By Patrick Winderl
Hill County has set a precedent for installing safe and cost- effective cattle guards.
The Hill County Road Department received state recognition Wednesday for its ground-breaking work in designing the guards, Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway said. At a Montana Association of Counties meeting in Helena, the Road Department was lauded for creating a special concrete platform for supporting cattle guards.
Jerry Otto, county road superintendent, said the design is unique because it prevents the guards from filling with gravel and from developing potentially dangerous potholes. Traditional cattle guards can become ineffective and present a road hazard, he said.
The MACo workshop was intended to educate county officials about risk management and how to limit county liability. Poorly maintained cattle guards can cause vehicle crashes and subsequent lawsuits against the county, Conway said.
It is common for potholes and depressions to form in front of cattle guards, creating hazardous obstacles that can damage vehicles. The design employed by Hill County uses an extended concrete platform to prevent that from happening, Otto said.
"The design improves the safety value significantly," he said. "It will also double the life expectancy of the cattle guard."
During the MACo meeting, the cattle guards were dubbed "Otto passes" by officials from other counties. Otto said he was embarrassed by the name and was quick to credit everyone from the Road Department for their involvement in the project.
"This wasn't something I did on my own," he said. "This was an effort by the whole road crew."
One important benefit of the design is that it requires less maintenance than other guard platforms, lowering county costs.
Most county gravel roads are bladed several times a year, Otto said. Blading is a technique used to resurface and smooth gravel roads when they become uneven. During the process, cattle guards can become filled with gravel, allowing cattle to freely move across them. To combat this, the county must remove and clean the guards, a task that is time- consuming and expensive, Conway said.
By having a concrete extension on either side of the platform, it is unnecessary to blade near the guard, making cleaning unnecessary. Most cattle guards that see a lot of use need to be cleaned every two years, Otto said. Each cleaning costs $443.
Six of the cattle guards have been installed in Hill County so ar, saving Hill County more than a $1,200 a year in maintenance.
The structures cost $3,143 each to install, including $1,800 for the 120 hours of labor necessary to build the platform. The Hill County Commission must approve each installation.
The cost to the county is partially offset by the landowners who request the guards, Conway said. The county pays for the concrete platform, and ranchers pay for the metal guards, which cost $800 apiece. They must buy them from the county in sets of two.
Otto said he would like to see at least two new structures installed every year.