Fencing the Farm
An Authoritative Discussion, from the Viewpoint of Efficient Management, of One of the Land-Owner’s Most Vexing Problems
by Walter F. Handschin, Chief of Farm Organization and Management at the University of Illinois, reprinted from The Breeder’s Gazette, December 2, 1920
Fencing the farm is to a large extent a problem in farm organization. The amount of fencing required on a livestock farm is determined largely by the farm layout–the location of the farmstead, the arrangement of the field system, and the location and extent of the permanent pasture areas. The character of the fencing required will be determined very largely by the kinds of livestock kept. Horses, cattle, sheep, swine, and poultry all have somewhat different fencing requirements.
In the physical organization of the livestock farm the location of the farmstead may have an important bearing on the amount of fencing required. Where all of the fields are to be used by livestock–where the rotation pasture occupies a regular place in the cropping scheme, or where animals are used to harvest stalk fields, aftermath, or other waste materials–the farmstead should be located as centrally as possible with reference to the farm fields. This reduces to the minimum the amount of fencing required in providing lanes to connect the farmstead with the farm fields.
Inasmuch as it is usually desirable to locate the farmstead on a public road, the most advantageous arrangement would be to locate it in the center of one side of the farm facing onto the public highway. Thus in Plan 1, showing a suggested arrangement for a regular quarter-section farm with a five-year rotation, the farmstead is so located and the field system so arranged as to reduce the amount of fencing practically to the minimum. One lane, 86 rods long, makes it possible to connect the farmstead with each of the farm fields. This plan not only reduces the amount of fencing required in handling the farm livestock, but it reduces to the minimum the labor required in transferring livestock from the farmstead to any of the farm fields or from one field to another. Under this plan of field arrangement the average distance from the farmstead to the five major fields is reduced to 31 rods. This reduces to the minimum the time required by horses and men in traveling back and forth between the farmstead and the fields in doing the field work. It also reduces the hauling distance in bringing crops from the fields to the farmstead, or in hauling fertilizer from the farmstead to the field.
Obviously it will be impossible in many cases, because of topography, the shape of the farm, or the existing location of the farmstead, to work out any such ideal arrangement as is suggested in Plan 1. It is important, however, to have clearly in mind the general principles involved in planning the most advantageous physical organization of the farm, in order that the changes which are actually being made on a large number of our farms each year may conform to some well-defined plan. The actual realization of such plans may be many years ahead. Someone is making important changes in his farm plans every year. In the aggregate this includes many thousands of farmers. If we could induce only these to give more careful thought to developing some kind of systematic plan we should soon note great improvements in the physical organization of our farms both from the standpoint of efficient field arrangement and the economical use of fencing.
The amount of fencing required will naturally be influenced by the number of fields in the field system. Since large fields require relatively less fencing than small ones, it will be in the interest of economy to have the farm fields as large as practicable. Where a regular rotation is used, it is usually desirable to have one field for each crop-year, or unit, in the rotation. The shape of the farm, or the topography, often makes it necessary to combine two or more smaller fields to make up one unit of the rotation. A farmer operating 160 acres may have 150 acres in crop with a five-year rotation made up of five 30-acre units, as shown in Plan 1. In practice it will not always be possible to have each of the 30-acre units in one regular field. It may be necessary to make up one or more of these 30-acre units by using two separate fields, the combined area of which will equal 30 acres–6 and 24, 10 and 20, or 14 and 16 acres. The regular arrangement shown in Plan 1 represents the possibilities under somewhat ideal conditions. While this arrangement will often not be entirely possible in practice, it serves to illustrate the general principle involved in studying this kind of farm problem.
In planning the field system to fit the rotation on the somewhat larger farms, 320 acres and more, it may be practicable to have each unit in the rotation made up of two fields instead of one. For example, if the rotation is made up of four or five 80-acre units, each unit might be made up of two 40-acre fields.
