Goat Pens and Dog Runs: A study of dual-purpose

Hello gentle readers!  As you may have assumed from my radio silence, things have been going down in Alice Town.  Joey and I have moved to Veneta, OR to live in this cabin:


And work on this farm:

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We are also pursuing employment at other farms and in town on a variety of food related levels but I won’t get ahead of myself.

We completed our first assigned farm-hand project on Friday and I am just itching to tell you folks all about it.  We were tasked with making a goat pen that would double in the short term as a run for disobedient Ru dogs.  We were successful but we also took approximately 3,876 trips to the hardware store.  So now, I am going to lay out what we did and what we used so that filthy casuals like me can build a livestock fence.  DISCLAIMER: we googled and winged it but had zero professional help.  If we did something wrong please let me know.

Materials:

Here is a list of the things we ended up needing for this adventure:

  • 7 16’x5′ utility panels with 4″ square holes
    • These are essentially heavy duty chicken wire.  You can cut them with a bolt cutter to fit your needs (more on that later) and they are available at your local farm/ranch store and some more well-equipped home and garden emporiums.  When framed with cedar they can make attractive and relatively inexpensive/low maintenance do it yourself fencing in an urban or suburban environment as well.  They were $49.99 at Coastal Farm and Ranch Supply in Eugene.
  • 1 4″x4″ fence post, roughly 8″ in length
    • We got this second hand from a recycled building supply donation center and store called Bring in Springfield for $0.40 per foot.
  • 7 2×4’s of roughly 8 feet (some smaller)
    • 5 of these came from Bring and 2 came brand spanking new from the Ace Hardware in Veneta because we ran out of lumber at the end of the project.
  • A box of galvanized fence “staples”
    • Galvanized is important to prevent deterioration in the fastener and the wood.  These are pretty much staples if they were made out of nails and you had to hammer them in.  I guess they are not staples, more like U-shaped nails.
  • A box of 4″ wood screws.
    • Is what it is
  • A box of 6 3/4 x2 1/2 wood screws
    • Our hinges and brackets had tiny holes
  • 8 brackets of varied sizes and shapes
    • We probably should have gotten these all the same but we got them second hand at Bring to save money and ended up with a wide variety of 90 degree and flat brackets, it worked out.
  • 5 8″ t-posts
    • Easiest fence posts in the world, would recommend to a friend.
  • 6 5″ t-posts
    • Same Love for these
  • 110 feet of stainless steel wire
    • Nothing too fancy, sturdy enough to tighten down with pliers (and hold the fence together lol)
  • 6 hex head, ceramic coated, 5″ wood screws
    • For tree murder
  • Various wood shims
    • Found in the wood shed, non-specific
  • 2 foot long hinges
    • found for a bargain at Bring
  • A buddy
    • Of course, this was my forever buddy Eugene
  • Tools
    • blunt end pliers/wire cutters
    • bolt cutters
    • electric drill
    • level
    • square
    • gloves
    • saw
    • tape measure
    • hammer (or 2)
    • mallot/minisledge
    • post-holer
    • Should have worn safety goggles

PHEW…now that that’s over lets get down to business.

Clearing your Area

Clearing the area ahead of time is the easiest part of the process and can be pretty fun.  You will need to limb all the trees to above head height. We are tall so we just grabbed a curved hand saw and went to work with our feet on the ground.  You might need a ladder to get branches you can’t reach but whose ends droop down into your fence line.  Also remove any unfriendly ground-cover. In the Pacific Northwest, this mostly means himalayan blackberries.  Those suckers are indestructible and  really hard to kill so we just cut them to the ground to save ourselves during the building process and will rely on dogs to pee them to death and goats to eat the new growth.  If whatever you are putting in the pen likes to forage you don’t have to rip everything out by the roots, you can let the animals do it for you later on.  Just get it so you can move.

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We piled all our brush in a corner of the field above the chicken coop and we will have a bonfire when it gets wet enough for the burn ban to be lifted.

