What Makes a Great Ranch Road?
Anyone can appreciate a well-made road. But what does it take to accomplish this? How can you avoid costly design and construction mistakes? What are the consequences of a poorly made road? What are the effects of low-quality ranch roads on the property value and the environment? Let’s explore these questions and learn about what makes a great ranch road.
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A great ranch road starts with planning. The only way to start planning is to obtain a topography map of your property, preferably one that is overlaid onto satellite imagery. A topography map on satellite imagery not only shows the elevations and how water flows through the property, but also where trees and existing buildings are located. The map will show you where to find the high ground, the low water areas, where the land is very steep, and where the slope is gentle. The topography map shows the fingerprint of the landscape, each one is different and offers its own set of challenges. A smart designer can identify the best road locations that make it easier for the contractor to build, owner to maintain, and can even provide a positive influence on the landscape. The benefits of a robust map study cannot be overstated.
Roads are Built to Manage Water
When placing a road remember that high ground is your friend. A road on a ridge has no storm water runoff flowing towards it. Roads that go across the slope of the land will require a drain on the uphill side of the road. How big is the drain? That depends on how much land uphill of the work site flows into the new road. This can be measured using modern mapping and satellite imagery. In Texas, we could easily see 20 inches of rain in a single day. This makes planning for storm water runoff an essential task. Everything in road building is about water management. The surface of the road should be crowned, meaning that the center of the road is higher than the edges. Even the slightest ridge along the side of the road can prevent water from draining away. Never put rocks, railroad ties, stockpiled materials, piles of logs/brush, etc along the edge of the road. If water cannot get off of the road, the road will become a river during large rain events. It’s a great way to lose road base. A wet road that is driven over frequently will form potholes, ruts, and muddy puddles. Proper drainage will provide the road with a longer life span with less frequent maintenance. The costs of maintenance on a poorly designed road can be staggering and will contribute to sediment pollution of creeks and rivers.
A great ranch road can and should be designed and used to manage or harvest storm water runoff. If it is required to construct a road across the slope of the land, the project can be designed to move water into a pond. Properly designed and built roads can also protect buildings and agricultural areas from excess storm water runoff. Strategically placed culverts can release water into areas that are more appropriate for managing high flows of storm water. Storm water produced from the construction of roads should be managed, when possible, with soil and water conservation measures on the downhill side of drains. Many people also think that road surfaces can be made to be permeable, to reduce the impact of storm water runoff. I think this is a mistake. Roads should always remain as impermeable hard surfaces that are built for driving on. Then use the landscape to absorb the storm water downstream with good management of soil and plants.
The Proper Tools
What makes a great ranch road? Once you have a good plan the next step is to find the right contractor. Although budget considerations play a role in selecting contractors, quality roads must be built with the right tools. A real road contractor will have a laser level, dump trucks, belly dump trucks, excavators, motor graders, rollers, water trucks and loaders. If your contractor is proposing to build the road with just a skid steer or a bulldozer, it may be wise to reconsider and find someone who has a motor grader. Dozers and skid steers can be used for clearing and rough grading. However, a motor grader has the ability to cut drains and smooth out material with high accuracy. The blade can move up and down, it can be tilted forwards to spread material, it can be tilted backwards to cut material. The blade can angle to bring material from the edge of the road to the center while the angling, tilting and dropping of the corners can shape the road into a crowned surface that allows water to flow away from the center. No other machine can do this while also producing an enjoyable smooth driving experience. Dump trucks are great for hauling material, but when building roads, the belly dump is king. A belly dump truck releases the material from the bottom of the trailer in a controlled way that prevents road base from spilling outside of the edges of the road. This prevents loss of materials and a wavy edge to the road. Crisp clean edges make the road much more visually pleasing. Water trucks will be used to wet the road in preparation for compaction. It’s impossible to completely compact extremely dry material or sopping wet material. Ideal moisture content allows the roller to perform its duties of compaction. Compaction with a roller is absolutely necessary to create a great road. Without compaction, vehicle tires may spin on the loose material and create potholes.
A high standard for common ranch roads in Texas conforms to the following dimensions. The road should be estimated to have a 9-inch layer or road base that compacts to 6 inches. If you plan to have a road base that is 6 inches thick, 9 inches of road base material volume is estimated. Limestone road base shrinks 33% with compaction. The entryway should never be narrow. Keep in mind that an 18-wheeler will need at least a 50-foot-wide mouth at the entryway, then road will then gradually narrow down to its standard width. There should always be a recessed entryway gate 75-100 feet from the edge of the property. This allows trucks and trailers to safely pull off the main county or state highway without blocking traffic. The road is 12 feet wide; this will allow two cars to pass each other with each vehicle keeping two tires on the hard surface. It’s always a good idea to think about how the egress for large trucks and trailers. Can these large vehicles safely get in and out of the property without damaging the land? In some areas, pulling off of the hardened surface is not an option due to soft and wet soils where vehicles get stuck in the mud and incur the property owner unnecessary costs to repair damage. Avoiding sharp curves in the road during the design phase can help keep trucks with long trailers from doing damage to the land. Trailer tires do not follow the same path as the truck tires, this is known as off tracking. Off tracking becomes a problem around sharp corners with a less than 90 degree angles and where there are obstructions near the corners like trees or steep drop offs.
Clean Up and Revegetation
What makes a great ranch road? After construction is complete it is time to clean up the site. Do not forget to include this in the budget. Brush piles from clearing can be burned or chipped up to reused in the revegetation effort. Any piles of dirt should be spread out in low spots or hauled off from the site. If the project is done in the fall through winter, an easy way to achieve vegetation is to use annual cool season rye grass. This seed can be broadcast onto the soil with a thick application for cheap and easy cover during the cool season. Perennial grasses should also be seeded to establish ground cover during the warm season. Establishing ground cover is an important part of any road project. Vegetation will help prevent erosion along the edges of the road and in the newly cut drains. All bare soil should be covered with thick green grass. It helps a lot of the drains are built in a way so that they can be easily mowed in the future.
Accessing newly purchased property should be easy. Why purchase land if you cannot enjoy it? A good road is a huge first step to developing a property that is usable and valuable. A great road is a great asset and will last many years with very low maintenance. Keep in mind however that all roads require maintenance and its easier to do it early rather than late. What makes a great ranch road? It’s planning, having the right tools, execution, and revegetation.
Other Things to Avoid
- Try to avoid crossing gullies and low water areas when possible
- Avoid trying to cross boggy or swampy areas
- Do not allow the road to become the gully
- Avoid building roads without proper drainage
- Avoid using washed gravel as a road base
- Do not using pea gravel as a road base, any river rock or base with round stones.
For a high-quality topography map for low cost, check out our Topography Map Service. We can provide maps for pretty much anywhere in the United States. We also provide professional property design and consulting services in Texas. If a high-quality ranch road is desired here in Central Texas, send us a message, we can help.