Solar panels power pump, electric fence

Located near Estherville in northern Iowa, Gordon Garrison is a do-it-yourself kind of farmer. But the conservation-minded sheep producer didn’t flinch at getting some assistance from the sun to help keep his steep land in grass.

Solar panels supply the energy to charge the 12-volt batteries, which he uses to power his portable electric fence. But the sun is also the renewable power source he uses to pump water as needed from a supply pond to paddocks he forms daily in his intensively grazed sheep operation.

Key Points

Iowa farmer uses sun to power electric fence, watering system.

Solar panels run fence for intensive rotational grazing.

Sheep moved daily, can graze on steep land without erosion.


“I wanted a reliable battery system,” Garrison explains. “I change the battery every day, and put the second one on charge. The batteries have lasted five years with solar charging instead of the two years I was previously getting.”

Garrison’s solar panels are on wheels, along with an old refrigerator that houses the charging units to keep them out of the elements. That allows him to move the panel closer to the paddocks currently being grazed. The battery and fencer are also on a carrier on wheels, to make it easier to move the fencer and battery when he moves the fence.

Portable power, fence

Garrison uses four sections of 164-foot electronet fence (poly with stainless steel wire) to form about a half-acre paddock. The second paddock uses one side of the first paddock and three more sections, allowing for continuous half-acre paddocks, using a total of seven sections.

He moves his sheep daily, and they have plenty of feed since he’s pared the flock to fewer ewes. But the ability to move sheep easily was very important in earlier years, when he grazed as many as 550 ewes. “We would sometimes move them five times a day,” Garrison says.

A pump pipes water to the paddocks. About seven years ago, Garrison designed and began installing his watering system. Using his backhoe, he began laying nearly a mile of 1¼-inch pipe about 5 feet deep across his pasture. He installed hydrants at strategic locations on a 900-foot spacing, and uses 350-foot hose reels to get the water to a small tank that moves with the fence.

Iowa Lakes Resource, Conser-vation and Development cost-shared on the pipe system and updated fencing. The RC&D covered 75% of the cost to install the solar panels and pump in a water supply pond. Garrison made sure the pond would have an ample supply of water by building a 1,000-foot-long diversion to direct water to the pond from 400 acres upstream.

“Since some of my pastures are close to the building site, it made sense to tie my well system and my solar water system together,” he says. “I can pump the water from the well or the pond, and using that with the creek water, I shouldn’t ever have to haul water. This system could support 500 ewes,” he adds.

Electronic herding

The fence keeps the sheep in and the coyotes out, Garrison says. “I’ve never had a coyote kill a sheep.” He adds, “I call this system electronic herding. The fence is the herder. I always know where the sheep are.”

Garrison, who will be 70 next year, likes the exercise he gets from moving the fence daily. But he doesn’t anticipate building the herd again. “As you get older, you see some other really important things in life,” he says. “When I moved here, I’d have said I would never have wetlands on the place. But I do have them now,” he says. “And I’m also trying to get beavers back here as part of the balance and diversity of wildlife I think we need.”

He’s put most of his highly erodible land on his 290-acre farm into the Conservation Reserve Program, and has been taking steps to attract more wildlife to the farm, including planting native grasses and forbs, building ponds, restoring five wetlands, and making 11 native, food-producing shrub plantings. He’s made a two-mile trail throughout the farm, and has some plans in case CRP goes by the wayside, if the government cuts funding and reduces or eliminates the CRP program.

Garrison didn’t intend to farm; he has a degree in ag engineering from Iowa State University and has worked off the farm in several jobs over the years. He bought the farm in 1972 with the intention of renting it out. When he and wife Evalena couldn’t find a renter, they bought sheep because sheep weren’t expensive compared to cows, and began farming.

“There aren’t many sheep producers around now, but I’d miss the sheep if I got rid of them,” Garrison says. “Sheep got us through the 1980s, and I have a lot of my energy invested in them. With a little money and no fence, I was able to substitute labor to run a lot of sheep on pasture and make it work,” he says.

Betts writes from Johnston.

Portable paddocks are a plus

While Gordon Garrison admits the intensive labor and attention to detail required are downsides to the portable paddocks he uses in his rotational grazing system, he says the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for him. The upside:

• No permanent fences needed outside of winter quarters.

• Easy to balance forage and sheep. For example, fast moves of sheep from paddock to paddock in wet conditions will limit forage damage, or slow moves in dry conditions can help portion out the forage.

• It’s easy to hold sheep in an area longer to defoliate brush.

• Pasture near sensitive areas can be done with little effort.

• Short-duration grazing with a high stocking rate is the best system for forage health.

• Small paddocks give an even distribution of manure.

• Steep land can be grazed without creating paths or soil erosion.

• No need to count or wonder if any sheep are missing.


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PORTABLE POWER: Using an old refrigerator to house the charging units, Gordon Garrison’s solar panels on wheels create a portable charging system for fence batteries that can be kept close to pastures in use.

This article published in the December, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.