How Many Reels of Fence Do I Need?

We have a dozen rolls of polywire fencing but how many do we need? I mean really need?

Ignore the fact that we keep our cows in two herds, beef and dairy. Let’s just talk about the beef herd. How much fence do we use?

We could get by with five. Easily.

Let me explain. We need two reels running in parallel the length of the pasture (let’s call those lines). Then we use one reel for a back fence, one for a front fence and the third defines the length of tomorrow’s grazing area (let’s call those cross fences). Those three cross fences rotate forward the length of the two parallel lines. Clear as mud? Let’s use pictures. This is an overhead view of the field north of the hog building. For decades it was where the sows and boars were kept. I remember it being a moonscape as a kid, now the fences have all been pulled down into the earth by grasses and trampled by cattle.


The satellite image has not been updated recently so the picture shows a lot of damage done by the cattle in the past. See those well worn paths across the field? That’s from the cattle lounging in the bottom or in the wheat field further north and trekking across the field every morning to eat silage and hay at the barn. The whole herd walked in a line right there several times each day, every day for years. There is good fence to the south and west of the field. I just need to build temporary fence to the north then subdivide the grazing to concentrate their activity as they pulse across the landscape. Because my cattle walk in a place only once every three or more months the old cow paths are healing. Instead there are deep roots and tall forages. Unfortunately, there are also tall weeds but that’s part of the healing process.

On the picture below I show the permanent fence in red, the north line in yellow and the cross fences in green. Those daily subdivisions are quite large. In September we were just trying to skim out the annual forbs (chicory, dandelion, clover and ragweed) while maintaining and fertilizing the standing fescue. Fescue is at its best when everything else has frozen out. The little extra dose of nitrogen left by grazing animals will make it even better…for longer. Better still where the layer flock passes.


Every day we moved the cows. Every day we moved the water. Every day the cows got fresh salad and clean sheets. Every day a new section of the pasture got a workout. The strategy is only a little different in the clover field. Not much in that field will survive a frost. Hopefully I can finish grazing it before the forage is killed back by frost. In recent years this has been a lot of corn and beans.


Dad lightly disced the field in the spring and spread a pasture mix heavy in legumes (60%). We took a cutting of hay in late July and it has since recovered. The ground is a little lumpy, there are a few weedy patches (shattercane and cocklebur) but for the most part it’s a very nice field. Hopefully the cows can flatten it out a bit so the hay wagon won’t be such a bumpy ride. Because of the grazing strategy here we are grazing smaller areas. We want fair utilization, a lot of trampling and good manure distribution. We try to leave a blanket covering the soil but still give the cows what they need as measured by gut fill and manure consistency.


We also have to move things along quickly enough to cover the field before frost. Really I should have until early November before snow pushes it all down but I need to be in the alfalfa field after it frosts and dries. So here’s what we planned:


Try to imagine yourself as a 13 year old boy trying to walk a straight line to the opposite corner of a field…when the corner is hidden by two hills.


What really happened is he went wide on the initial fence. We cut a portion of the area in half with another roll of fence then applied our subdivisions. It worked. The pasture sizes vary wildly but it’s cool. We were counting on cool weather in these open areas but it got to nearly 90 degrees. When it got hot we removed the back fence and allowed the cattle to lounge in the shade of the few trees in the first subdivision. That’s not ideal but it also wasn’t a big deal. The cattle tended to concentrate their manure in the shade and caused additional disruption near the trees but they appeared to do their grazing in new areas, not in old ones.


From here we’ll attempt to define a mostly parallel fencing line to the south and keep movin’ on. I think we are currently using 7 reels of fence but only because we are lazy. We could easily get by with five. You just have to think through each movement and how to get the most out of your available resources. Pasture size is dictated by available forage, livestock needs and your management goal du jour. This winter we will really bunch them up in smaller pastures to utilize the stockpiled forage and distribute manure evenly. When it is warm and rainy we give them larger areas. Seasons change. Cattle needs vary. You’ll just have to figure some of this out on your own farm.

Let me give you another example of variation. We have gotten nearly a foot of rain in the last two weeks. We had seven inches of rain in 24 hours last week. This field is so new that there isn’t a dense net of roots protecting the soil. Hooves can sink in. To prevent lasting damage we just move the herd faster. Maybe we offer smaller grazing areas and move them twice daily but they don’t get a chance to make a mud pit. You must be flexible to change with both livestock and pasture needs.

With a mere 5 reels of fence you should have everything you need to put your cows in motion. A drink of water, a pinch of salt and a little shade on hot days and you’re on your way…these could all be delivered to a small herd with a single portable structure.

Additional thoughts:

  • An important thing to consider is placement of your reels. If you are planning to make any adjustments to your fence, put your reel on the end you will adjust. Sometimes we have to roll up a little bit to let the cows into a new stretch. No big deal if the reel is in the right place. For example, try to place the reel of your cross fence so the cattle will show you their left side to you as they walk into the new pasture…and you should make the cattle walk past you to go to new pasture every day. This gives you a chance to look at the gut fill of a portion of the herd as well as a chance to look at other details. Are their coats shiny? Are their rumps and tails clean?
  • I have a few 1400′ reels of fence and I find they are difficult to roll up. I think the best reels are the ones that are only half filled as they are less likely to fall off of the spool. If I need more than 700′ of fence on my little farm I should reconsider my fencing plan.
  • We use a mix of pigtail posts and rebar posts. Rebar posts will take abuse, pigtails won’t. But we have had our share of fence shorts because the insulator on a rebar post twists and grounds out the wire. I prefer pigtails for ends, corners and cross fences then use rebar for lines. Pigtails also hold the wire more securely when deer run through the fence. If I had to make a choice I would choose pigtails.
  • 5 reels would cost around $250 for string and reels, another $50-100 for posts and insulators. That’s all the fence you would need for your first few hundred head of cattle. You might want to offer more space or move them less frequently in the spring but by the time you have 100 head of cattle you can probably afford another reel or two.
  • Don’t skimp on the energizer. And get one with a remote!
  • I would like to try polyrope but it ain’t cheap.
  • I don’t seem to know if I’m writing this blog for me or for you. Or for you. Or you. Or maybe just my kids. Maybe this is the manual for our farm…what I’ve learned so far. Whoever this is aimed at, thanks for reading. I hope it is clear.

7 thoughts on “How Many Reels of Fence Do I Need?

  1. Timing couldn’t be more perfect! We’re preparing to put an order in to Gallagher for the portable fencing with the Tumble-wheels. We’re a little more fortunate, in that our hay field that we’re using is a solid rectangle, large enough that we can divide into 3 sections and only need to slide vertically. You pointed out a few crucial issues that I haven’t been able to get across to Dwayne. Hopefully, reading this will help him understand. Thanks for the help!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s