Electric fencing for beginners

by Liz Beavis

Electric fencing seems complicated...

We were a bit slow to start using electric fencing.  It all seemed very complicated to me, which is stupid really, I did study physics at high school and university, I should be able to understand how an electric fence works!  Maybe I was over-thinking it, because now we've had a bit of practice, they seem very simple and very very useful.

Strip grazing a paddock of forage sorghum

Electric fencing is really easy and SO useful!

If you have a small area that you need to fence permanently or temporarily, electric fencing is the cheapest, most flexible and quickest method.  I seriously don't think we'll be doing much more barb-wired fencing, apart from our perimeter fences and maybe to split up our largest paddock.  Apart from that, I think we will be using more electric fencing. 

For a simple temporary fence, all you need is electric fence wire or tape, fence posts or clips to attach to an existing fence, an energiser and a battery (unless you get a mains powered energiser).  We usually run the wire/tape out around the area, and then position the posts at sensible intervals.  We set up the earth, connect the energiser to power and turn on the fence.

energiser on the post, attached to polywire, battery and earth stake


Electric fence "earth" is the key

It took me a while to work out what the "earth" was for, but once you understand that, the rest of the fence makes more sense.  There are two ways of setting up the fence, either using an earth return wire or all live wires and an earth stake.  With the earth return wire you alternate live and earth wires. 

With the earth stake, its just a metal rod in ground connected to the earth on the energiser.  Some people use really long stakes, like 6 m long stakes, but we just use an old tent peg.  So far we have been able to use just one or two live wires, with an earth stake. If you don't have an earth wire, you are relying on the ground to complete the circuit, which works ok if your soil is currently moist.

Either way, when an animal touches the fence and contacts both the earth (wire or literally the change going into the ground) and a live wire, they complete the electric circuit and receive a shock.  The energiser itself is connected to the live wires, and to the earth wire or earth stake.  

What size energiser do you need for your electric fence?

Energisers come in different sizes designed to cover different nominal distances.  When you first introduce cattle to an electric fence its a good idea to use an oversized energiser for the distance you're fencing.  If the first shock they ever get is a strong one, they are unlikely to touch the fence again.  Cattle are very set in their ways, our house cow Bella will not touch an electric fence wire or tape, or even walk over a fence, whether it is energised or not, so we don't even have to use an energiser to keep her on the right side.  

Our neighbour's goats, however, can hear when the fence is on or off and are very opportunistic if they do notice that its off.  If you have a lot of vegetation touching the fence, it will drain some of the charge, so its best to oversize the energiser in this case as well.

brafords in the sorghum, its taller than them,
so they could waste it if they had the entire area at once

This sounds silly, but we didn't know you could leave the excess wire on the reel!

Another thing that we figured out by trial and error was that you can leave some of the fencing tape or wire on the plastic reel, you can even buy reels with handles and gears that make it easier to wind up the fence and move it (yep, before that we were cutting the excess wire, so we had lots of short bits, woops!).  Now when we are making temporary fences, we just wind out what we need and attach the energiser to the fence (handy hint that we just figured out - the energiser does not need to be at the end of the fence, it can be connected at any convenient location).  

Temporary electric fencing opens up a world of opportunities

Here is a few examples of how we use electric fences:
  • We have fenced off an eroded area of our property that needed a rest from hooves, it is making an impressive recovery
  • We fence inside the house yard so that the house cows can come in and trim the grass (lawn moo-ers), this saves us mowing and lets them eat some nice green grass
  • We have been strip grazing our 17 acres of forage sorghum as we haven't had very good weather for making hay.  This way the cattle get a few acres at a time and don't waste as much, they are also spreading their manure over the cultivation area
Molly trimming in the house yard, and my garden is safe behind the fence

Where can you find out more about electric fencing?

The best way to learn more about electric fencing is to go to your local produce store and pick up a brochure in the electric fence section, most of the companies publish little handbooks that you can take away for free.  I think they realise that everyone needs a bit more information about electric fencing!  This is where I learnt what I know, also from a bit of trial and error.
How do you use electric fences?  Do you have any questions? 
Other posts about electric fencing on Eight Acres:

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