Electric Fencing Ups And Downs

Every day in August – and now in early September, I stride back and forth across the paddocks helping to shift electric fences. Each one takes about half an hour so I have had plenty of time to reflect while I get my daily exercise. 

These days we’re a well-oiled electric fencing team, my farmer and me. But this wasn’t always the case…

In late winter/early spring many farmers have rolled up their electric fences and popped them into the back of the shed with a sigh of relief. But, for us, electric fence shifting is still a daily task. 

The sheep will still get balage and grain every day but heavily pregnant ewes need to have some fresh greenery too. We save a few paddocks of yummy grass and oats all winter for this. But we have to ration it. Otherwise, the sheep would demolish three-weeks-worth of feed in just a few days.  And that would leave them with nothing to eat just when they needed it most.

So we put an electric fence across the paddock and shift it every day. Each ewe gets what she needs and the fresh grass lasts until the spring growth kicks in.

Terry’s been shifting electric fences for decades but the job was very new to me when I first came to the farm. So we had a few wrinkles to iron out between the keen townie novice and the seasoned professional farmer.

Number One: Pulling Out The Line

If you’re working with cows you only need one wire on the electric fence. But sheep need three to keep them on the right patch of grass.

The farmer ties three electric fence wires to the plastic standard.
A cow can’t get under one strategically-placed electric fence wire but sheep can, so you need three wires to keep them on their allocated patch.

To set them up you attach a pole with three reels (full of wire) to one of the permanent fence posts in the paddock. Then you tie the three wires onto an electric fence standard, one close to the bottom, one in the middle and one close to the top.  Next, you hold onto the standard, fix your eyes on a distant point and walk across the paddock towards it pulling the wires behind you. Your partner trudges behind with a load of plastic posts (standards) dropping one every 10-12 steps. Piece of cake!

Unless you happen to be a directionally-challenged townie. 

Terry always pointed to something on the horizon for me to aim for. But no matter how carefully he explained, we never looked at the same tree, knob or patch of bush. 

What’s more, I had to check where my feet were going on the unfamiliar ground. And, each time I glanced down I veered off course. Inevitably I pulled out an embarrassingly zigzag line which ended up far from where my farmer intended it to go. Ouch! 

One particular day I was determined to get it right. We were putting up the fence in our aptly-named Big Paddock, the largest and boggiest on the farm. We agreed on the point to aim for and I set off, gaze glued to the horizon.

All went well — until I got to the muddy marsh in the middle. Suddenly, one gumboot stuck in the mud and the other slid out from under me. Like a slow-mo action replay, I threw my arms in the air and face-planted in the bog.

Behind me, his arms full of standards, Terry laughed! 

“I’m never pulling these wires out again,” I fumed, sitting the puddle and smearing my mud-covered glasses with a soggy handkerchief. So, in stony silence we swapped jobs. 

I haven’t pulled the wires out once since then. Some jobs are best left to the farmer.

Farmer pulling the electric fencing wires across a paddock.

Number Two: Crossed Wires

When we’ve laid the line and standards across the paddock it’s time to put them together. It often happens that you end up doing this from both ends at the same time. But when the wires are trailing along the ground it’s difficult to know which ones should be at the top, middle or bottom.

Take a tip from me. ALWAYS check along the line behind you each time you slip a new wire in the slot. That way you can be sure you’re not mixing up the lines by mistake. 

In the widest paddock, when the rain’s pouring and a thousand hungry sheep are bleating at the gate, it’s not ideal to meet your husband in the middle and find that his top wire is not the same one you’ve been putting in!

It also takes a long time to fix when you eventually discover that the twist occurred right back at the other end. (Do you think it was the farmer or the rookie, who made that particular mistake?)

Number Three: Watch Those Electric Fence Reels

When you’re pulling out the wires the reels unwind behind you and the wires are slack. So it’s important to tighten them by winding a bit of wire back around each reel. They have handles, so this isn’t too hard to do.

But the wire doesn’t always wind up in the middle of the reel. Sometimes it goes off course. And if you’re not watching it can jump right off the reel and wind around between the handle and the reel instead.

If you’re lucky, you catch it quickly and it’s easy to untangle. If your farmer’s in a good mood, he smiles and shows you how to fix it.

But when you get distracted a second time … and it’s pouring … and cold … and the wire has tangled … you are in big trouble!

Nowadays I always watch the reels when I’m tightening the wires.

Number Four: Communication Matters

You don’t need to work out in a gym when you’re plodding across the paddock with a pile of electric fence standards in your arms day after day. The load lessens as you shed the posts one by one, but it’s still a great muscle-builder.

Me with a heavy armful of red, electric fence standards.
This was a grain paddock last autumn and we’ve let the plants grow again over winter. Now they provide valuable green feed in early spring. After the sheep have eaten this, the paddock will be worked up and sown out in another crop. But here I am giving my arm muscles a workout with a load of electric fence standards. One is light, this many are not.

The reverse happens when you’re pulling the fence up. The load starts light but gets heavier as you pull up each standard and add it to the pile in your arms. 

In a wide paddock, I’ll often dump a pile of standards halfway across, because I can always pick them up again when we’re putting the wires out again a few metres up the paddock.

So when your farmer suddenly decides that he’s going to put the next fence a LONG way down the paddock, it would be a good idea if he communicated that idea first. 

That way you won’t end up with half the standards in a forlorn pile, miles from where they are needed. 

And here’s a tip: if you’re leaving a pile on the ground like that, ALWAYS stick at least one standard upright. Even bright red or white standards are surprisingly hard to spot when they’re lying down.

Practice Makes Perfect

Thirty-five years down the track, those days of twisted wires and temper tantrums are long gone. And when the sun is shining, it can be fun to put up the fences together. 

We even took two-year-old Harvey electric fencing with us the other weekend — which was much easier than I expected. There’s nothing like getting a head start in training the next generation.

Come mid-September we’ll be properly into lambing. We will spread the sheep across many paddocks, and put the electric fences back in the shed. 

But right now the ewes at the gate think it’s well past breakfast time. So we’re off to put out another fence.

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Three farming dogs ready to start the next job in their farming lives.
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