No matter what project my husband and I decide to tackle, it nearly always comes down to the same thing: homestead fencing. Garden fencing to keep groundhogs and cottontails away from our vegetables. Fences to keep our dairy goats away from our fruit trees. Fences to keep our chickens in and the neighbor’s dogs out. And just when we think we’ve tackled all of our homestead fencing projects, we decide to add another poultry house or to give the goats new grazing ground, so up go more fences.
As we travel around the countryside we often take note of new homestead fences being built and old fences, or not so old fences, tumbling down. The all-time record for the latter was a newly constructed fence that lasted all of three months before it began to sag and crumble.
Here are five homestead fencing mistakes you can easily avoid when tackling DIY fence installation projects.
1) Choosing the Wrong Kind of Homestead Fencing
Buying materials and putting up homestead fencing is an expensive and time-consuming proposition, so it pays beforehand to do plenty of research and planning. The first place to start is with your city or county planning commission. Since local zoning laws may restrict your choice, find out if any regulations pertain to fence design or construction in your area. Putting up a fence that doesn’t conform to local restrictions can result in having to take down your newly built fence and possibly pay a fine as well.
Even where no local regulations restrict your choice, selecting the best fence isn’t always easy, since each system has inherent strengths and weaknesses. At our place, for example, the goats’ grazing area is fenced with high tensile electric fence, and cross fenced with temporary electric polywire that can be easily removed when the paddocks need mowing. We use post and plank fence along the driveway, stock panels to control breeding bucks in season, and chain link to protect our poultry and garden. We’ve learned, you see, that there is no right fence only the right fence for the job.
Exactly which homestead fencing system will do a good job for you depends on what you are trying to accomplish: keep animals in, keep animals out, or both. It also depends on what kind of animals are involved, how big they are, and how motivated they are to get in or out. Among livestock, dairy cows and beef cattle are the easiest to contain. Horses are only a little less so. Next come pigs, sheep, goats, and game animals, in that order. Poultry, on the other hand, present special challenges because they can be small enough to slip through some fences or light enough to fly over.
Knowing the habits of your animals will help you select the right homesteading fencing system to keep them in: are they climbers, crawlers, diggers, chewers, or back rubbers? What are their seasonal characteristics like the ability of baby animals to slip through an otherwise sturdy fence or the propensity of breeding age stock in season to bash a fence down.
More difficult than keeping stock in can be keeping predators out, whether to prevent hungry coyotes from getting at the sheep or deterring groundhogs from nibbling on the ripe tomatoes. Here again, know the habits of these animals. Coyotes, for example, tend to be less adventuresome than dogs about getting through a fence, but once they have a taste of what’s on the other side you’ll have a devil of a time keeping them from coming back.
So determine exactly what the purpose of your fence will be. Know the habits of the animals you wish to keep in and keep out. Select a style of fence that can best withstand the demands of the most determined fence crashers. And make sure your chosen style homestead fencing conforms to local regulations.
2) Failing to Anchor Down Anchor Posts
A fence is only as strong as its posts, making posts the most important part of any fence. They’re also the most expensive part. It makes good sense, therefore, to take time and care in selecting and installing them. Most fences require at least two different kinds of post, according to their role within the fence.
You’ll need stout posts at key spots such as corners, curves, dips, rises, and gates. Posts in these positions are called anchor posts, since they anchor the fence, giving it strength and stability. Anchor posts generally are larger in diameter than line posts and are longer so they can be set deeper into the ground. Most fence failures result from anchor posts that are not set deeply enough into the ground, not properly braced for the style of fence being erected, and not set in concrete. Even when anchor posts are set in concrete, if you don’t wait a couple of days for the concrete to set before attaching the fence, your anchor posts will wobble and eventually fail.
Line posts are the evenly spaced posts between the anchor posts. They need not be as strong as anchor posts since they incur much less stress. Their primary purpose is to position the homestead fencing material. The taller your fence, the longer your line posts should be, not just to accommodate the higher fence but also so you can set them deeper to support the fence’s weight.
The type of fence you choose to install will determine the necessary distance between line posts, which may be as close together as 8′ for a woven wire fence or as far apart as 50′ for high tensile fence installation on level ground. If your soil is sandy or moist, you keep animals in close confinement, or you space your line posts farther apart than usual, you’ll need stouter line posts than otherwise.
Both anchor posts and line posts should be as straight as possible. Besides looking bad, crooked posts place extra strain on homestead fencing material. And run a string to ensure your line posts are set in a straight line between your anchor posts; even a small deviation in the position of your line posts can put a big strain on your fence.
