Missouri fence laws go way back… in fact before Missouri became a State in 1821.
The first Missouri fence law was enacted in 1808 while Missouri was still within the Louisianan Territory. Those were the days of “open range” so fences were erected to keep livestock out, not in.
In the 1808 fence law, the owner had legal remedies against the owner of livestock that trespassed as long as he had constructed a “legal fence.” A legal fence was at least 5 feet 6 inches high and supported by strong posts. The first time an animal trespassed, the owner was to be compensated for actual damages. The second time the compensation would be doubled. But the third time, the owner had the right to kill and dispose of the trespassing animal. Imagine, the reaction of a rancher when he saw his dead herd bull lying in the farmer’s cabbage patch.
Well, after years of dead bulls and angry ranchers the Missouri legislature came up with the 1877 fence law . “Open range” would continue but the landowner no longer had the right to kill the trespassing animal. Instead, on the second offense, he could take up the livestock and require payment for their upkeep. Also, a lawful fence height was lowered to 4 feet. Next, the term livestock was expanded to include “other livestock” which trespassed and not just any cattle, horses, mare, gelding, colt, sheep, lamb, goat, kid, mule or ass. (They must have anticipated the ostriches, lamas and hogs that would later arrive.)
Also in 1877, the fence spoke about fences between neighbors, or division fences. This law stated that when a landowner constructs a lawful fence which encloses the land of another, that he was allowed to obtain one-half of the cost from the neighboring landowner. Each would then own one-half of the fence and would be required to maintain his portion of the fence. And if the neighbor refused to maintain the fence, then the landowner could collect double damages in court. Removal of a divisional fence required the consent of all fence owners with 6 months notice to all neighboring owners.
In 1889 Missouri legislature amended the fence law to include barbed wire and standards for board and post fencing. Barbed wired was to have three strands with the top wire to be at least 4 feet from the ground and to be fastened tightly to posts no more than 16 feet apart. A board and post fence had to be at least 4 feet 6 inches high with post, no more than 8 feet apart.
In 1919 Missouri fence law changed the 6 month notice necessary before removing division fencing. Consent had to be obtained but the 6 month notice was voided. Also, another change allowed a landowner to build a fence without giving notice to the neighbor and to receive one-half of the construction costs.
Changes in the 1963 Missouri fence law allowed a local option for a county should that county not want the general option. A county could adopt a local option with a majority vote at a county election. The major difference between general and local was the change of the definition of lawful fence. The general fence law allowed only actual damages rather than double damages, and limited the forced contribution from the neighboring landowner to one-half the value of a fence of four barbed wires with posts 12 feet apart. (even though a more expensive fence was built) between 1963 and 1986, sixteen counties voted to adopt the more livestock-owner-friendly local option fence law. (After a statewide fence law revision in 2001, Gentry and Worth counties voted to go with the local option. The eighteen counties who have the local option are Bates, Clinton, Daviess, Gentry, Grundy, Harrison, Knox, Linn, Macon, Mercer, Newton, Putnam, Schuyler, Scotland, Shelby, St. Clair, Sullivan and Worth.
The 1969 Missouri fence law eliminated “open range” law in which a landowner was to fence out neighboring livestock to “closed range” law in which a landowner was to fence in their livestock.
August 28, 2001- Present Day Fence Law
The General Assembly passed and the Governor signed into law major changes called Chapter 272, Missouri’s general fence laws contains the following:
Definition of a legal fence: “A fence consisting of posts and wire or boards at least 4 feet high which is mutually agreed upon by adjoining landowners or decided upon by the associate circuit court of the county. All posts shall be firmly in the ground not more than 12 feet apart with wire or boards securely fastened to such posts and placed at proper distances to resist horses, cattle and other similar livestock.” (RSMO 272.020)
Definition of “livestock owner” who has to have a fence: “A person who has one or more livestock in a field anytime during the year. Cattle that graze corn stalks for 25 days qualify. An exception would occur if the owner places a hot wire at least 10 feet off of the property line.”
Defines who is legally responsible for the fence: The livestock owner alone is legally responsible for building and maintaining a fence to enclose his or her livestock. When adjoining landowners or their renters own livestock each is responsible for his or her half of the boundary fence for as long as they both own livestock. The “right hand rule” is used when each neighbor has livestock. Each stands on his land facing the common boundary. They find the middle and each is responsible for their half to their right. No longer is a neighbor required to pay the cost of building and maintaining a fence if he has no livestock. (This does not apply to the counties who adopted local fence laws.)
Definition of damages: It would appear that only actual damages can be collected. This part of the law is a little confusing. That’s because the new fence rules failed to remove the 1808 fence law which allowed for double damages. The 1808 fence laws were about open range law but Missouri eliminated open range fence laws years earlier, thus the confusion.
Here’s a few examples how the 2001 fence law works
Rancher Jones and farmer Smith are neighbors. Rancher Jones has cattle, but Farmer Smith doesn’t. Under the fence law, Rancher Jones is required to build and maintain the division fence to keep his livestock from trespassing on to Farmer Smith land. Then one day, Farmer Smith buys one cow and grazes it in the field against the division fence. At this point, the general farm fence law states that he is responsible for maintaining half of the fence as well as reimbursing Rancher Jones for half of the cost of the fence.
When Rancher Jones built the fence, he had construction costs recorded at the county recorder. Farmer Smith is presented with the costs that he believes to be excessive and appeals. Unfortunately, this portion of the law has not worked well. Farmer Smith can appeal to the circuit judge, but there are no documents in place to guide the judge. And if the judge has no agricultural background or knowledge; then he has no idea whether Rancher Jones’ cost are reasonable.
Suppose Rancher Jones has another neighbor, Rancher Wayne. Since both have livestock, the general fence law states that they are responsible for the half of the fence to their right as they face the fence. Rancher Jones tells Rancher Wayne that he is constructing an expensive board fence on his half. The general fence law does not require that Rancher Wayne build the same expensive fence. In fact, his one half of the division fence can be a barbed wire fence which meets the definition of a lawful Missouri fence.
The half of the fence that Rancher Jones is constructing is on nearly level land; however, Rancher Wayne’s half has several water gaps, making it more expensive. The Missouri fence law allows them to have an agreement separate from the Missouri fence. However, that agreement should be in writing, signed, notarized and recorded at the county recorder of deeds office on all properties sharing the division fence.
For more on Missouri Fence laws go to: