Rocking it in Rockbridge: Q&A with Jake Wilson of Wilson Fence LLC from the Shenandoah Valley, Lexington, Virginia, USA

Jake Wilson Rockbridge Project

Our team caught up with Jake Wilson of Wilson Fence LLC from the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, USA to talk all things fencing and Stockade. Here’s how it went:

Tell me about the Rockbridge County Fencing Project?

This job is a challenging project involving fence building, excavating, water crossings, spring development, a 600-foot well drilled, new power service, livestock water stations and laying waterlines.

This particular job is a really steep hilly project that covers a long stand. It requires approximately three miles of fence, and 10,000 feet of water line to provide an alternate water source, because we have fenced the cattle out of the waterway.

Our brief is to fence off the stream with an exclusion fence, then divide the parcel of land into relatively even lots for rotational grazing. Each paddock or subdivided area requires a water source so, to minimize cost, many of the drinkers must be located on a fence line which can service two paddocks at the same time.

What are the top considerations when you approach a project like this?

Planning, relationships, and coordination of all the players are important. Land owners, government inspectors, the local electric service provider, county regulators, and sub-contractors.  With this job we are the plumber, electrician, and the excavator as well as the fence contractor. It is up to us to have everything in sync.  One job I outsource is well drilling.

Often a lot of these farms are very remote. There might not be a house or a barn that already has a power supply, so we might also need to run a brand-new power service to it by working with the power company.  We usually do the right-of-way clearing for this so they can get their power trucks in.

Tell me about staging the project?

A lot of pre-planning is required. We start with a general government plan, budget and scope of work. We usually have an initial on-site meeting with the government representatives and the farmer. We take our time to choose our fence lines wisely.

If the property is lucky enough to have a spring, we develop the spring and gravity feed that to the drinking stations. This job had a spring which we developed to water the lower paddocks, but in order to get water up to the higher elevation paddocks, we also had to drill a well and use a conventional pressure system to lift the water.  More often than not, we have to drill a well.

We figure out where we can get a drinker at a halfway level spot where the ground is not going to erode, as well as bisect it with a fence to achieve a roughly even balance of the given acreage. It takes almost as much time planning that as it does to install the fence. This is especially true when the terrain is extra challenging because you really have to test the ground. We have probes to stick in the ground to figure out whether you can get a fence post in, and we walk the ground a lot.

You have really got to do your homework and make sure it makes sense, and that what you want to do is achievable because the rate at which the government reimburses for the final product is fixed.  They don’t pay based on how much time, effort or expense it took to get the fence in, just a set price per foot of fence installed.

How does the location impact the project?

Rockbridge County is our home county. It is unique in its topography and there is a good reason why it is call Rockbridge. It has quite a bit of rock! We make our way in, around, over the rocks. In other parts of the country two miles of fence, you can blast that out in a few days. Here, there is so much undergrowth, so much topography, it is a lot more challenging. Building 700 feet to 1200 feet of fence a day is a great day.  The challenging terrain allows you to be creative and keeps your mind engaged.

This particular farm required us to place waterers at five different points spanning 300 feet of elevation. When lifting water that far, at the highest elevation you don’t have good pressure to water the stock. At the lowest one you have too much pressure that blows out the capacity of your plumbing fixtures. We had to work closely with our plumbing supply source to make this project feasible.  For this job, the well was located at say elevation ‘zero’, water level in the well was 250 feet beneath that and the tallest trough was at about 230 feet above that. I experienced water pressure issues that I had not before.

Similarly, the very steep terrain challenges, gullies, and rocky terrain makes fencing difficult. The locations of roads, gates, waterlines, waterers and fence lines are all competing for the same good ground, often something must be installed in far less than ideal locations.

Finally, in this area we have a fairly high annual rain fall. Somewhere around 70 inches. Erosion is a big problem if you do not plan for it when installing fences and waterlines.

What do you do to overcome the challenges of elevation, rock and rainfall?

