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Ways to install fences in cold weather

Heather Smith Thomas for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 October 2018
Hydraulic jackhammer-style post pounder

Cold temperatures and frozen ground create challenges for fencing. Cold weather is hard on machinery (hard to start the tractor, skid steer or excavator the post pounder is mounted on), and frozen ground makes it difficult to set posts.

Most people avoid major fencing projects in winter, but sometimes you have no choice, and a fence must be built or repaired in spite of frozen ground.

Jason Nelson, a rancher near Longview, in southern Alberta, does custom fencing for many ranchers in his area and sometimes has to build fence in winter. “The ‘heavy-hitter’ hydraulic post pounders I use are like a jackhammer, and they pound posts into frozen ground even when frost is deep,” he says.

Todd Hermanson with Hermanson Fencing Company Inc. in eastern Montana has built custom fences for 35 years; he invented this type of post pounder to use discarded drill steel piping from the oil fields – cut to length for fenceposts.

With the jackhammer hydraulic post pounder, he can pound pipe posts into any kind of terrain. He modified Bobcat hydraulic cement breakers for pounding posts, and now several companies are making these post pounders.

In cold weather, Nelson sets metal posts instead of wood posts. Wood tends to shatter if the ground is frozen. “I don’t use metal T-posts very often, however. I use sucker rod with wire hooks (for the wires) welded on them. These ‘posts’ work well because they go through rocks or frozen ground and don’t bend very easily.

You set the wires in the hooks and use a pipe wrench to give the post a quarter turn, locking the wires into place. We often use these posts when ground is frozen because we can pound them down through frost – a lot easier than trying to set a wood post,” he explains.

“My ‘heavy-hitter’ post pounders have huggers on them; they grab and hold onto the post so it won’t move. I use a piece of drill stem, cut to the height I want the posts to be after they are driven into the ground, to hold the T-post or sucker rod inside it, and the post pounder grabs that drill stem ‘sleeve.’

Steel posts set with hydralic heavy-hitter post pounder

Then I can pound the small post that’s in the middle of the drill stem, and the post doesn’t fly out and hit you. Otherwise, the little metal posts can flex and can fly out when you are pounding them, which can be really dangerous. We put in a lot of steel fence last winter, so we were glad we had the hydraulic pounder with the post hugger,” Nelson says.

If a person has to set wood posts, one strategy for frozen ground is to use a metal “post” to create a pilot hole. The metal post can be driven down through frozen ground, whereas a wood post would be forced out of line or shatter.

Rodger Swanson, a rancher near Tendoy, Idaho, made a 7-foot metal pilot post to create holes for wood posts in difficult conditions.

“The metal ‘post’ for making the pilot hole is only 3 or 4 inches in diameter and creates a hole to start the wood post into. The pilot post is sturdy enough you can drive it into just about anything but solid rock. The pointed bottom is solid steel about 3 feet long, and the rest of the post is hollow, like well casing,” says Swanson. This makes it a little lighter to carry around, but it’s still heavy.

“The top has a thick metal cap for the post pounder to hit. If the ground is very rocky or frozen, I hold the pilot post in place with a bar as the pounder hits it, since it sometimes moves out of line as it is being driven,” he says.

“You drive the pilot post down as far as you can, then pull it out with the tractor loader. Then insert your wood post into the pilot hole and drive it in – forcing it into the slightly smaller hole – and the wood post will be very secure,” says Swanson.

Sometimes a person has to thaw the ground if big wood posts are needed. One time at a feedlot, Nelson had to put in large brace posts to hold a windbreak and had to thaw the ground first. “You can build a fire over the spot you need to set a post, to thaw frozen ground, but it’s slow.

At that feedlot, we used a pressure washer with hot water, sticking the wand into the ground at those spots, slowly melting the frost down to the depth we needed for setting the posts. It was faster than fire, but still time-consuming to melt its way down that far through the ice. Fortunately, we only had to set a few posts.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Hydraulic jackhammer-style post pounder can drive wood posts through a fair amount of frost and metal posts through deep frost. Photo by Heather Thomas.

PHOTO 2: A stretch of steel posts set in winter with the hydraulic heavy-hitter post pounder. Photo provided by J. Nelson.

Heather Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

Using portable fence in winter

Temporary fences in winter can be created with portable metal panels that interlock and don’t require posts. Electric fence can be installed with step-in posts inserted into holes made with a battery-powered drill. Dick Iversen with Timber Creek Ranch in Culbertson, Montana, had to replace 7 miles of fence along a river bottom after flooding in 2011 and 6 miles of fence last year after a fire.

“For interior fences, we generally use electric fence now. When ground is frozen, I can still use step-in portable posts, using a cordless drill to make a pilot hole in frozen ground,” he says. For this purpose, he uses portable posts with metal rods rather than the plastic step-in posts because metal ones are less apt to break.

Plastic posts with a metal tip are still not as strong as metal step-in posts.

“My son-in-law uses a small rebar instead of posts and adds screw-on insulators to the rebar after he pounds those in. The rebar drives into frozen ground readily, using a small hand post pounder (like for T-posts),” he says.

“We do some bale grazing, setting out three or four days’ worth of bales for one group of cows,” says Iversen. If he wants to split a pasture or change fence configuration in winter, he simply uses portable electric fence.

“For instance, we experimented on a new calving area and changed the fencing. We decided we wanted to confine the cows more, so we used an electric fence to split the pasture and left the temporary fence there the entire calving season. We plan to replace the electric fence with woven-wire permanent fence (that baby calves can’t crawl through), but the temporary fence showed us what we wanted for size of pasture. It was a good way to figure it out.”

When ground is frozen, you can still put in portable fence using the cordless drill. “Our ground is always frozen solid after the end of October,” he says. The metal pigtail posts also work well if you drill a pilot hole with the cordless drill.