Attaching Fence Posts to Trees

This is the million dollar question we ran into.  How do you attach a fence to a tree without killing it?  Putting too many nails into a tree can cause wounds that can let in bugs and disease, wrapping straps or wire around the outside can girdle the tree and impeded its grows to the point of death, and any metal fasteners lodged in a tree will be swallowed up eventually and pose a great risk for any chainsaw wielding person attempting to fell it.  So with these things in mind we took to the internet to find our answers.  After reading countless homesteader blogs, watching youtube videos and reading arborist forums we came to some conclusions:

  1. An ALARMING amount of real life adults with property and livelihoods believe that if you fasten a fence to a tree it will lift the fence into the treetops as it grows.  WOW.  For the record, mature trees grow from the top and the ends of their branches.  They grow out (fatter) at the trunk but any point will not shift up in years to come.  WOW.
  2. Wrapping straps or wire is a popular option if you loosen it regularly….but attaching a fence to a strap you intend to loosen later may make the fence fall over at time of loosening.  Less than ideal.
  3. While tree death can occur from puncture wounds from screws and nails, it is less common in areas with fewer diseases and invasive pests (AKA Texas, the home of a homesteader forum participant with a Gandolf beard and the username “Texican” claim that he staples fencing to every tree on his property) you can minimize this by making decisive cuts, less than 6 per tree, and using galvanized or ceramic coated screws to prevent decay.

And so we decided to screw 2x4s into the trees.  This would allow us to only put 2 screws per board into the tree and attach the fence to the boards more securely.  We used wood shims to prop the boards out from the trees until they were plumb (makes it easier to hang a gate and such) and screwed them in with the hex head, ceramic coated screws mentioned above.  The Hex Head is also important because they are less likely to strip so you can loosen them if the tree starts to try to engulf it down the road.  So HUZZAH!!!  We were able to use our perfectly 16-foot apart trees at the West side of the run as posts.  Saved us a lot of digging.  We attached the boards a little off the ground so we could get them level while still having the boards close enough to the tree to make the screws work (trees bow out at the bottom, so we’d need too many shims at the top to compensate).  Then we used those fence staples to attach the 2x4s and away we go!

T-Posts and digging fence post holes

The main difference between t-posts and traditional posts is that you do not need to dig a hole for a t-post.  You just hammer it into the ground!  No really!  Its so great!  They also have a fin that holds them in place like the barb of a fish hook so these suckers are not coming out.  That being said be sure of where you want them before you start.  Start by walking out where you want to put them and holding up the panels or other fencing materials to get a sense of angles.  Even though the panels we used are pretty pliable, we wanted them to be as straight as we could get it.  Also the less than ideal angle of the boards in the trees (it couldn’t be perfect because of knots and roots on and around the base) caused some bowing at the connection to the tree so we needed to do what we could to correct that.  There will always be something to make it imperfect, hold up the panel or let the gap be your punishment.

So we held the panel in place and marked the spot for the pole.  Then, sometimes with the help of a step ladder we hammered to post into the ground to 4-6 inches above the fin plate.  We attached the panels using wire and a set of pliers.  If you choose to do wire for this (I couldn’t think of anything else to use) be sure to tighten it with you pliers not your hands.  You can do a twist with your hands to put the pieces close but then use the flat nosed pliers to grab slightly above your twist, pull the wire straight out from the post and then tighten down by twisting the pliers.  Make sure to cut and tuck the tails.  They hurt like hell when you stab yourself with them accidentally but repeatedly.

For traditional fence posts, there is more work involved.  First, you have to dig the hole.  We used a post-holer because we have one but you could used a motorized auger (IT’S A DIRT DRILL SO COOL) too.  Don’t use a shovel, the hole has to be narrow.  Sorry, y’all but you’ll need to buy that special equipment.  Dig the hole at least 2 feet deep, 2.5-3 is better.  Then put the post in and fill halfway, making sure to get the dirt even dispersed on all sides.  Make sure your post is plumb and level and then fill it the rest of the way up.  Tromp down the dirt again and again, making sure you got all the dirt you can to fit back around the post.  No need to use concrete if its just a fence, but you should use gravel on the bottom and concrete to hold the post in if it is structural for a building or something.  Then just use your staples and hammer the panel on!

