Farm Fencing: Horse High, Chicken Tight or Bull Strong

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Photo by Pixabay/benjaminnelman
Combination panels have smaller openings at the bottom and are more expensive than cattle panels, but will hold baby lambs and cattle.

Good farm fencing surely makes good neighbors, and with the right livestock fences, you and your critters will experience the joys of low-stress livestock management. A one-size-fits-all solution to livestock fencing doesn’t exist — you’ll need different kinds of fences for different purposes.

Fences work in two basic ways: physical and psychological. A 12-foot-tall stone wall in good repair will keep most animals in or out no matter how much they rub, scratch or try to climb it. Conversely, a fence created with a single strand of lightweight polywire conductor offers little in the way of a physical barrier, but it will serve as a psychological barrier after your animals have been shocked by it. The best fences integrate both physical and psychological components.

Wire Fencing Basics

Steel wire continues to be among the most economical materials from which to construct fences. Smooth steel wire is most often used to manufacture barbed wire or woven wire fence.

Wire fences rely on braced end posts and line posts installed between them to support the wire. Posts can be made of wood, steel, plastic or fiberglass. Typical installations include braced 7- to 8-inch-diameter wood end posts with steel T-posts in between. Steel posts are easy to drive by hand, while wood posts generally require you to dig post holes and tamp soil around each post.

Low-tensile (conventional) steel wire with a low carbon content is still used to construct most wire fences. This material bends and stretches easily, but is relatively inelastic — so if it stretches, it doesn’t contract back to its original state. These characteristics mean that it’s easy to work with, but also subject to sagging and breakage. Conventional wire requires more line posts spaced closer together for support than high-tensile wire.

High-tensile wire is more difficult to work with, but fences made of it stay tighter longer because the wire is stronger and more elastic. Working with high-tensile wire also requires greater care with setting end posts and braces due to the additional tension they must bear. While the high-tensile wire itself may cost more than its conventional counterpart, you can choose a lighter gauge high-tensile wire and get the same or greater strength than you would with conventional. High-tensile wire fences require fewer line posts, which saves money and labor overall. 

Smooth Wire Fence

Choose smooth wire for your farm fencing project if you want to control livestock with minimal chance of injury. Because you must design this fence to serve as a physical barrier, you should only use high-tensile wire, which is relatively easier to install than barbed wire. Most experts recommend electrifying one or more strands to make smooth wire fence more effective.

Non-electric, high-tensile smooth wire fencing relies on a series of tightly stretched wires with relatively small spacing intervals from about 6 to at least 52 inches off the ground (depending on animal type) to be effective. High-tensile, smooth wire fences can work for horses and quiet cattle — the strands will need to be tighter and more closely spaced to contain sheep or goats.

Barbed Wire Fence

Barbed wire’s success as an inexpensive farm fencing material is due to its strength as a physical barrier combined with its pointed barbs that serve as a good psychological barrier. The wire stands up to an animal’s first few encounters, which prove sufficiently uncomfortable that the animal will avoid the fence. Low-tensile (mild) steel barbed wire is easy to install, although care must be taken to keep from getting cut.

Barbed wire is also available as a high-tensile product, which has a longer service life, plus more elasticity and strength. As with high-tensile fencing of virtually any kind, the barbed wire version requires significantly fewer line posts but stouter end posts.

Woven Wire Fence

Smooth wire woven into a mesh makes an effective physical barrier for all animals because the height and the number of horizontal and vertical wires vary widely.

The principal weakness to woven wire mesh is that it offers little to no psychological deterrent, and animals will eventually break it down. You can strengthen it by adding barbed wire or electrified strands at appropriate heights for your animals. Most woven wire fences are topped with at least one strand of electric or barbed wire — a strand of barbed wire at goat- or sheep-flank height will deter fleece rubbing and back scratching. Woven wire is moderately difficult to install, especially in hilly areas.

