The oft quoted saying by Robert Frost that “good fences make good neighbors” can be especially true for farmers. But what is a good fence? All 50 states have passed laws relating to fences and livestock, but there are substantial differences across the country and sometimes even within the same state. The confusing nature of fence laws causes numerous problems, but we will look at a general overview of the issue and several of the more common rules that most states possess.
Many fence disputes between landowners often involve livestock. While the majority of states require owners of livestock to stop livestock from “running at large” on property that they do not own or rent, there are some western states that still follow the “open range” doctrine. “Open range” states remove the duty to fence in livestock and allows livestock to roam in certain remote parts of the state while requiring other landowners to fence their land in order to keep livestock off of their property.
Even the concept of open range can be confusing because states like Texas are open range states; however counties have the ability to enact local stock laws that effectively close the range in those counties.
To add to the puzzle, many fence laws have also been interpreted differently in cases heard by courts throughout each state. The reason why people are confused about fence law is that many times the answer is tricky.
There are a couple of general rules that landowners should be aware of. First, do you have “livestock”? The majority of states do require livestock owners to fence in their livestock, but the definition of that word can vary from state to state. Hogs, sheep, goats, mules, donkeys, cattle and horses are almost universally “livestock,” but poultry typically are not included in the definition.
The type and construction material of the fence can matter when it comes down to what makes a legal fence. In older states it is not uncommon to see legal fences include stonewalls and hedge rows, but many states also include barbed wire as a permissible fence. However, keep in mind that following your states’ minimum requirements for a legal fence may not be enough to stop animals from physically breaking through. For example, Alabama Code §3-4-3 defines a lawful fence for cattle or horses as having at least three wires with posts or trees no more than 8 feet apart. While this may satisfy the requirement for a lawful fence, it probably will not successfully contain cattle and horses over the long run, resulting in livestock violating the law by “running at large.”
The final issue that we commonly see involves paying for shared partition fences. It is important to look at your state’s fence law to see who has to pay for building or repairing the fence. Some states require neighbors to split the cost of the fence while other states put the cost on the neighbor that owns the livestock.
Fence laws are often difficult to navigate, because there is so much variation from one state to the next. Because of this variation, one of the most commonly used resources on our website is our compilation of state fence laws available at http://bit.ly/NALC-Fences.