Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Fencing is a perpetual challenge for our wildlife-rich homestead farm, as we try to balance security, aesthetics, budget, and sustainability. Our fences range from serious permanent barriers made from thick cedar posts and wire mesh to lightweight and portable electric lines.
Recently we’ve been experimenting with a modern twist on the classic split-rail fence, with a method that fits many of our goals for a good fence.
Traditional rail fences reflect their era, relying on abundant local resources (time and trees) to produce fences that were functional and aesthetic. Most such fences didn’t use vertical posts, but relied on the flat surface created by split rails to keep the fence stable. They also took up lots of linear space as the rails zig-zagged back and forth, fine for an era when horses and other grazing animals were ubiquitous, but less optimal for a modern setting in which mowing and electric lines are part of the management strategy.
The traditional features are well exhibited in two fences we photographed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, such fences will do little to exclude problematic wildlife such as deer, the single biggest threat we face, and take up too much space.
We were intrigued, then, to see a unique approach to the rail fence at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in southwestern Missouri, which used longer angled posts to support both a more linear rail fence, and a higher extension of the fence. This still relies on a lot of rail-splitting, though. While trees are abundant on our homestead, we’ve found, after experimentation, that splitting rails just isn’t time-efficient enough in the modern era to justify the work.
But we still like the idea of using our forest resources for renewable fencing materials, and found an inspiration in yet another approach to rail fencing at Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site in northwestern Missouri. We adapted this approach using modern materials to build our modern rail fence.
This approach uses alternating rails of thin poles, held between pairs of T-posts. It’s very fast to assemble, once you’ve cut the poles, and is flexible over rough terrain. Using T-posts eliminates the time sink of drilling and setting wooden posts, and the problem of preventing rot.
Our poles are young cedar trees, an abundant resource here and a natural byproduct of our annual forest-improvement work; the tops of larger logs set aside for lumber also work. The cost of the T-posts ends up lower than the value of the time we’d spend splitting rails for a similar length fence, especially if they’re sourced used (as ours were).
The T-post method keeps the fence straighter than a traditional zig-zag rail fence, making it easier to maintain the adjoining areas with a mower or scythe, and to add vertical extensions or electric lines to increase the fence’s effectiveness against deer. It’s also easy to build in short segments wherever you need an attractive and sturdy fence.
Building the fence is easy when the materials are assembled. We cleared the route of other brush and did some light leveling work with a shovel, then stretched a length of twine to create a straight line.
Our poles are mostly 8 feet long, so we set a line of T-posts a little closer together to allow for the overlap of the poles. Next to each post we set a hunk of salvaged concrete block to keep the fence’s base off the ground and reduce rot. As we laid each pole in place, we added another T-post opposite the first one, at a reasonable spacing to allow for the typical pole’s diameter. Some of these posts we angled inward slightly, to account for our plan of using thicker poles at the base and thinner ones higher up.
The fence proceeds in a cascading fashion, laying each new layer of poles atop the previous one until you reach the far end, then start working your way back.
At each end of the fence, we used chunks of wood (either cut-up poles or pieces of milled 2x4) as spacers, in place of the non-existent poles that would otherwise keep the fence going. These are held in place by the weight of the fence itself. Spacers can also be used to keep rails relatively level, in the likely event that some poles taper too much at one end and don’t allow enough vertical spacing.
When the fence reached its intended height, we wound wire around the top of each T-post pair to keep them from spreading over time. Orienting the T-posts outwards makes it easy to add insulators for an electric line to increase the fence’s security; you can also easily lash on tall, thin poles to support a vertical extension of twine or electric line.
We see many benefits to this kind of fence. It uses lots of on-farm resources in the form of logs too thin for milling but too thick for chipping. It’s quick and easy to construct, requiring a minimum of engineering skill, and can handle rough terrain. It’s also relatively easy to disassemble or repair, for example if a tree falls on it. It doesn’t put a lot of metal wire or mesh into the landscape for future generations to deal with, something we’re sensitive to after removing far too much old barbed wire and other metal trash from the land.
Even if this fence is abandoned, the T-posts will remain easily retrievable and useful for many years, and the logs will just rot away with no trace.
It’s not necessarily a method you’d use to enclose acres of land, but it’s great for filling in gaps or enclosing smaller areas like a garden, yard, or animal paddock (setting an electric wire internally would keep goats off it, for example).
Having just built a few of these recently, we’re not sure how many years they’ll last, but they were so quick to build that we’re not sure it matters. We built over 100 feet in a partial afternoon, and have been happy with the result so far.
Photos and photo credits: Photo 1 collection by Joanna Reuter; Photos 2-5 by Eric Reuter
Eric Reuter and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem, at various times managing vegetable & grain crops, perennial fruits, dairy/meat goats, poultry, timber resources, and natural habitats. Read all of Eric's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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