Dr. Matt Poore also contributed to this article.
The tools to improve productivity that we have at our disposal are quite astonishing. Computers that allow us to analyze our operations, equipment used to plant/harvest crops to produce feed, and the genetic predictions used to select better livestock are just a few examples of tools that have changed livestock production. As managers we must determine which tools to incorporate into our farms and some will prove to be useful while others will be discarded.
In grassland agriculture temporary electric fence has changed everything for us. Reels, poly-wire and tread-in posts coupled with a good energizer allow us to more actively manage our pastures. But, as with most technology, getting started can be a challenge. It helps to know that even the most advanced graziers started with a single strand (or 2-3 strands for small ruminants) subdividing one permanent pasture at the water source. From there, all improvements in your grazing management journey depend on “the power of one wire”.
So, what benefits does adaptive grazing management – using smaller paddocks and more frequent movement – have on the system? We know that when we only graze for a few days and then rest the grass for a long period the grass stand is healthier and produces more total forage. Furthermore, this approach alters the grazing behavior of the livestock making them less selective and improves the amount of grass consumed rather than wasted. These and other benefits are well documented, and it is all because of the effective use of temporary electric fence. But, many producers do not fully realize the numerous advantages of using this technology.
So, what are some of the benefits you can expect if you adopt temporary fencing?
Better Animal Health
First, using temporary electric fence gives you the opportunity to observe your livestock as they move to new grass. Cattle producers can use this time to check body condition, udders, feet and leg soundness and fly populations. What about that cow that is moving slowly? You can clearly observe how she walks and determine if she needs treatment for foot rot or needs to be added to the cull list due to age or some other unsoundness. Most all of these items fall into the Beef Quality Assurance programs and will allow producers to effectively monitor their herds and provide for their welfare. Moving cattle more frequently also improves their disposition and makes them easier to handle. Just moving them one to two times weekly can make a big impact as they will learn you most often are there to give them better grass, and they become accustomed to being near you and walking by you without being afraid.
Cattle That Are Happy Where They Are
As cattle become familiar with this new management style they are also learning to respect poly-wire and it becomes a powerful psychological barrier. They are content to graze their forage allowance knowing you will return to give them new grass soon. The respect for temporary electric fence also allows it to be used to construct short-term lanes for cattle movement. On many occasions producers must move cattle across pastures without grazing them and a poly-wire lane will keep the cattle going the right direction.
It’s Easier to Move and Manage Cattle Familiar the Power of One Wire
Cattle that are well trained can also be pressured and moved by the use of poly-wire. If you are alone and need to get up a group or an individual animal, you can hook the end of the poly-wire to the gate, and use the poly-wire to direct cattle where you want them to go. You can literally “reel them in”! If you have help, two people holding a long section of poly-wire between them can easily move cattle where you want them to go. This can be helpful when moving cattle from large pastures into lanes or holding pens. In some cases, with larger herds, three or more people can spread out and carry the same poly-wire to gently apply pressure to move cattle in the desired direction like a moving fence. It is truly amazing to watch the cattle avoid the poly-wire and flinch when it touches them even though it has no power on it!
You can also use this technique to sort off cattle without gathering the whole herd. Imagine sorting off a group of late calving bred cows from a herd of cow-calf pairs. Moving the entire herd through the corral could risk calf injury. With cows that respect poly-wire along with low-stress handling, you can move them to a different pasture for closer observation while the pairs remain relaxed. Or you can move later born calves that could have significant scour risk if they stay with the older calves. Finally, if you have a cow with pinkeye or foot rot, you can use the poly-wire herding technique to cut them out and get them to the pen without having to gather the whole herd. These are just a few examples of “the power of one wire.”
Solutions to Pasture Damage
With the power of one wire, we can exclude cattle from heavily impacted areas that need rest or protection. A ruptured waterline or an overturned water tank can cause quiet a mess when cattle use the water and mud to cool themselves. A section of poly-wire can offer protection while this area stabilizes. Temporary fencing is also useful for managing other places animals congregate. For example, many pastures have limited shade during the summer’s heat and even in very large wooded areas cattle will find a preferred location and use it repeatedly. They may continue to use these sites during the winter. These areas will become degraded with excess nutrients, excessive mud, soil compaction/erosion and over time the trees may die. But, with the power of one wire, progressive graziers can subdivide their wooded tracts to prevent this by rotating/resting their shade. The fence is easy to construct and relocate as management opportunities change.
Quick Response to Emergencies
Frequently, severe thunderstorms, tornados or tropical storm systems can knock down trees and damage perimeter fences, requiring a quick response from the farmer when they may have much larger problems to deal with. If your animals are trained to temporary electric fence, you can use those supplies to quickly reestablish the perimeter until permanent repairs can be made.
Are you ready to give it a try and take the “One Wire Challenge”?
We certainly use a variety of tools in livestock production. Some are very complex while others are quite simple. In the quest for continual improvement we must adopt technologies (tools) that move us forward. On our home farms it is difficult for us to imagine raising livestock without temporary electric fence. It is a tool that delivered a “breakthrough moment” and fundamentally changed our program. But it all started with “one wire” dividing a pasture in half and that’s why it is called “The Power of One Wire”.
As with all technology, there is a learning curve and points of frustration. Don’t give up! Stay the course and learn how to use this valuable tool. It changed everything we do and made our farms more productive and pleasurable.
Kathy says: I spent a week with Matt and Johnny in North Carolina this past January as a speaker for their traveling series of Amazing Grazing workshops. I learned a lot from them and the other speakers and I’ll be sharing more from them all in future issues of On Pasture. If you have topics you’d like me to be sure to cover, let me know!