What is a Cattle Guard?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A cattle guard is a series of parallel metal bars which is installed in a roadway over a ditch to prevent ungulates from escaping a fenced area. The parallel bars are designed to be wide enough so that hooves and legs will fall through, while cars can drive over them safely, although they do need to slow down. Most hoofed animals are smart enough to recognize the potential hazard of a cattle guard, and they will avoid them: in some cases, animals will even avoid lines painted on a busy road to resemble a guard. These devices are in use all over the world as a practical alternative to gates, which must be opened and closed every time someone wants to pass through.

A cattle guard will keep cattle confined to a particular grazing area.
A cattle guard will keep cattle confined to a particular grazing area.

The concept of a cattle guard was originally conceived of in the American west by the railroads, which constantly had problems with free ranging cattle getting onto the train tracks and causing accidents. In 1913, an inventor named William J. Hickey recognized the potential uses for a cattle guard, with cars taking over America, and filed a patent for his invention, which was specifically developed for use in roadways. Two years later, the United States Patent and Trade Office approved the patent.

Cattle guards were designed to keep free range animals off of train tracks.
Cattle guards were designed to keep free range animals off of train tracks.

Today, the cattle guard is used all over the world, especially in nations where animals graze public lands which are split by roads. Prior to its introduction, anyone walking or driving across a fence line would have had to open a gate and close it behind them: while this task is not too onerous for walkers, it can be irritating to drivers, especially on long trips through public lands. The guard is designed to survive in the roadway for several years: it is laid flush with the road and treated with anti-rusting agents to prevent it from rusting out or being jostled by cars. Fence inspectors will periodically check the cattle guards as well, to make sure that they are still safe and usable.

Some animals can figure out a way around a cattle guard: sheep, for example, have been known to roll across guards of up to three feet (one meter) across. Horses and cattle sometimes attempt to jump them, although usually the width of the cattle guard is enough to deter this idea. If a farmer does need to move livestock over a guard, a sheet of wood can be thrown down over the bars for the animals to walk over, and if a guard needs to be removed from the roadway altogether, the bars are lifted and the ditch is filled before that section of the road is resurfaced with fresh asphalt.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Be cautious of used or 'economical' steel cattle guards for sale online marketing used oil rig piping or smaller 3" piping. Some of those can't support much more than a light pickup. I've heard of them being returned all bent up.


I agree. And steel cattle guards are known to trap the hooves of cow and other livestock under the piping.


I know that cattle guards come in steel or concrete. Steel cattle grids for sale are more common since most farm supply stores can't make or ship concrete cattle guards. Concrete is stronger, but it's also two times heavier and longer lasting, and from experience, I know it's a lot less expensive than steel. You can now make one hell of a heavy duty cattle guard via a cattle guard form without spending much. --Ray


To answer your question, in my opinion as a cattle farmer (I've got five cattle guards on my property), my two labs avoid crossing our concrete cattle guards and instead slip through the side wings.

Also, I've seen the gap zapper and it's an electric mat that shocks the cattle. I'm not going to run electric out to all my cattle guards so I didn't opt for that.

Since I have five cattle guards I elected to buy cattle guard concrete forms. They came with rebar installed so it was just pour and let cure. They support 16 tons/axle and each was only about $800 (compared to $2k for most rated cattle guards).


Gap Zapper is an electric mat that shocks livestock when they touch the mat. You can drive any rubber-tired vehicle over a Gap Zapper.


We see so many cattle guards without fencing on both sides of the road. Aren't the cattle smart enough to just walk around the guard? Which, if they are, makes the cattle guard useless in my opinion and no need for it. I can see the use if a fence is there to keep the cattle in.


What is a Gap Zapper Electric Cattle Guard?


will dogs cross cattle guards?

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