Thoughts on electrical fencing for pigs chickens goats donkeys and horses

Just launched a kickstarter campaign to raise money to fund scientific research around the nutritional break down of fodder at various stages of growth for our book on Fodder. Please check it out!

Thoughts on electrical fencing for pigs chickens goats donkeys and horses
11/12/2013 4:48:24 AM

I have been tinkering on electrical fence now for well over a year.  I have learned quite a bit in that time.  I was out in the field this evening adding some more paddocks to my system and thought it was probably time to jot down some additional notes on the subject.

Probably the most important thing I can try to get through is to trust your electrical fence.  If the electrical fence is installed correctly, and the animals are trained appropriately, and “metal barrier” fence is by far cheaper and easier to set up and maintain and will contain your animals much better than a physical barrier style fence.

Fence before need

No matter how many times I find myself repeating this I still seem to violate the rule of having a place for the animal prior to having the animal.  This comes at you in a few ways some of which are unplanned.

  1. I saw a “free” animal or a great deal on craigslist - guilty
  2. One animal turned into 12 (birth) - guilty – 3 sows turned into 30 piglets in our case
  3. Purchased an animal with the idea that it would “fit” a given space without proper research or planning – guilty
  4. Inherited someone else's herd – guilty

Regardless of how you might find your way into this situation, I have now found that keeping an electric training area open and available at all times is the best approach.  I have done this in the form of a 1/8ish acre paddock that is surrounded by a standard wooden fence.  This is then wrapped with 3” square good quality goat fence.  I then have several strands of electric fence strung around at the bottom starting at 4” in height (for piglet/puppy training).

I usually keep this yard open for the most part.  This way as I have planned piglets they can be started on a fence that bites but that they can’t run through (their initial reaction).  This teaches them to back up when shocked. 

This yard is also my most difficult to escape or enter.  This means that regardless of the animal, even a horse, they can go into this yard and I don’t have to worry about them getting out.

Quality over speed

Another mistake I have been guilty of, and still am from time to time, is needing fencing quickly or more often “now”.  This usually leads to cutting corners.  Rather than tell you not to cut corners I will instead suggest to you that you do it in a manner that is easy to clean up after in as easy a manner as possible. 

I was in a hurry to get my big paddocks set up so that I could get my pigs and what not out on small sections of pasture.  This meant that I could only buy as much materials as I could afford.  The rest would have to be purchased over time to back fill.  But in order to have a working fence I needed a strategy to do the best I could with what I had – but in a way that I could rectify my shortcomings later.

I found there are a few areas you can scrimp if you have too save on the initial cost of electrical fence installation.  I will provide a quick list of where I saved initially then explain the down side.

  1. Pliers will work to crimp your electrical wire connectors
  2. You can use any old electrical wire to connect your leads to your power lines
  3. The same electrical wire can be used to run under ground sections
  4. Instead of running wire underground you can simply use your gate to connect your fence
  5. You can wrap wire around wire to create contact instead of using wire nuts
  6. You can install your entire fence on one circuit
  7. You can grab the wire to test that it is hot
  8. Plastic fence spacer posts can be used as line poles
  9. My ground is wet enough or my pasture isn’t big enough to need more than a couple of grounding rods
  10. I am sure there are more…  contact me if you have other items to add

Fencing tool vs. crimping tool

If you are doing a fence of any kind on a farm then you probably have a fencing tool laying around.  This will totally work as a crimping tool initially.  However, the grab that is made when simply squishing the crimp is not optimal.  It won’t take much for the fence to at least be pulled loose at a later date.  A crimping tool can be picked up for pretty cheap at a pawn shop…but finding one may not be easy.  Also, you might look at Harbor Freight or Northern Tool.  But in the end, if you are installing lots of electric fence you will want to part with $30-60 to get a good crimping tool.  It wills save your hands as the proper leverage is built into the tool.  And it will make a great gripping crimp connection for you which will add strength and longevity to your fence.

