Livestock Fencing Basics: Pastures, Barnyards, And Pens

To construct effective live stock fences, match your fence types to the animals you'll be securing.

Most seasoned inhabitants of farm country know that the call, "Horse-high, hog-tight and skunk-proof" can mean only one thing. Someone's putting in a new fence. From securing an entire pasture to bordering a good-sized barnyard to creating escape-proof exercise pens, fencing is an absolute necessity to protect your investment in livestock and poultry.

Even the most rudimentary fence must be solid and secure enough to do its job, which is probably to:

1. Define specific areas and boundaries;

2. Keep livestock in (or out), thus avoiding costly escapes and injuries;

3. Keep predators and vermin out of animal shelters and gardens, thus reducing losses and preventing disease;

4. Provide shelter from predators and the elements; and

5. Provide security for the barnyard and an attractive enclosure for the homestead.

Whatever form of fencing you choose -- hedging, split-rail, mesh, barbed wire and so on -- your efforts will only be as effective as your knowledge of your critters. Each breed has its own special escape method ... and there are few forces in life more powerful than a fenced animal determined to find freedom.

Remember: Where one breaks though, many others are sure to follow. So whichever method you choose, build your fences with your animals in mind, with sturdy materials and with a commitment to keep your fences secure.

In The Pasture

There's no shortage of fence options designed to keep grazing animals where they belong. Here are few of the most effective.

Barbed Wire

The most recent design, and the most popular in the western United States, is the barbed wire fence, which -- just 130 years after it was patented -- now stretches for hundreds of thousands of miles, enclosing millions of acres. Many farmers and rural residents, however, consider barbed wire to be too dangerous to use around smaller livestock. The narrow wire with its characteristic razor-sharp barbs remains a favorite among cattle ranchers, who use it to train their cattle away from overgrazed areas.

Sometimes an electric wire is stretched along the barbed wire as a secondary warning to livestock and predator alike. Barbed wire won't contain every kind of livestock. While it's very effective with cattle, it is ineffective with some farm animals, such as chickens, young goats and large hogs.

Hedge Barriers

The pasture fence most popular with many organic farmers and environmentalists is still the hedge barrier, a carefully constructed and living border that can take years to build and grow. Thick, deep hedges, when carefully built and faithfully tended, provide a barrier against escape while also offering animals protection from extreme heat, high winds and winter cold.

Split-Rail, or Snake Fence

When much of the open land was rich in timber, settlers often chose the split-rail fence to border their properties. Some smaller farmers still prefer this time-honored fencing today, although it consumes large amounts of wood and land. Pioneers called it the snake fence because it weaves back and forth in a series of interlocking half or split rails that intersect in a narrow "V" shape as they make their way along the border.

For many decades, the rural landscapes in the eastern and midwestern United States were criss-crossed with the post-and-rail fence. These wooden fences use vertical posts, sunk deeply into the ground, as their main supports. Rails, with ends narrowed and often covered in tar, are fitted into holes that are carved into and through the posts.

Boxing in the barnyard with wire mesh

A secure and effective barnyard fence needs to contain a wide range of animals that may periodically escape from their pens, shelters, stables or barns. In earlier days, many timber-rich farmers preferred picket fences or post-and-rail borders as the most effective use for trees they felled and cleared from the forestland that they eventually turned into open farmland.

The high cost of lumber today and the high-maintenance nature of all-wood construction shifted many preferences to a more versatile fencing method: wire mesh and wood. A strong wire mesh fence secured tightly to wooden posts and supports, built "horse-high and hog-tight," is an increasingly popular alternative in many barnyards today. The mesh-wood construction is strong enough to contain large animals, such as cows and horses, yet small enough to frustrate chickens and geese who might entertain thoughts of greener pastures outside the barnyard.

Wire mesh, secured to sturdy oak posts, has the added benefit of being much less dangerous, more versatile and far more attractive than barbed wire. One point to remember: if you're containing chickens and other poultry in the barnyard, you'll want to entrench the mesh at least 12 inches deep to make sure burrowing predators can't by-pass your security system!

Pens and Shelters

Most farmers, large and small, tend to keep their smaller animals in separate pens or stalls in a farm barn. But if you've just got a few animals, or want to give your livestock room to roam when they aren't in their stalls, make sure your fencing suits the breed!


Goats may be pastured along with their larger colleagues on the farmstead, but it's not necessary to have a pasture just for goat-keeping. A small pole barn and a wire-mesh fence will do nicely for shelter and exercise. If you've ever kept goats, you know these playful creatures are wonderful jumpers, so any pen or fence needs to be at least eight to 12 feet high. The exercise area should be no less than 20 feet long, because goats need space to roam, or they'll soon be on the look-out for a way to escape.


Despite the stereotypical depiction of lots of fluffy hens running around a farmyard, the fact is that many farmers who raise poultry for commercial sale don't bother to have an outside yard for their feathered fare. But if you'll be inclined to let your hens and roosters scoot around the property, you'll want to protect their run with chicken wire, secured to sturdy wooden posts no less than six feet high.

It's handy to attach the run directly to the door-side of the henhouse, so that the flock can move in and out, roost and lay, feed and play, all in one secure area. Sink the chicken wire at least a foot deep into the ground and be sure to cover the top of your chicken run with chicken wire, as well, to keep predators out.


Many farmers like barbed wire fencing for pigs, because pigs won't normally root through barbed wire. But if you live in an area where power outages are common after storms, you might choose to augment your fence with a basic sanitary pigpen, built on a cement slab, anchored at the corners with five-foot cement posts and fenced with strong oak slats spaced about four inches apart.

From pigs to poultry, from goats to geese, once you've decided on what type of livestock you'll bring to your farm or homestead, why not spend a day or two driving around the countryside, observing what type of fencing neighboring farms employ? Make notes of what you see, how well-kept the animals appear to be and what you find most attractive and effective.

And be sure to construct your pens, housing and fencing before bringing your animals home. When you know your investments are safe, sheltered and secure, you'll sleep much better at night -- and your livestock will, too.

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