High-tensile woven wire makes an excellent choice because its lighter gauges — which are as strong as or stronger than heavier gauges of conventional wire — are easier to work with. The material can also be stretched sufficiently taut to withstand much more animal abuse than conventional mesh.

For a full look at your wire choices, see “All About Wire” at the end of this article.

Welded Wire Stock Panels

Rigid, fixed-length, heavy-gauge wire (up to quarter-inch) panels are generally available in lengths up to 16 feet. Stock panels are perfect for constructing corrals and other enclosures where animal contact is likely or where you don’t wish to construct braced end-post structures. Wire the ends of four stock panels together — with fence posts added to the interior and corners — and you have a free-standing, 16-by-16-foot enclosure. Hog and sheep panels tend to top out at about 34 inches tall and generally offer closer spacing of the lower horizontals to prevent baby pigs and young lambs from worming their way through. Cattle panels and so-called combination panels are typically 52 inches tall. Combination panels have smaller openings at the bottom and are more expensive than cattle panels, but will hold baby lambs and cattle.

If installed permanently, stock panels should be stapled or wired to posts of sufficient size and length to withstand the expected animal pressure. In typical corral installations, where groups of cattle are likely to press on the panels, 8-inch-diameter posts sunk 3 feet into the ground and spaced every 4 feet should work. With smaller groups of sheep, you might get away with T-posts spaced every 8 feet. If securing hogs, remember they like to root, so fasten the panels securely to the posts or they’ll lift them out of their way.


Relative Cost* 

Relative Strength^ 



Conventional Smooth Wire

Low Low Easy

Really only effective if electrified.

High-Tensile Smooth Wire

Low High Average

Requires strong braces and can be electrified.

Conventional Barbed Wire

Medium Medium Average

Proper hand and arm protection is a must.

High-Tensile Barbed Wire

Medium High Average

Never electrify barbed wire.

Conventional Woven Wire 

High Medium Difficult

Most effective when topped with one strand
of barbed wire or electric.

High-Tensile Steel Woven Wire

High High Difficult

Good permanent barrier — best topped with
barbed or electric wire.

Electric Fence Low Variable Easy

Can be portable; charger can be

Welded Wire Stock Panels

High High Easy

Good for areas with high animal contact.

*Relative costs are based on new posts and four runs of smooth or barbed wire, or a single run of woven or welded wire.
^Relative strengths are based on commonly available and comparable wire sizes.
+Ease of intallation is based on technical and physical aspects of post setting as well as wire stretching and hanging.

Electric Fencing

Modern electric fencing is as safe as it is effective, and works well for both permanent and portable installations. To do its job, electric fencing must deliver a powerful shock every time an animal comes into contact with a conductor (wire), or close enough that a high-voltage arc forms between the animal and the conductor. That shock relies on an energizer, which sends a pulse of high-voltage electrons into the fence’s conductor(s), and a functioning grounding system that facilitates the electron pulse’s movement.

If the electric fence system is set up properly, the animal is always grounded, and if the animal gets too close to a conductor, the shock will be memorable but harmless. If the electric ground is faulty, the animal may avoid getting shocked at all. To keep the electrons in the conductor from routinely finding their way to the ground, you need to suspend the conductors from wood or steel posts with specially designed insulators. (You can also use line posts constructed of insulating polymers or fiberglass.) You’ll need to insulate the conductors from any non-electric fences.

Never use barbed wire as a conductor. An animal or human might get caught by the wire and possibly get shocked senseless or even to death.

High-tensile smooth wire makes an excellent electric fence conductor, though it works best in permanent or semipermanent installations. If you wish to “fortify” a non-electric fence with an electric strand or two, high-tensile wire is the way to go.

For portable electric fences, light metal wire is an effective conductor, but it’s difficult to see, harder to wind onto spools and heavy. Twines twisted from ultraviolet-stabilized polymers and fine metallic threads (polywire) are light and easy to spool and unspool, but they won’t carry as much shocking potential for the same distance as solid wire. Specialized, braided wire/polymer lines and ribbons generally have a mid-level shock-carrying capacity and are resilient to numerous spooling and unspooling cycles.