Fencing tool:

Crimping tool:

Cost and savings

What Cost Location Quality
Fencing tool $7.99 Harbor Freight Low
Fencing tool $33.90 Sears Medium
Fencing tool $71.31 Sears Silly
Crimping tool $29.99 Tractor Supply Low
Crimping tool $46.99 Harbor Freight Medium
Crimping tool $135.83 Sears Silly

If you already have fencing pliers then you saved the difference of nothing and a crimp tool.  This could be $30-100 or more.  If you are doing a small paddock this might be a worth while savings.  If you are doing acres of fence – get the crimp tool.

Electrical wire vs. insulated cable

Initially I had no idea about all the special parts that could be obtained for building electric fencing.  So I figured I would take run of the mill house hold wiring and connect that from my charger box to the fencing line.  This is totally acceptable as long as you are absolutely sure that the shielded body of the wire doesn’t touch anything on its way from the terminal to the line wire.  This just isn’t possible.  The problem though is not with the wire.  That can carry the current for the most part.  The problem lies in the shielding the comes on common household wire.  It isn’t strong enough (thick enough) to block the current from escaping from the wire.  The thin plastic over the wire that is.  The electricity leaps right out of your wire and into the fence post that you probably stapled it too.  Or into the ground.  Or any number of other things that might come into contact with your fence configuration. 

I learned in real time of this leakage after I had started migrating away from the cheap wire to the insulated cable.  My ear rubbed against some of the wire sheathing (thinking it was “safe”) and told me about the leakage.  It wasn’t bad but it was a loss to the over all performance of the system.

If this household wire did have the extra thick insulation that the insulated cable product does then we would turn our attention to the fact that the wire isn’t really thick enough to carry the full power of the electricity from your charge box.

For that reason make sure you use some form of insulated cable that is rated well over the output of your fence.  Mine is rated at 20,000 volts.  My chargers puts out 6-8000 volts.

Cost and savings

What Cost Location Quality
Thin electrical wire $0.89/ft or $44.50 for 50 ft Home Depot Wrong application
Insulated wire $16.00 / 50 ft Tractor Supply Right application

In this case the perceived savings for the “cheap” household electrical wire can be detrimental to your project.  A fence that looks like a perfect installation can be very hard to trouble shoot.  And an improperly shielded wire can be hard to locate.  And in this case the cheaper option is actually considerably more expensive.

Using your gate as part of the circuit vs. under ground runs

If you have a very large paddock (in the form of many acres) and don’t intend to rotate your stock on and off that land very frequently then you might want to use your gate as part of the fence.  By that I mean that you want the electricity to run from the fence section, through your gate to the next fence section, and so on.  When the gate is open the circuit is broken, and the fence is potentially cold.  If you are running a big circular fence system then as long as the gate is not touching the ground the fence can be hot.

But now that we know about insulated cables you have a tool in your arsenal to build a continuously hot fence regardless of there being an open gate or not.  And this would only cost you about $6 more.  With the addition to the work required to install the fence in that you would have to dig a trench to burry the wire in the ground.

Here is an example of both styles of fencing.  You can see that the gate carries the current from one hot side to the other.  And you can see the ground cable that connects one hot side to the other.  This is my preferred style simply because when the gate is not latched properly or at all, all fences are still hot.

Cost and savings

What Cost Location Quality
Rubber gate handle $1.99 Tractor Supply Good
Insulated wire (above) $16.00 / 50 ft Tractor Supply Good
Line Clamps $3.59 / 3 Tractor Supply Good

Each gate you install just requires a 16’ piece of wire and a spring loaded gate handle.  That is just an additional 2 bucks per opening in your fence.  The hidden cost in adding the under ground cable is not just the $6 of insulated cable for a 16’ gate.  It is in all the connectors you need to pass from one fence line to the other fence line.  In a three wire fence as shown in the picture above you will need 6 connectors.   This means you need the $2 gate handle and two packs of line clamps. 