For farms of ordinary size, 160 to 240 acres or smaller, it is usually desirable, however, to plan to have one field for each crop-year, or unit, in the rotation. Thus in the cornbelt, in growing the four-year rotation of corn, corn, oats, and clover, the best field arrangement would be to have four fields of as nearly equal size as possible. In growing the five-year rotation of corn, corn, oats, wheat, and clover, five fields would be required for most satisfactory operation.
The field system best adapted to the rotations grown in regions outside of the cornbelt would be worked out as nearly as practicable in accordance with the general procedure which I have outlined; in other words, have each crop, or unit, in the rotation represented every year, and have one field as nearly as possible for each unit, or crop-year, in the rotation.
Since most farmers, especially in the principal corn and grain-growing sections, are anxious to have their fields as large as possible, they sometimes raise objection to the plan of having the field system laid out to fit the rotation, on the ground that it makes the fields too small. Farm management investigation in Minnesota, Illinois, and elsewhere, indicates, however, that the systematic planning of the field layout to fit the rotation tends in general to increase the average size of the fields, even though none of the fields may be as large as the largest ones were before the reorganization was effected. It is important to note in passing that the plan of having the largest average sized fields possible not only makes for economy in the amount of fencing required, but also contributes to the most advantageous use of man and horse labor in performing the field work.
So far, I have spoken only of the size of the fields and its influence on the fencing requirements. We need also to consider the shape of the field. In general, it is easier and more economical to fence rectangular fields, fields with square corners and straight sides, than those of irregular shape. This is true particularly in using wire fencing. In fencing a rectangular field with wire, only four corner posts need to be used. Since the corner posts, together with the gate posts used to provide the necessary openings, bear nearly all the strain on a wire fence, it is desirable to reduce these to the lowest possible number. Practically all who have had much experience in building wire fence know how difficult it is to keep up wire fences (and a very large part of all of our fences are wire) around any but rectangular fields. It is important, in just so far as possible, to lay out all the farm fields with square corners and straight sides. From the standpoint of field operations, that is, using horses and machinery in performing field work, it is no less important to have rectangular fields. All practical farmers are familiar with the inconvenience caused by triangular and other irregularly shaped fields in performing the ordinary field operations.
In addition to deciding that farm fields should be rectangular in shape wherever this is possible, we have also to decide on the proportions of such rectangular fields. From the standpoint of economy in fencing such fields, the square field would require the least fence, since the distance around a square is less than the distance around any more elongated rectangle of equal area. For example, a square 400 acre field, 80 by 80 rods, requires 320 rods of fence to enclose it, 8 rods of fence per acre. A 40-acre field, 40 by 160 rods, requires 400 rods of fence, or 10 rods per acre to enclose it. The second field requires 25 percent more fencing per acre than does the first. The same disadvantage applies to a greater or less extent to all elongated rectangular fields, as compared with the square field.
If the amount of fencing required were the only factor to be considered in deciding on the proportions of the rectangular field, the question would be easily resolved in favor of the square field. Other factors need to be taken into consideration, however. Since the major part of the field operations in crop production, such as plowing, discing, harrowing, planting, and harvesting, are performed parallel with one axis of the field, usually the long one, the longer field has some advantage over the square one from the standpoint of economy in the use of horse and man labor. The great amount of time lost in turning around at the ends of small fields is recognized by all who are familiar with farm operations.
Because of these two conflicting considerations, economy in fencing as contrasted with economy in field operations, the best practicable compromise between the two must be worked out. In the sections where small grain and hay are the principal crops grown, the proportion of the field work which will be done lengthwise of the field will be relatively large. In these sections it will be specially advantageous from the standpoint of economy in field operations to have the fields somewhat longer than they are wide. In the cornbelt, where a somewhat greater proportion of the field work is done crosswise of the field, as in cultivation, the advantage of the longer field will be slightly less. A good general rule, taking all factors into consideration, would perhaps be to plan the field system so as to have the fields from 1 ½ to 2 times as long as they are wide. Obviously it will be desirable to work out the plans for each individual farm on the basis of the particular conditions which obtain. The rule may serve as a good general guide, however.