Using trees as fence posts is a bad idea for several reasons. First, trees attract lightning, which can seriously damage your fence. Second, as a tree grows, the homestead fencing material will grow into the trunk, damaging both the fence and the tree. Finally, some future woodsman may not know the tree has been embedded with wire, staples, or nails, with possible dire consequences to life or limb when saw hits metal.
So do the job right. Take extra care with your anchor posts to ensure they are sturdy enough for your chosen fence style, buried deeply enough for your soil type, set in concrete, and well braced. Use line posts that are strong enough, and set close enough together, to adequately support your fence material.
3) Gates In All the Wrong Places
Discovering after your fence is up that your gates are in the wrong places can be annoying at best and downright inconvenient at worst. Moving gate posts can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, so give serious thought beforehand to where you’ll put your gates. Place them in well-drained areas to avoid muddy conditions. Keep them out of the path of erosion, since through traffic will only make matters worse.
Take into consideration your normal patterns of movement and put gates where they’ll be the most convenient. If you are fencing a pasture or large garden, a gate near the corner will encourage vehicle or foot traffic to move along the fence instead of cutting down the middle. If you’re confining livestock, a corner gate lets you drive animals along the fence and out.
A gate that opens onto a roadway should be set far enough back so you can pull your vehicle off the road while you get out to open the gate. A generous setback is especially important on a narrow road with little or no shoulder.
Just as important as proper gate placement is proper size. A gate designed strictly for foot traffic should be wide enough to admit your favorite wheelbarrow, garden cart, or riding lawnmower. In general, four feet is the minimum width for foot traffic.
For larger equipment or livestock, a 10- to 12-foot gate is more appropriate. For vehicles and machinery, 14 feet should be wide enough, although a 16-foot gate may be necessary for major farm machinery, especially if the driver has to turn at the entry.
If you have any doubts about what size gate you need, play it safe and go to the next larger size. The gate’s height should, of course, match your fence.
A gate gets more wear than the rest of the fence, so it should be strong and made of top quality materials. To keep the gate from sagging and being difficult to operate, set and brace your gate posts the same as you would any anchor posts.
4) Fencing Someone Else’s Property
Among the worst homestead fencing horror stories are those involving carefully putting up an expensive fence only to learn it is over the property line and has to be torn down. Sometimes the mistake is discovered right away; other times it isn’t discovered until years later, when one or the other property is surveyed prior to being sold.
So if you put up a boundary fence, make sure you know where your property line is, even if you have to hire a surveyor to find out. Local setback restrictions may dictate how close to your property line you can place your fence. You’ll also want to talk with your highway commissioner and check your deed to make sure you won’t be putting the fence inside a right of way or across an easement.
If you want to put a fence right on your property line, and local regulations allow you to do so, your neighbor may be willing to share in the cost and maintenance. Get an agreement in writing, detailing all the specifics. Where long-term maintenance is involved, record any agreement that allows you to enter the neighbor’s property to repair your fence. You and your neighbor may be best friends now, but tomorrow some old grouch may move in next door.
In the event you can’t get a written agreement, build your fence sufficiently inside your property line that you can mow and otherwise maintain both sides. At the least, allow enough setback so concrete footers and other protruding parts won’t encroach on the neighbor’s land. Some future challenge to the placement of your fence could end up in a costly court battle requiring subsequent moving of the fence.
5) Digging Into Underground Utilities
Before digging your first post hole, make sure your fence won’t interfere with any underground structure, such as a septic tank and its leach lines. If you’re putting up any kind of metal fence beneath overhead power lines, seek safety advice from your local power company. Finally, find out if your planned fence will interfere with any underground utilities.
The depth of utility lines varies, and sometimes multiple utility lines are buried together. Furthermore, each state has different rules and regulations governing digging. To keep from doing damage to utilities, causing service interruptions, experiencing bodily injury, and possibly having to ante up for a fine and repair costs, your best insurance is to dial 811 and tap into the free national call-before-you-dig service. (For online information on this service visit www.call811.com).
Your call will be routed to the appropriate utilities center. Tell the operator where you plan to set your fence posts. Any affected utilities companies will be notified about your intent to dig. In a few days, at no charge to you, a utility locator will come out and mark the locations of your underground lines, pipes, and cables. Now you can start building your fence, having the peace of mind of knowing where you can safely dig.
Originally published in Countryside March / April 2011 and regularly vetted for accuracy.