This is one of those “it depends” projects.  If you have one small, medium, or large pasture you are probably only going to put a few gates in.  In which case you are looking at not a whole lot of money.  Put in the gate and the cable.

However, if you are running an “intensive pasture management” plan where you have a bunch of 1/2 acre paddocks spread out over a bunch of acreage.  And you want each of those small paddocks connected in a way that makes rotating stock easy, you might be facing a larger additional expense.

In my case I have three gates in every paddock.  One gate that goes to the perimeter road so that I can move stock up or out to a pasture without disturbing other stock.  Then I have two internal gates to the adjoining paddocks so that I can easily rotate stock from one paddock to the next without ever possibly mixing herds.  This makes the cost difference between a gate and a gate with and underground cable quite a difference.

This is something you can add over time!


Be aware that when you are using an underground cable as shown in the picture above you are collapsing all three wires into the one underground cable and then expanding the wires back out again.  If you instead want to run each wire as its own circuit (handy for debugging fence problems) then you would need to run three underground cables.

In my case I run a piglet wire (4” off the ground), two main lines at 10” and 18”, and a ground (or cold) wire at 13”.  If each of those are their own concepts then each would have a separate under ground cable.  Just make sure you plan around your needs and estimate the cost appropriately.

Wrapping wire to make a connection vs. line clamps

It would make sense that wrapping wire around wire, or copper to copper, would be all you need to make a good shock.  But in doing so you lose some of the zap in your system.  Also, a simple wrap isn’t a secure connection.  If bumped (and some animals will constantly test your system) it may come un-done.  Initially this sort of connection will be good enough.  But using real line clamps is the better option as the clamp itself carries the current from one wire to the next and is a very strong secure connection that will ensure that the wires don’t come apart. 

The other option is to crimp one wire to the next.  However, this to me is also a short cut.  A crimped wire is harder to take apart and adjust over time.  It is better than a wire wrap.  But a bolt and a nut are highly adjustable at all times.

Cost and savings

What Cost Location Quality
Wire You already have it in your hand free-ish
Crimping sleeve $17.99 / 100 Tractor Supply good
Line Clamps $3.59 / 3 Tractor Supply good

Obviously there is quite a big cost and performance difference between these options.  Initially, I used the wire wrapping method to connect a hot wire to a hot wire.  This worked ok for me to get up and running.  Just keep in mind the leaking thin insulation issue mentioned above.  Also be sure that you look at the proper way to connect one wire to another in a manner that is less prone to slipping or breakage.

A slightly better option and not that much more costly is the crimping sleeves.  These will help with keeping the wire from slipping but aren’t really meant to carry the current.  So you will have to use them to connect the wires but then still be sure to wrap the wires to ensure a better “connection”.

But the ultimate option is the line clamp as they conduct the electricity from one wire to the next and won’t let go.

Single circuit vs. multi circuit

The first picture in this post best shows how the circuits “work” so here it is again.

Notice that from the charge box the charge box is connected to the top wire then a switch and a switch.  The switch is then connected to the bottom two hot wires.  This is only the surface of how this works from “how” and “cost” perspective.

First you need to ask if this is important to you.  Is your paddock so big, or are there so many separate units to test, that you need to be able to test sections of your fence independently?  OR Do you have your electric fence installed in an area that has high grass or dense brush where you might want to turn off the lower wires at different times of the year.  OR Do you have little critters now and then that you want to allow to creep out away from their parents now and then?

If you answered yes to any of these then adding a switch to any line means that you need to keep in separate all the way through the fence.  This is a candidate for its own buried ground cable at each gate.  You will also need line crimps for each of the connections.  And you will need switches at the charge box. 

Also, if you have multiple small paddocks (like in my set up) you might want to test up close to the charge box first turning all the down field paddocks off.  This allows you to test one paddock at a time.  Enabling only one additional paddock as you go.  Each paddock will need its own set of switches to enable this.  With every break in the line comes more connectors!  You get the idea.

