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  • Ian Thompson

Of Good Fences and Good Neighbors

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

The end of a year is a good time to reflect on a season's challenges and successes. Early January will mark a year since we began setting up our fences on the Nan Away Heritage Farmstead. You can see our progress in this image. The blue and the green lines mark the fences that we have completed in 2017. The yellow lines are the fences we plan to build during the next few years.

Our long-term goal has been to get our land set up a rotational grazing system, where we will rarely - if ever- have to feed hay, never have to use herbicide, never have to reseed grass, never have to fertilize (other than maybe lime), and where we will be able to give our animals what they need to help us restore the native tallgrass savanna on our land.

On our first piece of land, we learned how to build 6-ft tall woven wire and barbwire fences. They worked perfectly - in four years, our animals never got through them. After talking with a lot of buffalo producers, we decided to go with high tensile electric fence on our new land. The electric fence is less of a physical barrier and more of a psychological barrier. The zap from an electric fence triggers a response in a buffalo's brain much like a wolf nip would. Instead of tearing down the fence, or jumping over it, they move away. Electric fence is also cheaper than barbwire, takes a fraction of the time to install, and you never have to deal with those annoying barbs.

For peace of mind, we overbuilt our perimeter fence a bit - 6ft tall, 6 wires (3 hot and 3 cold), solid wooden posts. Our interior fences are 5ft tall, with three hot wires, and flexible fiberglass posts. You can drive your truck right over it at 20mph , and the fence just pops back up. Both of these fences have a 7,000-9,500 volt charge, depending on moisture and how much plant material has grown into them. The energizer creates that charge for just a split second, so no damage is done to people or animals that touch it. We know first-hand because Ian has face-planted into it.

From our mentors, we learned to build a training pen for the animals to get used to the electric fence. The fences around this pen are electrified, but also solid enough that the animals couldn't push them down without some serious work. After we moved our animals onto our new land, we kept them in the corral for a month to get used to their surroundings. Then, we kept them in two electric fence training pens for another month to get them used to the fence.

We never actually saw them touch this fence, but it probably went something like the time we set up an electric cross fence on our old land. Our dominant bull went up and touched his nose to the new fence - Click! He snorted, shook his head, charged around the field, tossed a hay bail into the air, and circled back to the same spot on the fence. He stretched out his nose every so gently and - Click! Another lap around the pasture, a charge at the other buffalo, and then he was done touching that fence. This was the first time that anything, plant, animal, or mineral had gotten the best of him. It was probably a healthy experience for him to have. After his tantrum, our other animals went right down their pecking order touching their noses to the fence. What was difficult for our bull to accept hardly bothered the animals at the bottom of the order at all.

In 2017, fencing has actually been fun, and also humbling. Due to realities such as a broken arm, limited available hours off-work hours, and limited equipment, we just couldn't do every part of it on our own. A neighbor helped us take out some of the larger trees on the perimeter; a contractor helped us to built the perimeter fence. Another neighbor has helped us clear the thickest patches of brush from our fence line that our little tractor can't handle. We are grateful for it all. Since July, the two of us have installed 1.5 miles of electrified pasture fence entirely with hand tools, in our free time, which consists of only about one day every two weeks. With this interior fence, we've built 5 big pastures and three little ones.

Nearly a month after our first killing freeze, our animals are still eating green grass buried under this year's growth in our most-recently completed pasture. Next summer, we'll be able to graze these pastures on a 2 week rotation, giving the grass 70 days to regrow in between. When we finish all of the pastures that we have planned, we'll be able to put the animals on a one week rotation and give the grass 90 days to regrow. That will be a huge step in reaching our land-management goals and it will also allow us to expand out heard to 30+ animals.

Note- Since this post was written, we've learned that the best way to have healthy soil is to foster a community of diverse native plant species. This is done by matching the size of our herd to the carrying capacity of the land, grazing them in a way that leaves tall and short patches, using range fire, and constantly monitoring and changing rest/grazing periods on the landscape. Cross fencing has become just one tool in our strategy. See posts on 10/31/20 and 1/30/21 for where we are now in our understanding of these issues.

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