Time-Saving Tips for Trouble-shooting Electric Fences

Time-Saving Tips for Trouble-shooting Electric Fences

By Heather Smith Thomas

Many stockmen create permanent paddocks using traditional fencing or electric hard wire, and divide those paddocks with portable hot wire that can be moved as often as needed to strip graze or mob graze. Portable fencing is also handy for strip grazing stockpiled pastures, windrows or bale grazing in winter. Portable fence is handy on rented pastures where you can’t afford to invest in permanent fences.

Steve Kenyon, a rancher near Busby, Alberta has been rotational grazing a long time and bale grazing more than 20 years, using electric fence. “With most of my cross-fences I’ve found it works best to have permanent electric fence. I don’t use as many temporary fences anymore, because of the labor involved. Labor is my highest cost, so spending money up front for a permanent fence saves more in labor later,” he explains.

In winter you need to make sure the charger works adequately. “In that situation I like to use a bipolar fencer. It still works as a regular fencer in summer, but can be used as a bipolar fencer in winter when cattle are standing on snow, which acts as insulation. Normally the electricity comes out the hot wire, through the body, down to the ground and back through the body to the fence, making a complete circuit. Snow breaks that circuit; the animal doesn’t get much of a shock. In winter I can have a fence reading of 7 or 8 kilovolts, which should be a powerful fence, but I can grab hold of it and barely feel it if I’m wearing boots and standing on packed snow,” he explains.

With the bipolar fencer there are two wires. “One is half the pulse as a positive charge and the other is half as a negative charge. If an animal touches either wire, it still gets half a charge through the ground—right through the snow.” But if they hit both wires together, they get the full charge and it eliminates the need for the ground.

If the pasture you graze intensively is near your house, you can move fence multiple times a day. But if a pasture is 30 miles away, you can’t drive back and forth several times a day to move fence. You might move the cattle just once a day or every other day, which is still better for the land than continuous grazing.

Every pasture is different. “In our operation we have one pasture 5 miles away, where we manage 100 head. This has different economics than the one that’s 20 miles away where we are managing 600 head. Labor and equipment cost divide up differently, with more animals,” he says.

Terrain also makes a difference. If you have bush or trees, steep areas, or creeks running through, you can’t strip graze as easily. Hilly land is more awkward than a rectangle that’s relatively flat. Class of livestock also makes a difference in how you graze and set up the pasture. The nice thing about electric fence is flexibility.

“We can now tackle difficult terrain with temporary fence much better than in the past,” says Jim Gerrish (American Grazingland Services). “Once you have the basic techniques figured out, and the right tools, putting temporary fence up the foot of a mountain isn’t that big a deal—as long as you are not doing miles and miles.” It is better than trying to put permanent fences in places where you may not want a fence forever.

There are also creative ways to strip graze fields irrigated with pivot sprinklers. “Wheel lines are my least favorite irrigation system to try to manage grazing around. It’s common to have the fence short out on the pipe,” says Gerrish. You have to be creative to work around some of these things.

Kenyon doesn’t use insulators on his fences. In a dry climate there’s no need for insulators if wire is touching dry wood. “One of the biggest costs on my farm is labor. In the spring we fix all the damage from wildlife. When I was using plastic insulators, moose and deer walking through fences pulled them off, and I was constantly replacing lost and broken insulators,” he says.

“I now use two-inch barbed staples to fasten wire to a wood post. This is not a wet environment so posts are usually dry. Also I am only powering a couple miles of fence (just the paddocks currently in use, leaving the rest unhooked) rather than 30 miles of fence on the whole farm. I can still have 7 kilovolts in my fence, even though when it rains this might drop to 4. It still has some charge, and the cows are well trained and rarely touch the fence,” he explains. If you have a good charger, they don’t want to touch it again after their first encounter. If they learn about “hot” wires as calves—or curious yearlings—they always respect it.

“I have power through all my fences. On a barbed-wire fence, I run power through the second bottom wire. When it’s dry, it works fine. When it’s wet there may be power loss and I might have to disconnect it. But the cattle know that all my fences are hot and don’t touch them.” None of his cattle try to reach or push through. This also prevents rubbing on a fence—minimizing wear and tear.

“In 25 years of doing this I haven’t had any animals caught in a fence because cattle don’t touch my fences. I’ve seen problems with other fences that cattle go through. My neighbor’s cattle got through a fence that wasn’t hot and ended up getting hurt—and one died in a well because it went through a barbed-wire fence. But with my electrified fences I’ve never had animals go through.”

