None of the following constitutes legal advice. Always consult a licensed professional.
It’s Just a Fence. Right?
Whether it’s existing ranch and farm fencing on a property you are considering buying, fencing the perimeter of a new property, or cross-fencing your interior, there are some constructive perspectives and information that will help you with making fencing decisions for your ranching adventure.
- The Physical Environment
- Your Livestock
- Local Wildlife
- Plan ahead
- Choose carefully
- Consult a survey
- Verify existing fencing with the survey
- Review neighboring fencing practices
- Learn about adjacent gates, pens, and corrals
- Check prevailing fence techniques
- Seek out contractor referrals
- Get timelines and pricing in writing
Before fencing plans are made, you should sit down and talk about what you plan to do on your property. Have a 1-2 year plan and a more extended 4-5 year plan for your property and your livestock. Repairing existing perimeter fencing or installing new fencing will be a priority. Cross-fencing comes later. And that can be done, at least in part, with a grant from your local AG Extension Office! When you’re putting together a plan, take into consideration the types of livestock you wish to have and what the quantities will be. It’s also a good idea to learn about fence laws in your area. Next, plan load-out locations, corrals, shelters, and permanent facilities.
Nothing is worse than putting up a fence only to dig it up or remove it to install shelter, water, and electrical lines. Pipe stub-outs for this purpose can be placed in advance. You should consider accessibility as the most critical factor when determining your fence line and do so by keeping all types of weather in mind. There is nothing worse than erecting a shelter for your animals that fills up with water in November or having a shelter that you simply can’t get the feed to in a snowstorm. This is where the help of the current owner can be of GREAT value to you.
All you have to do is ask during your tour of the property. The key is knowing what to ask and put your questions in the context of the season you are asking about. Talk with your potential future neighbors about access and wind direction. Chances are, all their shelters are all orientated in a specific direction for a reason! You can learn what works best for your property and incorporate those planned facilities within the scope of where your fence lines will be. In the case of accessibility, you may have to fence around environmental factors, like flood plains, gullies, streams and rivers. While roads may be easily accessible in the summer, mid-winter may be an entirely different experience.
Designing a fencing system has traps you can fall into if you’re not careful. Consideration should be made relative to your pocketbook, your environment, your neighbor, your livestock, and the wildlife interacting with your fencing. The impact of your fencing on your animals, your neighbors, and your property can be significant.
Approach your fence project methodically and objectively, keeping in mind that fencing has systemic effects that are often unintended. In fact, fencing can have as many detrimental effects as positive effects. There is nothing worse than spending thousands of dollars on a new fence only to have to tear it down because it won’t work as an all-season fence or finding out you built it on your neighbor’s property!
Your choice of farm and ranch fencing will be based on several factors, not the least of which will be financial and the type of animals or security you seek to protect. Remember, this includes animals you desire to keep in and predators you want to keep out.
Costs for new fencing can vary widely across the country. Factors such as terrain, accessibility, raw material costs, and transportation all impact the final cost.
There is always a border on raw land without fencing, even if there isn’t a fence in place. A survey of the land you intend to fence is essential and should be provided to you for evaluation. Existing fences will be shown on the plot plan, and you can, in essence, “see” what you have by correlating that diagram to your physical property.
Without an existing fence line, you will only have flags tied to steel pins placed in the ground. These can be very difficult to spot. This is why you need to have an updated survey provided to you by the seller. The protection this affords you as a new or prospective buyer can not be overstated. Often you can negotiate the cost of the survey. However, this is most often a seller’s expense if they do not have a survey less than five years old. If the seller refuses to pay for a new survey, you might offer to split the costs. If you are purchasing a property, your real estate agent may be helpful in negotiating this.
In the end, a new survey may save you thousands of dollars. Knowing any easements or conflicts on existing property lines is imperative. This is also helpful when checking that your property taxes are accurate. Keep in mind that if a new survey is to be performed, you have a right as the buyer to be physically present during the survey. You cannot truly know what you have unless you are there when the survey is undertaken.
