Managing Poultry on Pasture with Electronet: Part One
I wrote this article for the April/May issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine. Check out BYP and consider subscribing—it’s a great resource.
We keepers of the home flock are often advised not to keep our birds all cooped up: “Get ’em out into the fresh air and sunshine!” But we know the local tribe of predators like our poultry as much as we do, so we take care to install a good stout fence around our chicken run to keep out the bad guys. Now it’s safe to let the flock out into their little corner of the great outdoors. But wait! Within a week every last blade of grass is gone from the run—it looks like the surface of the moon dotted with chicken poops! Droppings are accumulating, flies are having a field day, pathogens are a potential hazard, and the run is a source of run-off pollution with every heavy rain. A static chicken run is not such a good idea!
Much better to release those birds, let ’em free-range like nature intended! Now they’re healthier and more content; and the live foods they forage—green growing plants, wild seeds, earthworms, slugs, and insects—are of a quality we cannot hope to match with anything from a bag. The living pasture sod “digests” the poops laid down—vastly healthier for the flock than the static run (and a boost in fertility for the pasture). This is the life for “the natural chicken”! Oh but wait, they’re in the garden! And Mr. Pumphrey’s rose bed! And worst of all, Brer Fox and Mr. Raccoon are having a field day (to say nothing of the neighbors’ dogs)! Free-ranging the flock is a terrible idea!
Is there any way to manage the homestead flock that both gives them access to the many benefits of free-ranging on good pasture, confines them where we want them, and protects them from the bad guys? Fortunately there is: electric net fencing, or electronet.
I have only used one design of electric net—the poultry net I buy from Premier Fencing Supply—so I will describe that option. The fence is made by welding together the black plastic string verticals with the white (or yellow) plastic horizontals. Note that the verticals are for support only—they are not electrified. The twisted plastic strands of the horizontals are intertwined with six almost hair-fine stainless steel wires, which carry the charge. (The very bottom horizontal is black plastic with no wires—obviously it would make no sense to charge a line in contact with the ground.) At both ends of the net, all the charged wires are twisted together so they share a common charge—thus a break in any given horizontal does not leave that strand dead, and the entire net remains charged. (Note that nets come with a kit to repair breaks in the lines.)
Interwoven with the fence’s mesh are plastic support posts tipped with metal spikes. One pushes the spikes into the soil to stand the fence in place.
Nets are supplied 164 ft long. Thus a single net will enclose a square about 40 ft on a side, or more than 1600 sq ft. “Half nets” 82 ft long are also available. I have never enclosed a flock in a half net—a 20-ft square is a pretty small plot of ground—but it is convenient when laying out an enclosure to have the option of adding a half net to complete the fence (rather than trying to double up a longer net).
Over the many years I’ve been using electronet, there have been several changes to the basic design—all of them for the better. The “stays” or verticals are now closer together (3 inches), as are the lower horizontals (2 inches apart at chicken or predator level), and the interwoven posts (7-½ ft.—for a tighter, sag-free fence).
At least with the net fencing I get from Premier, one has the option of either 42 or 47 inches high. I have always used the 42-inch. Obviously chickens can fly over a fence that high, but they usually don’t after getting “zapped” by it a time or two. If I do have a rogue flyer, I simply clip a wing to encourage her to stay where she’s put. (The guineas are the only fowl who need radical treatment to prevent flying. For a persistent flyer, I shear off all flight feathers on both wings—certain to keep them grounded inside the fence.) In some situations the additional 5 inches of height could be a benefit, but remember that the gathered bundle of netting will be heavier and longer as a result—meaning handling will be more difficult.
One has many options for energizing the fence. Energizers are available in many sizes and voltages for different fencing needs. Some are powered by batteries—from size D to 9 volt to 12 volt. Some are solar powered. Some plug into household current. I use both the latter two options.
For free-standing use in a site too remote to serve conveniently from household current, the solar powered energizer is hard to beat. The unit’s controller pulses energy from the solar panel through the fence, while trickle-charging a backup battery. At night, or on heavily clouded days, the controller pulls from the battery to charge the fence. Grounding for the unit can be as simple as a metal stake driven into the soil which also serves as a bracket to hold the charger; though I’ve always preferred a heavier ground rod driven a little deeper into the soil. A good solar charger with a 12-volt battery can energize several rolls of netting. I have two solar units which I use to charge my more remote nets.
If possible to pull power from household current, however, there are advantages in doing so. An AC energizer provides a “hotter” spark in the system, can power more rolls of netting, and can take more weed load without weakening in deterrent effect. I use an AC charger located in the poultry house, which is wired for electricity, to carry power to a number of pasture nets. Unless nets are “anchored” on the poultry house, I use insulated cable to carry the charge, and manual field switches to “kill” the charge in order to enter a net. Note that in a system of separate nets served from the same charger, you can wire the manual field switches parallel (nets farther down the line remain charged when the switch is open) or in series (nets down the line also lose power when the switch is open).
Equally important as the energizer is the quality of electrical ground in the system. The better the ground, the hotter the spark in adverse conditions—e.g., dry soil. For my AC unit, I grounded with three 8-foot steel rods, driven into the soil along the foundation of the poultry house (which stays moist longer than any other location because of run-off from the roof) and wired together with heavy gauge wire. I do not ever have to worry about good ground in that system, however dry the soil becomes in summer.