Troubleshooting Tips
People who use electric fencing figure out ways to make it easier to locate a problem when the fence shorts out and stops working. Insulated handles that hook up to different fence lines can be unhooked to determine which line has a problem. There are faster ways, however.

“Having a Smartfix fence tester/fault finder (made by Gallagher) is helpful,” says Kenyon. “Other companies have similar testers that show how much electricity is going through the wire at that point, the direction of the fault and how much loss there is. A regular cheap fence-tester only tells you how much power it has, but the Smartfix tells you which direction. This can save hours trying to find it.”

Farmers and ranchers tend to be frugal and buy the least expensive materials. “They think that $20 for a digital fence tester is all they can afford,” says Gerrish. “Many modern energizers can be remotely turned on and off, which helps when fixing fence, but the combination testers can point the direction the short is, and identify how much voltage is being lost. These cost more money but just one morning spent finding one or two shorts faster than you usually do will pay for it.”

“With one of these testers you start from the fencer and work away from it,” says Kenyon. “Let’s say you check the fence right by your charger and it says there’s 20 amps of loss this direction, going away from the fencer. When you get to your first T, you test all three sides. Maybe the first side still shows 20 amps of loss, and then you test the other directions. Usually one will be high and one will be low. You know you don’t have to check the one direction; you go the other way. You just keep following it along, and every T you come to you can check; it should take you right to the fault,” he says.

“I can usually find the fault in the fence before the cows do. If a tree falls across it, I can find it. I check the fence daily and know what Kilovolts my fence usually sits at. It might be 5 kilovolts, and if there’s a drop I know there’s a problem and can find it.”
This reduces the amount of labor in tracking down and resolving problems. He doesn’t keep all the fences hooked up—just the ones in pastures the cattle are currently using. “There’s no need to power your whole farm and have more to check.”

Newer Innovations Can Save Even More Time
Now a person can simply look at the fence to see if the wire is hot. If you can see a flashing light, the fence is “live,” and you can see this light up to 1/2 mile away at night.

This innovation was created by Bill Brown in 2018. His company is called Insulights. “We developed a universal insulator that fits on almost any kind of post—wood, steel, T-posts—or you can just hang it on the wire. It picks up the burst of electricity when it comes down the line and flashes a high-intensity LED light. A person checking fences can see this visual indication that the fence is working,” he says.

“It flashes 24/7 and you don’t need to put it on every post—just wherever you want to be able to check the fence. As long as a burst of energy is coming through that line, it will flash. If the voltage on the wire drops—if a tree comes down on it or a lot of grass is touching it or an animal breaks it—the light will dim and then shut off, and you’ll know the fence is down or shorting out,” Bill explains.

“We now have almost 60,000 units of our Insulights flashing in the U.S. and internationally, and people love them.” Insulights was awarded a Farm Bureau Top Ten Ag Innovation of the year in 2021.

The Insulights team will soon introduce their new project, the Smart Monitor unit that attaches to the fence and monitors the electricity. Every morning it will send a text message to your phone, telling you what the voltage is and whether the fence working. If the fence is fine, you can go on about your day but if something happens during the day or night, it will start sending text messages every 15 minutes for an hour to let you know the fence is down.

“This alarm system is cellular, which is an upgrade to similar products that are trying to depend on Wi-Fi, which is a huge difference,” Bill says. You’d need to have Wi-Fi in the barn or out in the field. It has to have line of sight and can only be a quarter mile away. Many farms and ranches have fences in uneven terrain or farther away.

“Our patented monitor sends the status right to your cell phone as an SMS text. We use that system, so we don’t need to have an app, and it will work with all the cell phone carriers. If you want the messages sent to someone else in your family or to a hired hand, you can copy them, to also receive those messages.” Then if you are off the farm and unable to fix the fence yourself, that person could see there is a problem.

“We go to a lot of farm shows and state fairs, demonstrating our Insulights for the past 4 years. The people we talk to love this flashing insulator, but their main response was to say that if there was a way it could text message them it would be even better.”

Electric fences have revolutionized livestock facilities to make them safer, keep the animals out of traditional fences and prevent wear and tear on permanent fences. Today more stockmen are using electric fencing to facilitate rotational grazing. Checking fences and making sure they are working is often one of the biggest chores and headaches when using electric fences. This innovation can make it much easier.

Bill was raised on a family farm and loves working with livestock families and making their job easier to care for their livestock.

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