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Clear Fencerows, Find Money

So what to do with the old fencerows?

If you drive around the most fertile counties in central Illinois, you may notice something peculiar: no fences. You will also find deep narrow ditches, mowed field edges, and very few trees.  Apparently, farmers who pay in excess of $400 per acre for cash rent intend to plant every available inch of that expensive land, which is logical. 

However, drive around Missouri, Indiana, or southern Illinois, and you will see many old fences and fencerows. 

Over time, I have come to view ancient fences as a menace. To me, they mean 20, 30, or perhaps 50 feet of nontillable space around the field edges. You have to pay for that land, but you can’t rent it for production. You have to pay real estate taxes on it, but you can’t plant it. You would like to just ignore it, but it won’t be ignored. Oak trees grow limbs 30 feet straight out and drop acorns, which turn into more oak trees growing more limbs. Also, if you have in mind to selective harvest trees around your farm, I can guarantee you that loggers don’t want to harvest trees with wire sticking out of them. Those are the slow moving problems. The fast moving problem is when one or two 60-foot-tall trees blow over into the cornfield in August. Someone has some hard work to do, dangerous work.

Besides harboring trees, fencerows harbor some other threats. Fences installed 100 years ago 25 feet from the actual property line cause modern day border disputes, which can cost thousands in surveying fees, legal fees, and building deconstruction. Furthermore, a lone strand of old barbed wire can injure or even kill someone on an ATV. In these litigious times we’re living in, that is a real liability to consider. Deteriorating posts and wire leave you with the decision to repair, replace, or remove the fence, and all of those options cost money and time. 

So what to do with the old fencerows? One option is to manage them the way those prime soil farmers do – elimination. If you're using an old fence simply as a boundary marker, a few 10 foot PVC posts work a lot more efficiently.  They are easy to see and easy to trim or spray around. 

Now, I’m not advocating the removal of all fences.  The proverb “good fences make good neighbors” has been around at least a few hundred years. Clearly you need a good fence if you have animals. Valuable cows and bulls don’t need to get out and walk on the nearest highway.  

One day I rolled up to find my neighbor standing with her goat herd in my field. The goats were feeding on the remnants of my harvested corn after they “accidentally” got out of her fence. Clearly, there is a direct risk of animal loss to cover but also the indirect risk of your animals damaging other people’s property or lives.

I am suggesting that if you want to keep the fences in place, then maintain them properly. It’s hard to keep fences clear of oaks, hedges, and black locust trees, but the alternative means a whole lot of limb trimming and holes in your tires. It’s much cheaper in the long run to keep the fencerows mowed down, sprayed, and free of trees. Dozer work is expensive these days, and so is replacing the entire fencing system. 

So how much does new fencing cost?  Material costs are around $1 per foot (when you throw in the fence posts) for galvanized woven wire, welded wire, or four strands of barbed wire. That doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that three sides of an 80-acre field comprise about 6,600 lineal feet. And the labor to drill hundreds of post holes or drive hundreds of T-posts is punitive. Probably over 100 hours.  

Think of the production to be gained by eliminating or properly maintaining a fence: 20 feet of width times 6,600 lineal feet gives you 3 acres of newly tillable land!  Plus, those big oak trees in the fencerow are blocking the sun from several rows of corn while their roots are sucking water from 50-plus feet away.  With some effort, your existing yields next to the fencerows could be doubled.  If you do the math on revenue to be gained by deshading your field edges, here’s how it might pencil out. A 30-foot perimeter 6,600 feet long gives you 4.5 acres of potentially deshaded corn. If you gain 60 extra bushels on that 4.5 acres, you are gaining about $1,000 of profit annually on an 80-acre field, for as long as you keep that fencerow clear.   

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