by: Clifford Mitchell

Most have had a favorite work shirt, sweat shirt or jacket that is worn until the threads are coming loose, but it is still part of the wardrobe. Some have a pocket knife that was given to them by a mentor, family member or another person viewed with respect and would spend hours trying to find it if it got misplaced.

Cattlemen value longevity, whether it's the genetics that roam the pastures or the equipment needed to get the job done. Many operations have a dinosaur like pick-up that drinks fuel way too fast and can be cantankerous on certain mornings, but owners are quick to defend by saying it will last another year. Fences are the same way. A lot of country roads are outlined by perimeter fences that often leave people scratching their head wondering how anything stays behind the fence or marveling at the crafty patch jobs frugal owners put together with duct tape and baling wire to get one more year of service.

“There are a lot of fences out there that are rusted and falling down. Most of these fences were built after World War II and the fencing technology has come a long way,” says Gary Craig, Marketing Manager, San Antonio Steel Company.

“Most fences were built 25 years ago and there weren't that many options when these fences were built. Today, we have better quality wire, hopefully, if producers make the right choices, they won't have to replace that fence again,” says Matt Stokes, Producers Co-op, Bryan, Texas.

“Most people don't think far enough down the road. Adding a little extra investment on the front end with high quality materials will pay dividends for a long time,” says Joe “Cuatro” Strack, J4 Fencing and Service, LLC, El Campo, Texas.

Cattlemen are quick to exchange herd bulls for an upgrade in genetics if they figure a profit. A new bigger, stouter ranch horse because the neighbor got a new one is sometimes another upgrade that can be easily justified by the “pride factor.” Tractors, farm trucks and fences are expected to keep working for another year. Deciding when it's time to replace dilapidated fences could decrease some liability, improve the property and position the ranch favorably for the future.

“Patching old fences costs a lot of money. Sit down and do the figures. If you're going to spend 30 to 50 percent of the total replacement cost, you're probably money ahead if you replace the old fence with a higher quality fence that will last a long time,” Strack says. “A new fence will cut your liability. If cattle are getting out continuously you're exposing yourself to a potential lawsuit. Sometimes labor cost involved with patching the old fence will exceed labor cost of installing a new one.”

      “Producers often get caught trying to “poor boy” their fences. They will use class one low carbon wire and replace it with the cheapest wire they can buy. High tensile fence has three times the strength of regular barb wire and won't sag or stretch,” Craig says. “Most ranchers are exposing themselves to a pretty good liability risk with poor fences. Today, most cows are tagged and branded; everybody knows whose cows they are when they get out. You can build a nine strand field fence for the same price you can build a five strand barb wire fence. The barb wire will last seven years before rust shows and the high tensile product will last 50.”

“If the tractor breaks down and you can fix it for the right price to get another year out of it that's one thing, but poor fences and cattle constantly getting out is a little different than fixing the tractor,” Stokes says. “The hardest part for us is people want to buy the same materials that dad or grandpa did. Producers can install a field fence rather than barb wire that requires a half or a third less posts. Field fence will also help add diversity to the operation because it can be paired with different species of livestock.”

Business models will define the plan of action for most outfits. Setting goals for the operation will include things like replacing or repairing fences. A producer's pencil gets real sharp when as profit is projected; however, sometimes true expenses are overlooked.

“Producers have many options with fencing materials today they didn't have in the past. I advise a lot of people to use galvanized pipe and galvanized T-posts. The more galvanization you can get in the ground the better,” Stokes says. “There will be added labor costs to prepare used oil field pipe to last a long time. Most people don't figure in those extra labor costs to get the fence done right.”

“A high tensile fence with an advanced coating technology and galvanized T-posts, corners and braces will last many years, compared to traditional fences. The high tensile wire doesn't stretch so it requires fewer posts, which will also save on labor,” Craig says. “People can find good used oil field pipe, but the biggest mistake they make is not painting it. If you are going to use oil field pipe be sure to paint it for added fence life. Don't put up a good quality fence on rusty T-posts or raw pipe.”