If a property already has a fence, the line will be verified by a new survey. Flags will be tied to objects above or near the point in the ground that is verified. Just because there is a fence up doesn’t mean you don’t need a current survey. Who owns that fence? There is nothing worse than buying a property and finding that the fence is already in dispute with the neighbor. Worse still, there may be a conflict of interest on the fence line that involves access to natural water flow, road access, or right of way.
The point is you must know what you own before you can build a fence. Assuming the fence line that is present is actually your fence is an assumption most people cannot afford to make. Accepting a fence line without a survey, then repairing and maintaining that fence after you purchase the property, could have onerous consequences if the fence itself is not on your property.
Rural Fencing in a Farm and Ranch Environment
Not only do you need to know the landscape and your property line, but you need to look at surrounding operations. Evaluate what your new neighbors are doing with their fencing, get an idea of how they are using their property, and what a new or upgraded fence’s impact on them and their animals will be.
There are several anecdotes related to this point. The first is about what a fence says to your neighbor. Imagine if you decide you want to keep exotic big-horned sheep. These animals can easily jump a 5-6′ tall fence, so you elect to put up a game fence 8′ tall. Much to your neighbor’s chagrin, you may have just effectively destroyed every single natural migration and game trail for that line of that fence.
You will potentially have disrupted years of routes of forage and habitation for an unknown number of species. At a minimum, you may impact your neighbor’s passion for deer hunting every year and crush any potential for a good relationship with that neighbor. The point is to get to know your neighbors and their operations before you decide to put up a fence that may affect them negatively. But there is also a practical reason for this. A fence line separating two properties can be shared in most states. By that, I mean if both parties build one single fence on that line, both parties can agree to split the costs of that fence!
There is another reason to get to know the neighbors of your new-to-you property with regard to your fence line. Many “agreements” have been forged on properties generationally. These agreements can be hunting rights, road access, seasonal usage, or even water rights for livestock; none of them may be in writing. For example, a family moved into an older ranch home needing a lot of work. One day their neighbor showed up asking to use the head gate in the corral that bordered the two properties.
As it happened, the head gate was sold as part of the property and the corral system around it. When the prospective owners inspected the corral, it was noted that there was a gate at that location between the two properties, but the gate was securely locked. The new owners were given keys to what they were told was “everything.” However, when they inspected the property, they thought the gate opening to the neighbor’s side was odd, but it was locked, so it was secure.
They had tried all the keys to that lock, but none worked. The new owners told the neighbor that they didn’t have a key to the lock, to which he replied, “Oh, that’s my lock. I have the key!” The neighbor brought his calves into the pen, successfully vaccinating them and spraying them for lice. This promptly infected all the new owner’s cattle. The point is this: You should drill into all of the “unexplained” at inspection. If you want something explained or are unclear about what is yours on your perspective property line, ask until you are satisfied. Nothing is worse than inheriting a feud or an unspoken agreement on a property line that will cause you nothing but grief.
Check Prevailing Fence Techniques
Once you know what you have and what you need to fence and what it needs to be fenced for, look around your area. If you live in Texas, used oil field pipe can be purchased relatively inexpensively. Wood posts are more common in northern states, especially in places like Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota, where soils tend to “move” with inclement weather, whereas pipe tends to sink or fall over. No matter where you are looking to build a fence, look around to see what others are doing. Chances are, what they have is the most economical and practical thing going in your area. Your contractor may specialize in one medium or several.
Find a LOCAL contractor. Selecting a contractor for your farm and ranch fencing is almost as important as your property selection itself. Find a company recommended by more than one person. Then verify those recommendations. Talk to the contractor about the other services they may provide. Chances are, you will need more than one contractor to assist you with your new ranching endeavor. Choose one that doesn’t want your money for materials upfront.
Never sign a contract with “draws” or “advances to be paid” on balance due throughout the build or the task without annotated completion dates or percentages of the work completed. As it pertains to fencing, you may have an urgent need to secure your animals immediately. There is nothing wrong with annotating completion dates or “to be completed by…” dates on any agreement you enter. The point is to be specific. If you need a corral with a gate and you are on a timetable or contingency, the time to let your contractor know this information is BEFORE their bid is submitted.