Cost and savings

What Cost Location Quality
Just wire You already have it in your hand free-ish
Switch $6.99 Tractor Supply Low

Keep in mind that you are not just adding a switch to the system.  You have to plan to keep that switched line separate everywhere on the system.  This means more ground cables and line clamps at the very least.

Hand testing vs. using a hot tester vs. using a voltage tester

Initially you can set up your fence and watch someone or something get zapped by your fence.  I paid a couple of my kids to touch the wire to get the idea about what a hot wire is all about.  But this gets pretty old quick.

The natural next step is to get a “tester”.  This is a simple device that allows you hang a hook on the hot line and touch the ground with the other end.  If the line is hot it will cause a light to go on and off.  This is ok if all you want to test is that there is electricity coming through the line.

But if you are trying to keep an untrained hog or cow contained in your fence then what you really care about is how much voltage is making it to you where you are testing the fence.  For this you need a true voltage tester.  It works the same as a line tester but gives you more information than just turning on one light …or not!  They will generally tell you how many volts in terms of 1000 are in your line.  This way you can establish a base line and monitor it over time.

Cost and savings

What Cost Location Quality
Your buddy free your pasture great fun…the first time
Simple tester $3.68 Home Depot low
8-light tester $17.97 Home Depot good enough
Digital tester $40.80 Home Depot great

This is another discussion of how much do you really need.  If your fence is small just testing that it is on is probably good enough.  If it is big or has a lot of complexity to it then you might want to be able to test specific sections of fence a rough estimate on voltage.  If it is really big or you are containing something ornery then you might want to be very specific in the voltage you maintain.

Fiber glass posts vs. plastic posts vs. t-posts vs. wood posts

Before we get started here understand that size matters.  Also permanency matters.  If you are periodically up-rooting your entire pasturing system and moving it somewhere else, regardless of size, you need something portable.  If you are roping off a fairly large area you probably don’t want to move it very often.  But if you have only a specific area that can be fenced off then you might want it to be permanent regardless of how small it is.  Figure this out before deciding on building materials.  Treat your “training” paddock design differently from your “general use” paddocks.  They too have different purposes.

Ok.  Let’s also first describe an electric fence as a mental barrier rather than a physical barrier.  This means that you don’t have to pull your wire tight with your truck.  This means that you are building a low tension fence…even if you are using high tension wires.  High tension wires on a low tension fence means that something can probably walk through your fence without breaking it.  That is what you want.  You simply tighten the line back up and get that animal into your training paddock (cause you built that first right??).  Also, low tension means you construction doesn’t have to handle constant pulling.  It only has to keep the line off the ground and spaced appropriately from the other near by wires.

With that defined.  I wanted to build a permanent structure but on a low budget.  For this reason I chose to put a wood post at the end of every “run”.  From the start of a corner to the end of a corner.  Or from the start of a break in the fence (door) to a corner.  Etc.  Then I followed the rule that for every 50’ I would sink a t-post.  Then in between and as needed, but generally at least every 25’, I used a plastic step in post.

This was great as it meant that I had good strong posts in my corners which would anchor any pull, wind, or animal blow through.  The t-posts were used more to lend to that permanency but also to pull the wire down into gulley's or up over hills as they don’t flex.  The plastic posts were there just to ensure that the wires kept appropriate spacing.

I HATE THE PLASTIC STEP IN POSTS.  I would have preferred to use t-posts everywhere.  But as you will see this is where you can really save some money in your initial fence plan.  Permanency in the wood posts with quick and cheap in the plastic posts.

And honestly, every animal I have contained in the electric fenced areas, don’t want to get anywhere near the fence.  They don’t test the wire intentionally.  They certainly don’t test the posts.

But they are flimsy.  And they do get stepped on by the horses from time to time.  So I will inevitably go back and replace them with t-posts over time.

