Jay Pinsky: Taking the shock out of how to build electric fences

Holding onto the right traditions can make you proud. Holding onto the wrong ones may have your cattle roaming around Shenandoah County.

There’s nothing outdated about the tradition of building fences to control livestock. Physical barriers work. Sturdy, strong and yes, expensive to build and maintain traditional cattle fences have been successful for generations at keeping our four-legged critters off the mean streets of Strasburg.

There might be a better way to keep your livestock where you want them. In fact, even if you have to move your animals – often, there might be an easier and more economical way to fence your livestock, and the folks at the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) office and Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District (LFSWCD) just held a workshop at the Shenandoah County Farm to teach you how.

There’s just one catch, you have to be willing to plug your fence in …

Farmers are too, like Karla Funkhouser, who runs a cow-calf operation and grows hay on Funkhouser Farm near Lebanon Church. “This class was very useful because I was able to find out all the things I was doing wrong,” she said. “I did things the way my father did and he wasn’t always right or progressive. I wish I had this class 20 years ago.”

Brad Shaw, left, of Pasture Management Systems Inc., helps Karla Funkhouser, owner of Funkhouser Farm near Lebanon Church, install an electrical fence at the Shenandoah County Farm during a workshop co-hosted by the Virginia Cooperative Extension office and Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District. Courtesy photo by Jay Pinsky

The idea for electric fences came from New Zealand during the 1930s. The concept of using electrified high-tensile, smooth wire with a small dose of shock enables farmers to use less intensive physical barriers because of the psychological impact electrical fencing has on the animals.

“We train the animals to the fact that the electric fence is there and it becomes a psychological barrier, they learn the fence is there and they won’t test it” said Corey Childs, Warren County who attended the workshop with his Shenandoah Cooperative Extension Agent partner, Robert Clark.

In the big scheme of things, according to Childs, the use of lower-cost and easier to install fences, permanent or temporary, gives farmers more flexibility to rotate their livestock on to different parts of their pastures, which can improve overall soil and water health. Pasture rotation allows the growth of a constant vegetation cover which reduces soil erosion, reduces phosphorous and sediment runoff and allows the pastures to grow into large riparian buffers which help improve water quality.

According to Van Medley, a professional fence-builder with Tru-Test Group who helped teach the workshop, using electric fencing, specifically high-tensile, smooth wire fencing is indeed a less expensive and easier to install and maintain alternative to traditional livestock fences. Medley said it takes about half the time to install an electric fence as it does a traditional fence, lasts longer because livestock learns to avoid it and costs about half the price of a traditional fence. Medley added that while building an electric fence is a simple project, it’s still one that requires the proper training to be effective.

“Some of the most common problems I see in electric fences are bad grounding systems, or even the lack of one, inadequate voltage on the fence, improper connections and voltage leakage,” he said.

The idea of using electric fencing can be both easier and less expensive; two words farmers probably aren’t used to hearing regardless of what traditions they might adhere to.

For more information about electric fencing, contact your local Shenandoah County Virginia Cooperative Extension agent Robert “Bobby” Clark at (540) 459-6140 or by email at raclark@vt.edu or the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District at (540) 465-2424 or visit us on the Internet at www.lfswcd.org

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.