If it is important to plan the layout and fencing for the field system on a livestock farm, it is doubly important to give careful consideration to the physical organization and fencing plans for the farmstead. Such plans should be made largely from the standpoint of convenience in handling the various kinds of livestock to be produced. All lots, yards, and paddocks should be so arranged as to front on, or give easy access to, lanes and so laid out as to connect with every other lot or paddock in the farmstead.
Where a minor rotation is used to provide forage crops for hogs or other animals, it is usually good practice to have the minor rotation fields open up into a lane which connects with both the farmstead and the major field system. The general plan suggesting how this may be worked out is shown in both Plans 1 and 2. The same idea should be followed out in so far as possible in working out the plan for the various lots, yards, and paddocks within the farmstead.
Where a part of the farm must remain in permanent pasture, the farmer will usually have little if any choice as to the fencing plan to be employed. He may, however, be able to lay out the lanes connecting such pastures with the farmstead or with the field system in such a way as to make for convenience and economy of time in handling the livestock carried on the permanent pasture areas.
The selection of the type of fencing to be used on a livestock farm will depend on various factors. Most important among these will perhaps be the following: the kind of animals to be enclosed; the fencing materials available and their relative price; the permanency of the fence to be constructed, and the funds available for investment in fencing.
The classes of animals being produced on a farm, together with the general plan of management followed, will determine to a large extent its fencing requirements. If the entire farm is to be fenced, so as to make it practicable to pasture any class of stock on any of the farm fields, the fencing must be selected so as to be adapted to horses, cattle, sheep, or swine.
While several types of fencing may satisfactorily fulfill this somewhat universal requirement, it is likely true on the large majority of farms, when the factor of cost as well as the ability to hold all classes of livestock is taken into consideration, that the standard woven wire fence, from 48 to 60 inches in height will prove to be the most satisfactory. The woven wire is often supplemented by one or more strands of barbed wire above or below the woven portion, depending on the needs of the particular job.
If horses are to be enclosed in a field or paddock, it is important to use the wider woven wire. The height of such fences is often further increased by stringing one or more strands of barbed wire above the woven portion.
Where no horses are to be pastured in the enclosure, in other words, where the fence is intended primarily to turn cattle and hogs, the height may be somewhat reduced. If the swine to be pastured are to include small pigs, especially in the smaller enclosures where they are more likely to root along the fences, the fence may be made more nearly hog-tight by stringing a strand of barbed wire below the woven wire very close to the ground. Fences intended mainly for hogs and cattle are frequently built with a 26- to 30-inch woven wire ribbon at the bottom, supplemented by 2 or 3 barb wires strung above. This makes a very satisfactory fence, and is somewhat less expensive than the fence in which the wider woven wire is used.
Fences intended primarily to enclose cattle may be built of three or four strands of barb wire. Where no calves are to be included, the lower wire of such a fence may be from 14 to 18 inches off the ground and the upper one from 42 to 48 inches, depending on whether 3 or 4 wires are used. In all fences of this character it is important that the wires be kept stretched tight. Sagging wires in a barb wire fence invite trespassing on the adjoining field. When calves are to be included with the older cattle, it is usually necessary to use one or more additional wires. Naturally the number of barb wires required satisfactorily to turn cattle will be determined by several factors. The class of cattle enclosed, the size of the field or lot, the supply of feed within the enclosure, as well as the supply in the adjoining fields, are all factors to be considered.
In fencing fields and lots which are intended only to enclose swine, and where no other classes of animals need to be fenced out, the 26- to 30-inch woven wire ribbon is usually satisfactory. This may be supplemented by a barb wire below or above, where this seems to be needed.