Costs and savings

What Cost Location Quality
Fiber glass posts $1.19 Tractor Supply low
Post insulator cap $5.99 Tractor Supply high
Screw on insulator $7.99 / 25 Tractor Supply high
Fiber glass step in post $1.99 Tractor Supply Better than low
Poly step in post $2.49 Tractor Supply Medium
T-post – 3’ $2.99 Tractor Supply Light duty
T-post – 6’ $3.79 Tractor Supply Heavy duty
Wood post – 5” x 8’ $10.97 Home Depot Heaviest duty

If you are containing well trained pigs you can do it with the cheapest step in posts known to man.  Some folks use 1/2” electrical conduit cut down to 3’ posts with a single wire at 18”.  That is cheap.  However, it is also prone to failure of other animals without any experience with electricity.  Remember that an untrained animal has two reactions when touching the fence.  If it gets zapped behind its head it runs straight.  If it zapped on the nose it might back up.  Most animals don’t back up well though!

Also, remember that when using some configurations such as plain fiber glass posts, 1/2” conduit, or even T-posts, you need additional pieces to assembly your fence.  You will need clip on pieces for tposts.  And you will need screw on pieces for the fiberglass poles.  And you will need either nail on connectors for the wood posts of corner adapters wired to the wood posts.  All of these make something cheap more expensive (per post) or something already costly (wood post) even more expensive.  For every wire you are running you need an adapter for each post.  More wires means more adapters.

The luxury of the 2 dollar fiber glass post or the 2.50 plastic post is that they come pre-formed with the holders for your electric wire.  This is what makes them the right choice for so many.  They come ready made.  Put the pointy part on the ground and step on them to sink them into the ground …until they break!  But as cheap as they are you can afford to replace a lot of plastic posts before the cost will be more than something more permanent.

3 grounding rods vs. a dedicated grounding wire vs. a dedicated wire and more grounding rods

I felt the need to once again bring the first picture down here.

Notice that in the picture there are four grounding rods.  The manufacturer of your charge box will generally suggest that you drive 3 6’ grounding rods into the ground 10’ away from the charge box and 10’ away from each grounding rod.

[box] 10’ [rod] 10’ [rod] 10’ [rod]

These are usually ran under the fence line that is closest to the charge box so that the bit of the rod that protrudes from the ground doesn’t create a tripping hazard.  Then you can use some more of that insulated cable to burry beside the grounding rods but also under the fence run.  These rods connect back to the charging box.

This way when you touch a hot wire the current can leave the fence, travel through you, and out of you into the ground, and back to the charge box.  This gives you the zap.  Without a good connection back to the ground you are not likely to get a zap.

For this reason I chose to also run an additional cold/ground wire.  This gives you the benefit of providing two contact surfaces anywhere in your paddock.  The animal touches one hot wire and one ground wire essentially making a direct connection back to the charge box terminal.  ZAP!  Most animals will likely create this kind of contact un-intentionally.  And it is quite effective. 

But the best installation is as suggested in the picture above.  Use the dedicated cold/ground wire as described in the previous paragraph but also use it to run additional grounding rods along your fence line.  The image suggests every 1300’ – 2600’.  Every quarter mile of fence or so.  A reason for me to do this is in the case where I have small animals – like piglets.  They are not tall enough to touch the ground wire.  And if they are far away from the charger.  And they are on dry ground.  They are not likely to feel any shock at all.  In order to capture this scenario it is very important to have additional grounding rods.

Costs and savings

What Cost Location Quality
Grounding rod – 6’ $15.99 Tractor Supply good
Grounding rod clamp $2.49 Tractor Supply good
14 gauge wire – 1/2 mile $44.99 Tractor Supply great

If your ground is dry and your fenced area is large you will either have to depend on your grounding wire and a double wire connection.  Or you will have to install some additional grounding rods.

If your paddock is small then regardless of ground conditions you will probably not need a grounding wire or additional grounding rods!

Keep in mind that you have to have hot and cold to produce a zap!  The cold part comes from establishing a ground.

comments powered by Disqus

From the blog