“You'll get a long life and class 3 wire requires fewer posts in the fence line. A new high tensile fence, because of added life, will be a cheaper alternative in the long run,” Strack says. “There are primarily three common post configurations: wood, used oil field pipe and new galvanized pipe. Some of the cedar products we're getting are less desirable than they once were. Used oil field pipe is cheap, but you gamble with quality. Galvanized pipe is a high cost item and we use it a lot because once it's done, it's done. Galvanized pipe always looks the same, you know what you're getting and I can have it pre-cut so I can go right to work. The quality varies so much with used oil field pipe there is a lot of labor cost and pipe that you can't use. It's an installed cost for the used pipe, not just up front at the yard cost.”

Planning fence replacement or fencing new property is really important. Proper thought with grazing patterns, shipping and just easy flow of cattle throughout the system will save money in the long run. According to Strack, this is where most people are too hasty with their plans and run into problems because proper thought was not used to build the fence configuration.

“Gate placement and layout are very important. This goes back to the long term goals and having a plan,” Strack says. “Where people get into trouble is they think about it today and then put it up as fast as they can. A lot of times this doesn't work. I have seen shipping pens that producers couldn't get the cattle to without hauling them there. All the thought and planning up front is very crucial. If you have to re-do something it gets expensive in a hurry.”

“The H-braces are the foundation of the fence, just like a house has a foundation. The biggest mistake I see is people make is not getting in good H-braces and solid corners,” Stokes says. It doesn't matter how strong your wire is, the fence isn't any good to you if the braces and corners are coming out of the ground.”

The weather and climate will affect certain types of fencing. Look at all of the options before deciding on which materials to use. The wrong choice could lead to added labor cost or lost time due to repairs. Brush and weed control is a must to ensure long life.

“Hot and cold weather causes low carbon materials to sag. High tensile products are maintenance free and you don't have to re-stretch them,” Craig says. “Make sure you spray once a year to keep brush from growing up in the fence line.”

“Soil type affects what materials you should use. Don't use wood posts in extremely wet areas. No pipe works well in extreme alkali soils which we get from time to time. Galvanized pipe works in more conditions than any,” Strack says. “Clean the vines and brush away from your fence and make it accessible. It makes it easier to see if you have a problem and you can fix it. If the brush is grown over it may take a whole day to clean it up just so you can fix it. Keep fence lines sprayed and drive them everyday to properly maintain fences and keep people honest.”

“It will always decrease fence life if you let oak and mesquite trees grow up in the fence line,” Stokes says. “If you have trees and brush growing up in that fence it looks bad and could cause a lot of problems.”

Costs vary with fencing products. Unlike some products there is no seasonal time to purchase fence supplies. As producers consider fence replacement, do a little leg work ahead of time to avoid problems.

“Our prices fluctuate with the price of steel. All our products are made from recycled steel and it will go up and down throughout the year. Since a lot of our products are galvanized, zinc could impact price,” Craig says. “There is no bad time to buy fencing materials. Remember two things, good fence makes good neighbors and all fences are not created equal.”

“We can install a fence that will last you 40 to 50 years for a very reasonable price compared to patching the old one,” Strack says. “If you're going to replace a perimeter fence or patch an existing one talk to your neighbors before hand about cost sharing, labor, cleanup etc. This will make it a very easy process.”

It has been passed from more than one generation of cowboys. Most believe the appearance will reflect the efficiency of the operation. Well maintained fences set the tone and often speak volumes about management, genetics and herd health.

With the cattle market in what seems to be a rejuvenated state, hopefully, most commercial operators will see more profit. Improving the ranch's efficiency is always a good way to increase that margin. Timely repair or replacement of fences will not only increase the “pride factor” in the operation, but could help bottom line. Buying quality products and installing them right could keep the fence pliers on the shelf.

“There's a big difference in fence products today. If we can get this new wire in their hands most are becoming believers,” Stokes says. “Do the job right. The expense occurred out front is going to be divided over the life of that fence. It will probably be one of the cheapest investments you make over the life of the property.”

“I meet with my customers and try to help them design and layout their fences. Most realize they save in the long run if we spend a little time consulting,” Strack says. “Know who you're dealing with and have them provide references. Design fencing to help diversify the operation and pay the bills. Invest in the higher quality product and only do it once. You'll waste a lot of money if you have to replace that fence again in five years.”


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