click image to zoom Since 1950 livestock production has experienced many dynamic changes. Cattle production increased, and then declined to the point we have about the same number of cattle in the US as were being counted in 1950. Pastures have been converted to row crop production. Pork production has shifted from pasture to confinement. And the number of farms raising livestock has declined substantially. With all of those changes, have the fence laws in your state kept up to date, or are they way out of date?
Taking Illinois as an example, a 200-year old fence law might be seen as quite flexible and applicable to 21st century agriculture, or it might seem out of date. That spurred University of Illinois agriculture law specialists Bryan Endres and Lisa Schlessinger to question if the current law should be updated, a question that may be asked in many other Cornbelt state. After Illinois became a state in 1818, one of the first laws passed by the General Assembly was the Illinois Fence Law. It was an important piece of legislation designed to keep livestock where they belonged, or keep someone else’s livestock out of your cornfield. It either provided containment or protection.
And the law said that adjoining property owners should share in the cost of the fence equally. But that was in a day when cows, sheep, and hogs needed to be kept home, and over 60 years ago the number of livestock in Illinois began to rapidly decline.
Today, your familiarity with a fence may be limited to a municipal code about putting up a barrier around your swimming pool. Subsequently, the Illinois Fence Law that has been tested for nearly two centuries may need some updating. After all why should 77% of Illinois farms without any livestock have to share the cost of putting up a fence to aid the 23% of farms which have livestock?
Endres and Schlessinger report fence law has its origins in English Common Law that required the owner of livestock to keep them “fenced-in.” But problems eventually occurred when the property owner who did not spend the money to put up the fence got some livestock of his own, and used his neighbor’s fence to restrict their movement. When you have neighbors all around you with fences, then you have no fence expense.
The corollary to that is fencing out, which is building a fence to keep someone else’s livestock off your land. That is a popular concept in western states, where division fences were built to protect your land, from someone else’s free range cattle. While that issue is pertinent in some states, it will not work in all, where livestock do not need to roam and may have adequate pasture in smaller acreage.