For more on electric fencing types, including electric mesh and the best portable options for your livestock, check out Electric Fencing Basics and The Value of Portable Electric Fences on the Farm.

Poultry Fencing

Keeping your chickens safely penned requires mesh fencing designed for smaller birds. You can use electric netting, specialized woven wire with sufficiently small openings, lightweight welded mesh wire, or poultry mesh (sometimes called chicken wire).

For a permanent installation, lightweight welded wire mesh with 2-by-4-inch openings will work. A step up from this would be the heavier and more expensive 2-by-4-inch mesh woven wire (often recommended for goats). A step down would be so-called poultry mesh. The goat fencing will last longer than the welded wire mesh, which will outlast the poultry mesh. The goat mesh will arguably be the most attractive (the lighter meshes tend to sag).

For areas up to 10-by-10 feet, you can use lumber of light scantling (slight width and thickness) to create frames that are each 10 feet long. Construct panels by covering the frames with poultry mesh, then put the panels together to enclose the desired area.

For portable enclosures, electric mesh fencing makes the most sense for areas larger than 10-by-10 feet. Even beyond poultry, electric netting works well in temporary to semi-permanent fences for controlling difficult-to-contain animals.

Good Braces Make Good Fences

The typical tensioned-wire fence exerts a minimum of 1,000 pounds of pull on an anchor post. An anchor post serving as a corner post must withstand that much pull in two directions. Soil movement due to temperature and moisture fluctuation, and livestock or wildlife collisions with the wire, can easily increase the pull to 2,500 pounds or more?—?a load considerably greater than an average unbraced post can bear for any extended period. Though there are many ways to brace anchor posts, the two-post horizontal, diagonal Kiwi and rock crib (or cairn) braces offer all you need. (Find images and more details on these bracing techniques in Cures for the Common Fence.)

A two-post horizontal fence corner consists of a pair of two-post horizontal braces that share a common anchor (corner) post. Sink all posts a minimum of 3 feet and tamp the earth carefully and thoroughly when filling the holes. Install diagonal brace wire from just above ground level on the anchor post to about the level of the horizontal rail on the brace post. Tighten the brace wire by twisting it with a stick, Spanish windlass style.

A well-built Kiwi brace places the pinned diagonal brace post’s end on a smooth rock so that it can slide back and forth. Prevent it from splaying by wrapping a loop of brace wire around it and the anchor post below the lowest wire, and tightening it with a stick in the same manner as for the two-post horizontal fence corner.

Where stone is plentiful, you can make a loop of wire mesh about 4 feet in diameter, sandwich it between two posts wired together, and fill it with stone to create an anchor for all but the most highly tensioned fences.

Farm Fencing: All About Wire

Wire of various forms and materials are used for livestock fences, but not all wire is created equal. Before you make a large investment in fencing wire of any kind, you will want to consider these facts:

  • Smooth high-tensile wire is the only smooth wire suitable for use as a physical barrier.
  • Working with conventional (low-tensile) wire is easier and requires fewer special tools than with high-tensile wire.
  • High-tensile wire is stronger and more resilient than conventional wire in the same gauge (wire diameter).
  • 12-gauge wire has a larger diameter than 14- or 15-gauge.
  • High-tensile barbed wire can be stretched tighter than conventional wire for a more effective boundary fence.
  • Class III galvanizing will last years longer than Class II or lower.
  • Aluminum wire is weaker and less resilient but conducts electricity better and costs more than steel.
  • Barbed wire of any kind should not be electrified for animal and human safety.
  • Woven wire fences are more expensive but suitable for more species from the get go.

Former Editorial Director and current Editor at Large for Ogden Publications, Hank Will is a business leader, academic, and agricultural practitioner devoted to conservation and small scale, sustainable agriculture. His current project, Prairie Turnip Farm in rural Osage County, Kansas, is home to direct-market Highland beef, landrace lamb, soap, feral bee, hay, and metal-working businesses.