Portable electric net fences make rotational grazing easier, offering many benefits to small-scale herds. Regular herd movement helps break parasite cycles, provides fresher sources of balanced forage, and helps the land recover once animals are removed from an area. Rotational grazing mimics the natural movement of wild animals, which do not restrict themselves to the same patch of ground year-round, though homesteaders generally prefer not to expose their domestic animals to the same predator threats as their wild cousins.
Electric net fences are a modern boon to this style of management, allowing easy and secure paddocks to be set up and moved regularly without fussing over permanent fences. These systems also come with quirks and hazards, however, which should be understood and respected for best results.
Each fence consists of a net woven from a combination of insulating plastic strands and conductive metal strands, supported by insulated posts. When connected to a proper power source, the nets carry pulses of electricity that will produce an uncomfortable shock to any animal that touches the fence while standing on the ground. This produces a deterrent effect, whether to predators nosing against the fence from the outside, or domestic animals testing the boundary from the inside.
All fences must be connected to a dedicated energizer, which is a unit that converts regular household power into the proper electric pulse for the fence. (Solar chargers are available, as well, but they rely on batteries that don’t last forever. We prefer plug-in units.) We’ve used a variety of nets from Premier1 of Iowa for our goats, chickens, pigs, and crops; their website hosts a thorough discussion of net fence basics.
Portable nets are the easiest way to keep goats moving about the landscape, but it’s very important to train all animals to these fences. Since they’re not as secure as permanent wire-mesh fences, their value and safety relies on the animal understanding and respecting the barrier. An animal which becomes entangled in a net runs the risk of injury or death through a combination of strangulation and shock stress.
Young goat kids are particularly vulnerable because their smaller heads fit easily through the fences’ openings as they explore the new world around them. Unlike a solid fence like a cattle panel, once a kid’s head is through a flexible net, it’s much harder for them to withdraw without getting entangled. Meanwhile, the fence is now shocking the kid regularly, a double-dose of danger.
There are several ways to mitigate this risk. Introduce kids to net fences slowly and intentionally. You can set up a test section and actually hold kids against it briefly, creating an association between shock and fence that will linger in their mind. This temporary unpleasantness is well worth the long-term benefits for the animal. Also, try to be within earshot as much as possible when using electric nets with young kids. If you hear hollering, it’s easy to run down, disconnect the fence, and free the kid before any permanent harm is done.
We start kids within a permanent non-electric paddock, only releasing them to a net-fenced area when we’re nearby, until we’re comfortable with their acclimation to the nets. A similar process can be used with any new goats you introduce to your herd, or any problem goats that seem determined to test fences. Simply watching your herd can help in identifying individuals who show less respect than you’d like.
Electric net fences allow targeting grazing of specific areas.
Goats are smart, but this works both ways. They quickly learn to avoid a hot fence, but also quickly figure out when a fence is off or shorted-out. A weak or dead fence is not only an invitation to escape, but an invitation to danger, because a goat that doesn’t fear a net can become entangled as its curiosity or wanderlust takes hold. Test fences regularly, and keep them as weed-free as possible.
We generally use a string trimmer or scythe to quickly knock down vegetation before setting up a net. Check the nets now and then for broken wires or other loose connections, to ensure power is reaching all parts of the fence. When setting up the nets, make sure none of the hot wires becomes accidently wrapped around the metal part of the post as it goes into the ground; this can be a baffling fault to find when it happens unknowingly.
Also consider the layout of your fences. Are there choke points or tight corners where a goat could be forced into contact with a fence? Goats have a well-defined social structure, maintained in part by physical interactions, and it’s possible for an otherwise wary goat to be shoved into a fence during such behavior if there isn’t sufficient room for movement or escape.
Goats are quite capable of jumping the height of a goat-style electric net, but with good management, this rarely happens. In our experience, goats respect nets as long as their needs are being met. For example, if they’ve exhausted the food within their paddock and see lush brush nearby, they may be inclined to jump. Regular movement of grazing areas, which portable nets facilitate, mitigates this behavior.
Breeding season is another time when goats may seek to fulfill their desires beyond a fence. We’ve encountered one doe whose tendency to try to escape seemed to coincide with her heat cycle, even with no bucks for miles around.
In our experience, the modest risks of using net fences with goats are far outweighed by the many significant benefits. Portable fences have reduced our reliance on permanent fences, saving money and resources while helping us maintain a more open landscape. Moving our herd regularly to new grazing areas contributed to breaking the parasite cycle, reducing the need for chemical dewormers.
The nets provide more security from coyotes and loose dogs, and help keep the goats where they belong. They allow us to graze a wider variety of landscapes, improving the herd’s diet and providing beneficial land management. With all these benefits, it’s well worth taking the time to teach goats to respect such fences, for everyone’s sake.
Photos by Chert Hollow Farm
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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