Ranch roads should be a necessity not a blessing

My wife Zee and I closed escrow on an 8,000 acre mountainous ranch, 1,500’ to 4,000’ elevation, in November of 1961 in Central California that today we call the V6. It now encompasses 20,000 wild and diverse acres. So it’s grown in size a fair amount these past 60 years while I spent a lot of those years taking this very special place for granted. Assuming that it would always rain, the grass would always grow come springtime, and what my neighbors were doing was comforting to see that we were all caring for our ranches about the same, so we all must be on the right track. Well that assumption took me 30 years to question its validity. I had to nearly go broke before a friend of mine invited me to a Holistic Resource Management seminar that after three days of “this makes so much sense” I felt almost giddy when the last day of class came to a close and I could see clearly now that I had a new path to follow that had nothing to do with the past or what my neighbors were doing.

With my mind almost on overload with new ways to solve old problems. I was now equipped with ways to test if the grass was growing like it once did and it was not. Was my banker glad to see me? I’m sure not. So I started to read a paper called The Stockman Grass Farmer and then Acres magazine. With this sizable pile of new information at my disposal I was ready to put these new thoughts into action. One of the first practices that didn’t pass the Holistic test was “Dry Farming” a very destructive way to erode my best land to grow Barley Hay to feed my saddle horses and my stocker cattle waiting to be branded and then I would sell what was left over. Well it failed on every count. I’ve never really had that burning desire to climb on a tractor and go round and round all day tilling the soil coursing through my veins. So it was an easy choice to see two balers, a swather, and the harrow bed that picked up those thousands of three wire bales and all the rest of the paraphernalia necessary to grow a crop go up for sale. I watched with no regrets, only relief as that pile of iron went out my gate and down the road to a new home. I was now able to return 1,000 acres of my best ground to grass. But I still had one piece of equipment left, that I knew was causing a lot of destruction to my roads and hillsides in the form of rills and gullies that took place when rain water stayed to long on one of my mountainous roads, so when it exited and started its erosive downhill journey it was enough for me to never be tempted again to use this six wheeled monster called a road grader. So, I permanently removed temptation by liting my cutting torch and with a gleeful look I proceeded to cut it up into little pieces and I sold it all for scrap.

Now I had a chance to maintain my ranch roads that are very necessary in a way that their footprint would be as modest as possible.

I think bare ground is first and ranch roads are second in line for their ability to change the face of a ranch from beautiful to ugly. I believe that if a steward of the land treats his or her roads as “what a nice blessing to have, I can drive over every square inch of my land,” you are no longer a steward but a lazy oof. You are not interested enough to get out of your “go anywhere vehicle” and see what’s really happening beneath your feet, or gaze at the unsullied beauty of a mountain covered in grass, and realize that good things are happening.

I think we can all agree that a road system on a working ranch or farm is a necessity. If this is so then they need to be placed only where necessary and then maintained so they cause as little erosion as possible and washboards are kept to a size that won’t knock the doors off their hinges and beat the undercarriages to death on your truck or tractor.

You already know of my dislike for road graders to maintain roads. Because they are limited to making roads that are really too smooth. So here’s your dilemma: you've got too much water and you're on your ATV, both moving too fast, giving a person only a quick windshield look at how that fast moving water put a big gullie in your road now what are you going to do about it? A bulldozer will grade your roads depending on how good your operator is and then it will also build nice big long lasting water bars and turn outs that can divert the biggest of storms and if you have enough of them you will have divided up the waters destructive energy so when it leaves a road it can be absorbed harmlessly into your soil sponge. Now if you still have gullies down your roads and down a hillside you don’t have enough water bars go back and build some more. My Cat D6 C has many more uses like building water retention basins, clearing brush to make a firebreak thus creating a place to help Cal Fire put out a wildfire.

About a year ago my son Greg with his 850 John Deere tracklayer installed a couple of miles of “Poly Pipe” so I could install eight watering troughs to take water to a part of the ranch that was poorly served. To choose where this pipeline would go. I got out my much used U.S. Geological Survey map that covers the part of the ranch that my waterline would traverse. This “tell all” map told me distance, it told me the elevation at the water well, and the elevation at the end of the pipeline to be and now by multiplying .43 times the feet of elevation I will know the water pressure I will be dealing with and it tells me, by looking at how close or how far apart the contour lines are how steep the ground I am going to crossover is. Next my map shows me a ridge I can follow almost the whole distance where Greg will then rip the Poly Pipe into the ground 18” deep followed by a heavy piece of V shaped Iron to cover the rip mark. I next installed 8 watering troughs with a big rock inside the troughs and one outside so any and all critters can get a drink. Hooray I have a new underutilized part of the ranch that I can manage more efficiently and it’s a lot cheaper than buying more land.

By making a wheel track in the grass that Greg could follow and trying to hold a 1% side slope to my track and using natural undulations I was able to make natural water bars and with but one 100 yard span around a side hill where Greg had to make a passable cut to make room for tractor and ripper to pass. This wheel track has evolved into my kind of road that makes as small a footprint as possible while allowing me a way to make sure all the troughs and float valves are working for cattle and wildlife. The ranch roads that have been in place for many years wherever possible I want a 1% side slope so winter rains will sheet off, this design says to me and to others don’t drive on this road when it’s muddy for you may find yourself stuck with a long walk home.

As for the gullies that can happen in a wet year after a big winter storm. Come spring I don’t just fill them in with dirt and expect a different outcome the following year, Instead I like to use Juniper branches that will last many many years to fill these gullies as they will catch all the soil and debris so when a storm arrives it’s destructive force will be neutralized by the Juniper branches. I close by saying I encourage grass to grow on my roads and it comes down to this: if whatever I’m doing on the ranch speeds water up, I have probably made a bad decision and if what I’m doing slows water down, Mother Nature gives me an “atta boy.”

See Ya


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