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Removing old wire fences

Custom fencers share their tips for cleaning up old fencelines more efficiently and with less risk of injury

Photo: Sonja Bloom

Photo: Sonja Bloom

When an old wire fence has deteriorated and needs to be replaced, removing the old posts and wires can be time-consuming. Then there’s the task of hauling them off and disposing of them. Custom fencers have the goods on removing those fences with less hassle, whether you’ve got a wire-winder or are rolling by hand.

Using a wire-winder

Jason Nelson has a ranch near Longview, in southern Alberta, and does custom fencing for many ranchers. Often he has to remove old broken-down fences before he can build the new ones.

“We take out all the staples and I use a wire-winder with a motor to roll up the old wire. Some winders run off a skid steer or tractor but this one has its own motor. It’s a small one-piece unit that you can take anywhere in a pickup or on the back of a quad,” he says.

The wire-winder can roll about a quarter-mile of one wire, or about 330 feet (or 100 metres) of four wires, at once, says Nelson. “The machine is portable; it’s easy for two people to lift it into the back of a truck. I bought this one more than 20 years ago from an outfit in Spearman, Texas,” says Nelson.

Depending on terrain, he takes it in a pickup or strapped on a quad. The motor can be secured to the truck or set on the ground and chained to a tree or a post to hold it in place as it pulls the wire.

It won’t roll up old netting, however. With old net wire, he cuts it up into small sections, folds or squashes it, and rolls it up. “Most of the old fences we remove are barbed wire, and they are easier to remove than netting,” he says.

“The winder makes wire removal much easier than rolling it up by hand — which is what we did for many years before we bought this machine. When we hook it to 100-metre lengths of four wires, it rolls them up in about 20 seconds.”

This wire-winder paid for itself very quickly in labour saved.

Todd Hermanson has been building custom fences in eastern Montana and the Dakotas for 40 years. Removing old wire was always a frustration, so 15 years ago he created an automatic wire roller.

“It runs hydraulically off a skid steer. I now make different-sized rollers. Some are big enough to wind up woven wire,” he says.

They wind up all the wires or layers together, Hermanson adds. “It’s one roll, with just one trip over the fenceline.”

With his largest winder, he can put a mile of four-wire fence on one roll. This saves a lot of time when his crew has to take down an old fence to get it out of the way.

“The guys go along the fence and get the wires or netting off the posts, and then it takes about 20 minutes to roll up a mile of fence,” Hermanson says.

“I rolled up many miles of fence by hand and it always took a lot of time, and that’s why I finally built this tool I call the Wire Shark. There were some earlier tools people used, that run off a three-point hitch on a tractor, and they worked, but are dangerous. When you need to shut it down, a PTO (power take-off) doesn’t shut down immediately, and this can be hazardous. People used those for years because that’s all they had, but I never did like those.”

The winders he builds run off hydraulics and are much safer. “Many people are building these now that work in a similar fashion. There are different types of winders but most are operated off a skid steer.”

There are also ways to operate some off a hydra-bed (bale mover) or a pickup, he adds, but the skid steer is handier, and can go places that a pickup, tractor or hydra-bed can’t go.

“If you are rolling up a fence on flat ground the machine can sit there and pull the old wire toward you, but if you are dealing with a lot of trees and brush it’s nice to be able to walk along and do it. With the skid steer wire-winders, you can pull up old fences that are partially buried where the dirt has blown up against them. If you walk along with the skid steer, it will pull that wire up out of the ground, as long as the wires don’t break.” If the old wire is rusted and breaks you can just splice it and keep going.

Hermanson and his crew make extra wire-winders when they have time.

“I’ve sold some to fence contractors who rebuild a lot of fence, and to farmers and ranchers. I built some small ones because we have some scrap iron places where you can sell the old rolls and be paid ‘prepared steel’ prices. If rolls are too big, they consider them unprepared steel and prices are a lot lower. When we wind up our wire, it’s not a money-making venture to sell the old wire, but it helps pay for getting rid of it. It costs more to haul them off than what I get paid for the wire, but if it’s gone it’s not in some coulee somewhere, and not a hazard,” says Hermanson.

Hand-rolling wire

Michael Thomas of Thomas Custom Fencing at Baker, Idaho, says rolling up old barbed wire by hand is a nasty job, but that is the way most ranchers have to do it. After rolling up many miles of old wire fences, he has tips for ways to do it efficiently and safely.

“The key is to make a roll about two feet in diameter and roll it hand over hand, keeping it tight — and not try to roll up more than you can handle. The best way to keep it tight is keep the other end secured to something that won’t move; don’t cut it loose at the other end until you have it all rolled up.”

If the wire is loose, there’s no tension on it and it’s much harder to make a tight, secure roll. If you leave it attached to something, you can pull against that.

“As you make the roll and keep rolling it up, weave the wire back and forth across itself so the barbs catch and it all holds together, without any loops popping off. If it keeps catching on the roll as you keep crossing over back and forth as you pull it tight, it will hold its form and stay in a neat roll rather than having a wild mess in your hands. Leave a little tail of wire when you start, to help secure the roll, and when you get to the end you may have to cut another short piece to wrap around the roll to keep it together. Then it’s easier to handle and transport and won’t blow up into a big mess.”

Removing old net or mesh is also challenging but not as nasty to handle as barbed wire. Try to start with a small core and keep it tight, he says. That way, you can get a lot rolled up before having to cut it, secure the roll and start a new one. A tighter roll is easier to haul than a big, loose roll that takes up a lot of space, he says, and requires fewer trips.

“If you are taking out old fences in rough terrain, you have to pack out every roll, so they need to be small and tidy and easy to carry. Fist-full wide is about what a person can handle. My rule of thumb is that when it starts to get awkward to handle, that’s when you’ll start losing control of it, and it’s time to cut the wire, tie that roll off and start a new roll. It has to stay together.”

Removing old posts

Along with getting rid of old wire, old posts need to be removed and disposed of. Nelson breaks wood posts off at ground level, if possible, so the old post remains in the hole, preventing a cow or horse from stepping in the hole and breaking a leg.

“If posts don’t break off, we have to pull them out, but usually they’ll break because they are partly rotted off,” says Nelson. Depending on the rancher’s preference, old posts may be put into a burn pile or hauled off.

Hermanson pulls old wood and steel posts using the tooth on a loader bucket. “Then we can throw the old posts into the bucket and dump them into hydraulic dump box trailers. We’ve used chains that slide over the posts, and hydraulic commercial-made post-puller clamps, but found that the tooth on the bucket with a good operator is the most efficient way,” he says.

“We haul old posts to a landfill unless the landowner wants us to dump the posts into a pile so they can sort through them to find reusable steel posts for fence repairs and untreated wood posts to be burned for heating. Some posts can be recycled into craft projects and furniture,” says Hermanson.

There are several tools that can jack T-posts out of the ground. For old wood posts, Thomas says there are generally two options.

“You can cut them off at ground level with a chain saw, or pull them out with a loader or a handy-man jack or a post-puller with a chain. If you pull the post out, put something into the hole, to keep an animal from putting a foot down and breaking a leg. We’ve sometimes filled holes with sod harvested near the hole, or poured buckets of gravel into the holes,” he says.

Author: Heather Smith Thomas with Canadian Cattlemen.


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Photo Credit: Lee Gunderson

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