Livestock safety is paramount for any cattle farmer, especially when keeping the cows contained in a pasture or preventing predators from attacking the herd while they graze.
Fences are typically used to prevent livestock from crossing beyond their normal boundaries.
However, fences are impractical when there are several road crossings along the fence line.
Gates may be installed at these road crossings, but they require a lot of maintenance and are time-consuming to open and close whenever a vehicle needs to pass through.
Cattle guards are an excellent alternative to cattle gates, but how do they work?
Cattle guards work by creating a physical and optical barrier a cow is usually unwilling to cross. The rounded pipes of a cattle guard are too unstable for cows to walk on, and the gaps in between them seem much deeper and wider to cattle because they have poor depth perception.
Cows have a good field of vision, which allows them to see predators from a long distance, but their short-range vision is poor in comparison.
The spacing of the pipes, coupled with the depth of the trench, is very confusing for a cow, and it will usually not be tempted to cross a cattle guard.
Cattle guards are more commonly found in open ranch areas, and often there will be cattle guards on paved roads and highway ramps to prevent free-roaming cattle from wandering into traffic.
Keep reading to learn more about cattle guards, including their effectiveness and safety.
What Is a Cattle Guard?
A cattle guard, also known as a cattle grid, is built over a ditch usually 12″ inches deep, with round steel pipes around 4″ inches apart.
In areas with high traffic, a flat-topped cattle guard provides a smoother ride for vehicles, but it is not as effective for livestock control as rounded pipes.
The pipes are welded to support beams to support the weight of heavy vehicles, which are often set in concrete for added stability.
The gaps between the pipes must only be wide enough to intimidate the cow.
Spacing the metal pipes too far apart may lead to a cow’s hoof getting stuck or other injuries.
The cattle grid must be a minimum of 8′ feet long and is typically 7-8′ feet wide.
Cattle guards allow farm vehicles to enter fence line barriers without using a gate and keep the cattle in their designated area.
Some cattle grids feature metal wings on each side to prevent a cow from jumping over the corner of the guard.
Cattle guard wings also reduce the risk of injury to your cows if your fence is made of barbed wire.
Other Kinds of Cattle Guards
Virtual guards, which are simply alternating light and dark lines painted across a road, are sometimes used, but they are not as effective as true cattle grids.
Electric cattle grids consist of high-tensile wire strung across the road approximately 3-4″ inches high and attached to a power source.
Some farmers use electric cattle grids but risk shocking people, domestic animals, and vehicles.
Concrete cattle guards are another alternative to traditional steel cattle guards, but they are more expensive due to higher shipping costs.
Concrete forms are available for you to make your own cattle guards to cut down on these costs.
Purchasing these forms and pouring the concrete yourself is more economical than buying pre-made concrete cattle grids.
Boxed cattle guards are constructed above ground with a dirt ramp on each side, but they may shift over a while since they are not installed in a trench.
A boxed cattle guard is meant for temporary use in low-traffic areas.
Are Cattle Guards Effective Livestock Control?
Cattle guards are usually effective animal deterrents but are not always cattle-proof.
Cows are ingenious animals; if they figure out the hole is not very deep or wide, they will attempt to walk or jump across the cattle guard.
Often, the hole will fill in with layers of dirt or gravel, making the cattle grid less effective.
You will need to regularly clean the cattle guard by digging out the excess dirt by hand.
If periodic maintenance is not performed on the cattle guard, the ditch may fill in, and dirt will become compacted between the metal pipes.
In this scenario, you will need to use a tractor or other equipment to lift the metal pipe structure out of the trench to completely remove the debris.
Related Post: Check out other ways to keep cows out
Using a Bump Gate for More Effective Livestock Control
If you have a very determined animal willing to risk crossing the cattle grid no matter what, you may want to consider installing a bump gate.
A bump gate may only be opened by the force of a vehicle, and it has a self-closing mechanism.
Bump gates also protect against wild animals and ensure your pets cannot leave the fenced-in area.
The bump gate needs to be raised, so it does not collide with the bars of the cattle guard, but not high enough to allow predators to come in underneath it.
A bump gate will withstand harsh weather and is less expensive to install and maintain when compared to an automatic gate.
Are Cattle Guards Safe?
Cattle guards are generally safe people and livestock, but occasional accidents occur.
Horses or cattle attempting to jump over the cattle guard may become stuck.
If a cow or horse leg becomes stuck between the gaps in the pipes, the animal may panic and struggle, possibly resulting in a broken limb.
A concrete cattle guard design is safer, but its weight makes it more expensive than a modern cattle grid made from steel due to higher shipping and installation costs.
Steel cattle guards weigh around 1,000-1,300 pounds, but concrete cattle guards weigh between 9,000-11,000 pounds, which is a considerable difference.
It is important to monitor your cattle after installing a cattle grid, especially if adventurous calves are in the herd.
If you notice your cows are overly curious about the cattle guard or frequently finding ways to cross it, you may need to consider keeping them away from the area.
Do Cattle Guards Work for Other Animals?
Cattle guards are not effective or safe for certain types of animals.
Horses are prone to cattle grid injuries because their slender legs are more likely to slip between the metal pipes, resulting in broken limbs.
Bison and buffaloes are also not cattle guard material because their hooves are very large, which makes it easy for them to cross if the metal pipes are too close together.
If you have horses, bison, or buffaloes, it is best to use a gate to keep them secure.
Animals with smaller hooves, such as goats and sheep, are also able to cross the uneven surface of a cattle grid quite easily.
Smaller hoofed animals can balance on the rounded pipes and have very little difficulty crossing a cattle guard.
Further Reading: Cattle guards and goats
Goats also have excellent depth perception due to their eye placement not being directly on the sides of their head, and their rectangular pupils give them a wide field of vision.
Sheep also have rectangular pupils, but because of their eye placement, they cannot see directly in front of them, whereas the only blind spot for goats is directly behind them.
A cattle grid is not an effective deterrent for animals with paws, such as dogs, cats, foxes, and coyotes, because it is very easy for them to walk on it or jump across.
Read next: How often to check on cattle?
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