The type of fence required satisfactorily to enclose sheep lots and pastures, may vary widely. It depends largely on the kind of sheep to be enclosed and whether or not the fence is intended to keep out other stock, and dogs or other predatory animals. Woven wire fences from 36 to 42 inches in height, will usually turn tame sheep pastured in forage lots near the farmstead where they are not likely to be chased by boys or dogs. In the large pastures farther from the farmstead the fences should generally be somewhat higher. If the sheep fence is intended to keep out dogs and other predatory animals, it will need to be high and tight. Even then the risk is usually great, unless the enclosure is near the farmstead where the farmer can keep a watchful eye, or where he will be more likely to hear any special commotion at night. In order to be reasonably secure such enclosure should be well fenced and near the farmstead, specially those intended for night pastures. Because of the high cost of such fencing it is usually desirable to keep such night enclosures as small as is consistent with furnishing a satisfactory supply of feed.
In fencing the various lots, yards, and paddocks of the farmstead, it is doubly important to make the fences both strong and secure. An ordinary fence may turn stock very satisfactorily in a large field, when it might not be at all adequate for a small paddock, where the animals are closely confined and are therefore more likely to increase the amount of wear and tear on the fences. Such fences should be, as someone has well expressed it, “horse high, hog tight, and bull strong.” The fences used to enclose the garden, orchard, and poultry yard may need to be extra high and of special construction to meet the needs of the particular conditions obtaining and the system of management employed in handling poultry and other classes of livestock to be enclosed or kept out as the case may be.
The farmyard, lawn, or house-lot, offer special opportunity to use fencing somewhat more ornamental in character than would be economically justified for the rest of the farm. Since a relatively small number of rods of such fencing is required and since the farm home is a place to live in as well as the center of the farm operations, the question should not be answered entirely on the basis of cost considerations. This fact should make possible somewhat wider latitude in the choice of materials to be used. In addition to the more ornamental wire fencing available, wood, stone, and concrete may be considered. All of these have possibilities from the standpoint of securing desirable ornamental effects. Even the old-fashioned hedge fence, now quite generally condemned as a satisfactory field fence, offers real opportunity in contributing to the attractiveness of the farm home.
In the construction of wire fences, whether of barb wire or woven wire, the primary consideration is to have the corner post, gate posts, and other end posts amply large to bear the strain to be put on them, and thoroughly well anchored. Some one has well said, “A wire fence is only as good as its corner posts.”
The question of the size of the intermediate posts, and the distance they should be placed apart, must be determined for each type of fence and for the particular use to which it is to be put. It need only be added that any wire fence that is to turn stock satisfactorily and stand up as long as it should, must be kept stretched tight. These three considerations, carefully observed, are in my judgment the most important to be kept in mind in the construction of all forms of wire fencing. Since wire fencing makes up so large a proportion of all fencing under modern farming conditions, it may be assumed that these details should occupy a major place in the construction plans.
In making a survey of the fencing problems as it confronts the American farmer today, it would seem that this is a most opportune time for the individual farmer to give painstaking thought to his fencing plans. This is true because the entire fencing program has been held up, or materially slowed down, on a large number of our farms because of the scarcity of fencing materials and the shortage of farm labor during the past few years. A larger proportion than usual of our fences are therefore worn out or nearly worn out, at the present time. This fact alone gives added importance to the need for making a really systematic study of the farm fencing, which is to be done within the next few years.
It is also important to study the problem of farm fencing from another standpoint at this time. All recent studies having to do with the economic organization of our farms, tend to show that we are somewhat rapidly approaching the time when farmers generally will be forced through soil depletion, the need of furnishing a home market for waste and unmarketable crops, the demand for a more economical use of man and horse labor, and through competition with other farmers both at home and abroad, to practice more diversified systems of farming, including a good rotation of crops and the production of two or more classes of market livestock. Such diversified systems of farming will call for the more complete fencing of our farms, so that the crops grown on the various fields in the rotation plan may be more fully utilized by pasturing them with livestock. The constantly growing practice among farmers to use livestock to harvest crops as a means of reducing the farm labor requirements, will also be a factor in increasing the amount of fencing needed to enclose both the major and minor rotation fields.
In view of all of these considerations, it would seem only logical to conclude, as we began, that the problem of fencing the farms is to a large extent a problem in farm organization.