Hey Ranger! Where's the Cattle Guard?

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August 29, 2008

Cattle Guard Ahead signAs you travel rural roads, especially in the West, you may spot a highway sign warning that a cattle guard is located ahead. Drivers from other parts of the country–especially city dwellers–have been known to look around and, after failing to spot anyone, ask “Where’s the cattle guard?”

Perhaps news reports that cattle rustling is on the rise again due to higher beef prices are partly to blame for the confusion, but just for the record, a cattle guard bears no resemblance to either a crossing guard, a security guard – or a cowboy. Those signs are useful, however, since crossing one of those guards after driving for miles on a smooth highway can be a bit of a jolt .

Those of us who live in the West don’t give those devices a second thought, but just in case they’re new to you, here’s the inside scoop–including the word on virtual cattle guards.

Cattle guards are a clever solution to a problem in areas where livestock roam. A good fence can usually keep cattle and horses confined to a pasture and excluded from places they shouldn’t wander. What happens, however, when a fence crosses a road?

“Well, duh, put in a gate,” may seem a logical answer. A gate is one solution, but a rather inconvenient one if there’s any through traffic on the road. Most drivers on a paved highway would object to having to stop to open – and close – a gate.

One ingenious answer, a cattle guard, eliminates the gate and allows vehicles to pass unimpeded, but keep livestock from passing through the opening. (Well, most of the time.) The concept is simple.

Cattle guard, Jim Burnett photoAt a place where a gate would be needed across a road, a ditch is dug instead, and the trench is bridged with a grid of heavy, parallel metal bars or pipes. The cattle guard in the photo on the left is located at the entrance to a campground in Wyoming.

The space between the pipes is small enough that vehicles can cross over the grid, but large enough that the hooves of livestock would fall through the gap. As a result, most animals are reluctant to attempt to cross a cattle guard.

Cattle guards do require some maintenance, and crossing them can be a little bumpy, especially for vehicles towing a trailer. Some areas have solved the problem by using a “virtual” cattle guard. This innovation is simply a row of parallel white stripes painted on darker pavement, creating a visual effect which resembles pipes over a ditch.

Virtual cattle guardThe jury is still out on whether the virtual model is more effective with livestock which are smarter–or dumber–than average. The pattern of the worn areas on the paint in this photo are a bit suspicious, so I trust they aren’t left by the hooves of savvy cows.

In some locations, a cattle guard is called a “cattle grid,” a “cattle stop,” or a “vehicle pass.” However, none of those terms would provide nearly as much opportunity for fun with questions from uninitiated city-slickers.

Now that you’re an expert on the subject, you can be ready with a quick reply in case you’re ever asked, “Do cattle guards carry guns?”

Jim Burnett


Life – it’s an adventure…. Find something to smile about today!

Jim’s book Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from America’s National Parks is available from Trailer Life Directory.com

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  2. With regards to “virtual cattle guards” I haven’t seen any that are very dependable…and I’ve seen a lot of short cuts for cattle guards including electric lines, painted lines, highway guard rails, train rail, rail road ties, and as a cattle farmer myself I’ve seen them all fail eventually. Calves especially will test any cattle guard that isn’t built to spec’s. Thanks

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  12. Thanks for the comments.

    Gary – It’s an unfortunate fact that rustlers are still an issue for farmers and ranchers. It would be ironic if some of them are renting their trucks from

    Doug – about those “Texas Gates” in Western Canada … I guess some Texans would note that their influence extends a long way beyond the Rio Grande!

  13. Doug Smith

    A few years ago, while traveling in Western Canada, I came across signs warning of a “Texas Gate”. I immediately figured out that’s another name for a cattle guard. Must be, ’cause I crossed a bunch of ’em, and never entered Texas.
    Y’all take care, now.

  14. Gary Hauck

    Where I live here in Kansas, if the question were asked do cattle guards carry guns, the answere would be no, the farmers who put in the cattle guards do. I live outside of Wichita, cattle rustling still happens using Uhaul trucks.