Gates

So we totally winged it with the gates.  We haven’t ever built one before but it turned out great.  Since our panels had 4 inch squares we decided to cut off a 3 foot section for the upper gate.  We started on the west side, then followed around to the North and this gate was on the north east corner of the run.  Our second gate ended up being a little smaller because of how the angles and distances came out as we worked our way around.  I don’t see this as a problem but it would have been if we made the gates before hand.  I would really advocate for working as you go in circumstances like these.  Making too many components before hand makes it easier to be off in your measurements later on.  You might have to change an angle to avoid a tree or root, making it longer or shorter at the end and since gates move they are the perfect component to pick up the slack.  I guess this is a fair time to tell you the run didn’t turn out square.

So for building the gate we took this section of 3×5′ panel and framed it with 2×4″.  We built the frame so it measured 40″x64″ so there was some room on the frame to attach the panel.  We measured out 2 40″ sections and 2 56″ sections of 2×4″ and attached them squarely with brackets.  Its important to keep your eye on the angle at every stage.  We also cut right triangles from our wood scraps and screwed them into the corners to hole the shape.  This did wonders for the “sturdiness of the gate” and was not as hard as it sounds.  If you have a rafter square (aka one of these bad boys) you can use it to draw a perfect 45 degree angle from the corner to the side of the end of one of your scrap pieces.  Then have your steadiest handed friend (yup, it was Joey) cut along the line and boom, there it is.  Put this little triangle in the corner of the gate frame you built (I did this all on a level concrete floor to make sure nothing was wonky) and drill it in (pro-tip sit inside the frame for better leverage) with 2 4″ wood screws so it is flush with the corner.  Be sure to plan out where your screws are going in so you don’t hit your bracket screws and ruin your frame.

Then we flipped it over (since you can’t nail the fence staples through metal brackets) and nailed the panel piece to the back with my handy dandy fence staples.  This is a ridiculously loud process so maybe don’t do it at 9 am under your boss’s sleepy college student daughter’s bedroom window…..woops.

Then we really winged it.  I know I said we were flying by the seat of our pants the whole time, but this was when I really thought our cavalier attitude would catch up with us.  We screwed the hinge into the gate post in a way we thought seemed right.  We didn’t level anything or measure anything.  We just slapped it on there and screwed it in where we agreed it looked sound and like the devil may care young people that we are, Joey screwed the gate on as I held it up steady and straight as best I could.  The gate was solid to be sure, as it weighed more than a comfortable amount for these biceps to hold up in a half curl so I hurried Joey along with gasps of exhaustion and promises of imminent defeat.  Maybe we are stronger and luckier than I thought because when I finally hear the call to let go, and stepped away from the gate I now saw as both child and foe it hung straight and swung easy.  I am sure there is more to this and we will know the error of our ways as the years tick by but for now it is working and we are satisfied.  On a philosophical level I will always argue for just doing it. In this case we would have planned and measured and marked and still when it came down to it we would have done what we could anyway so hey, the gate is up now.

Overlap and hills

The thing that I anticipated the least and ended up being the most important factor in our building project was the pitch of the hill.  I think this property brainwashes you a little.  There whole property is sloping down toward the west.  This is great because it extends the daylight and makes it more direct in the afternoon, but it also makes right angles difficult.  Since the panels came square and are pretty indestructible, we wanted to try to keep them whole (or as whole as possible) so in the future they could be detached and used for another project.  This is another reason the t-posts and wire are great.  They allow for overlap more easily than traditional fence posts:

We stretched the panels to their limit and made sure the bottom of the panel was in line.  The top needs to touch too, but the pitch of the hill made sure that wasn’t the hard part.  I recommend starting from the top of the hill so gravity can work for you in the stretching process.  We didn’t use a fence stretcher, we just lined it up and pulled with all our might.  Make sure you read up on gap sizes and things that will pose hazards for the animals you choose to put in the pen.  For example, 6-8 inch holes in our fence would be a big problem for goats.  That is the range where they can stick their head through but not pull it back on their own.  For safety’s sake we used 4-inch holes that they can’t do this at all with.  You could also go the other way and say 12-inch holes.  That way the goats can put their heads in and out on their own, but you open up your pen to a lot more predators and scavengers.  It’s all trade offs.

 

So there you have it.  With a lot of trips to the hardware store, a good amount of recycled materials and a very patient work buddy you too could start a project like this on your property.  Go forth and get goats.

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