I walk the job, a lot. I have an altimeter on my phone that measures elevation. I plan water trough sites and then run calculations through a pipe size and pressure requirement calculator.  I am looking for where I can get terminal fence posts, where I can tie into to the property line with the new fences, and where the gates might be located. Then, I look at the paddock sizes and try to lay it out so the project best supports high density livestock grazing operations.

I probe the ground for penetration. We face a lot of rock, rock that is almost undrillable with the conventional equipment that a fence contractor has. Most is three to four feet down, but some, due to erosion, is only six to eight inches below the surface. If I can get my probe in when there is moisture in the soil, then I know I can get my fencepost in. Often, because we do have so much moisture, grass growing six inches above rock will look as green and lush as the rest of the field. There will be no indication that there are severe rock obstacles underground. As you can imagine the rocky terrain can also make running water lines underground a challenge.

Erosion is a big concern. Placement of fences and drinkers is really important. I don’t like running fence lines straight up or down a hill because when stock walk along a fence, it is going to cause erosion problems. Cows make paths with travel and if it is all leading straight up or down a hill, rainwater is going to flow in that path. If animals come to one waterer all the time, the ground and soil structure needs to hold up. I look to bisect elevation as long as it is mechanically maintainable. Basically, if a guy can run a brush mower across the terrain, I don’t want to take that ability away with my subdivision fence lines. I am looking for all those things and more.

With 20 years of experience in the same area you learn to recognize the telltale signs of rock, soil, and water flow. You look at the fence the last guy built 40 years ago, and his posts are 10 feet, 10 feet, 10 feet. Then, suddenly, he has a 16-foot gap. That draws the eye. Similarly, if he’s got posts driven to depth, then suddenly he has three posts with the tops cut off —you think something is going on there. You look at the way the farmers ride the field, the established tracks, or the way the cattle walk. Cattle don’t like walking on rock, so they generally walk on softer areas. You see a beautiful green field and then this outcrop of rock – I think “I will stay away from that!” Then, you probe with more frequency. You listen to old timers. Some of these people who we are working for have been working on this ground since they were kids, and second or third generation farmers.

What type of fences are you putting up?

We are almost exclusively using high tensile woven wire fixed knot fence, and usually a 12-inch stay. An 8/42/12 with a barbed wire strand on top is our go-to fence for stream exclusion and subdivisions. 8/42/12 has eight horizontal line wires, is 42 inches tall and has a vertical stay wire every 12 inches. We use 6/42/6 with two strands of barbed wire for our property line fences which is pretty much the same fence but with an extra barbed wire and a vertical stay every six inches.

All posts are round, ACQ treated Southern Yellow Pine driven blunt. Strainer posts are 6”-7” round posts 8’ in length. Line posts are typically 5”-6” or 4”-5” round posts, seven foot in length. Posts are typically placed 14 feet apart. Staples, pins and wire are galvanized.

We run this fence for two reasons:

One, there is not a lot of livestock pressure on it. The stock is only on one side. The exclusion fence will also move your wildlife like deer and bear to crossing spots.  Vegetation will grow up very quickly in the waterway areas the cattle are fenced out of.  This creates a habitat for wildlife and a filter area for water run off before it enters the waterway.  This is the reason the government subsidizes the projects.

Two, it is economical to run. There are a lot of crossings and gaps, so you don’t need to electrify it. When the undergrowth grows up into the fence, it is still a very functional fence for a long period of time.  Compare this to a smooth strained electrified high tensile fence where, once the electricity is not on the fence, it is much more easily breached by deer, bear, and cattle.

Materials and Equipment

  • On waterway projects we typically use two track skidsteers, a mini excavator, and a support vehicle — which we stretch wire off, it dispenses wire, lays out posts, and has some clearing and lifting ability.
  • The post driver is mounted on a skidsteer which is remote operated, and the remote is a high-ticket item which is handled with care.
  • We have five ST400i cordless stapler tools. The guys won’t staple up fence without them.
  • We do a daily check on the consumables for gas, batteries, and staples which are freshly-loaded on the truck each morning – and water and ice, and inverted spray paint for marking the post locations.