractor. An innovative tool he uses in rocky ground is a metal pilot post to make a hole for the wood post.
“The pilot post is only three to four inches in diameter. The bottom three feet is solid steel with a sharp tip; the top part is hollow well casing so it’s light enough to carry around, and the top has a solid cap for the driver to slam down on,” says Thomas. “You can drive it into just about anything but solid rock, since it pushes aside most rocks. You drive it in as far as you can, then pull it out, insert the wood post and drive it down into the slightly smaller hole, and that wood post will be very tight and secure,” he explains.
When it comes to DIY fence installation in rocky ground, sometimes it might be easier to dig the holes for large brace posts with a backhoe. If the terrain is solid rock, some fence contractors use a jack-hammer to create the post holes. A small rock drill is more portable than a jackhammer, since it doesn’t need compressed air. This tool is a large electric drill, used for drilling holes in or breaking up concrete, and has various bits including 1-1/2 inch chisel bits for drilling into solid rock. It can be run off a small, portable generator. “This drill rotates and drills at the same time and makes a hole exactly the right size for a metal fence or metal T-post,” says Thomas. “In solid rock you only need to drill down about a foot and drop the metal post into the hole, and it is completely tight and secure because there’s no give in the surrounding rock. For a brace post you can make a deeper hole using extra long bits that can go down about 30 inches. With a little more work you can make a hole large enough diameter for a wood post. For horses, you can use smooth wire on metal T-posts, and safety caps on top of the posts. In solid rock, this is often a feasible option for making a secure but inexpensive fence.” If terrain is very rocky and you don’t want to deal with a lot of post holes, it’s often nice to build a suspension fence. The posts can be a long way apart, with stays in between to help keep the wire tight and properly spaced.
In some instances, you may opt for a jack fence (buck fence) rather than dig post holes in solid rock. In windy country, however, a strong gust of wind can tip over a whole section of fence unless it’s well anchored. “To keep it from blowing over you can hang a large rock under one of the jacks every so often, or make a small rock basket under some of the jacks, with the jack secured to the basket,” says Thomas. To make a jack fence safer for horses, you can saw off the top of the inside jack a little more flush with the fence so a horse won’t run into it. Another option is a “worm” fence, created of logs or large poles, set upon one another in interlocking fashion at right angles. Where terrain is too rocky for setting posts, with lots of rocks strewn on top of the ground as well, any fence can be easily braced with a rock basket instead of posts set in the ground. “Gather and stack the rocks and then secure them with net wire, or make the wire cage/basket first and fill it with rocks,” says Thomas.” Rocks are heavy enough that a cage about three to four feet in diameter/width (and however tall you want it) is very adequate to make a solid anchor for any wire fence.”
Good luck with your next DIY fence installation project.
Published in Countryside March/April 2011 and regularly vetted for accuracy.