Powell County, Montana: Cow Stopper Jackleg Fence

Tnere’s nothing like a jackleg fence when it comes to stopping cows from accessing that greener grass on the other side.  Here in Powell County, Montana, jackleg is also mighty expensive stuff, especially if the property owner opts for treated posts and rails.  That wasn’t always true in the past, especially if the rancher or farmer had native materials growing on his land.  Forget chemical treatment, slap up raw wood, and about all you had to purchase were the spikes.

Now even the spikes are old school.  Construction screws, dude.  Hammer?  Naw.  Battery powered impact driver…as long as you carry enough batteries on your fence-making jaunts.

Growing up on a ranch west of Drummond, Montana–and working on a freeway fence construction crew in my twenties–I never worked with jackleg fencing.   On the ranch, it was all barbed wire except for the corrals, which were post-and-rail. The freeway fencing involved both barbed wire and woven wire.

All of it included posts, both T-posts (steel, pounded into the ground) and wooden posts (planted in holes dug with shovel and crowbar).

My first little bit of fencing on the Holy Waters Ranch acreage would also be my first-ever adventure in jackleg fence construction.  A mile of it?  Um…no.  Not hardly, though the ranch does have something like 2 2/3 miles of perimeter fencing and probably 2/3 of that does need attention.  Most of that’s also barbed wire.  Treated jackleg retail cost for materials could run around $8.00 per foot (give or take, depending on how lucky or skilled you are at sourcing posts and rails, whether you use 5′ or 6′ crossbuck posts, what diameter rails you install, how many per section, whether you build in 12′ or 16′ sections, etc.)  $8.00 x 14,000 feet ( 2 2/3 miles, rounded off) = $112,000.

Ouch, right?

Jackleg fencing in specific situations, however, is the only way to go.  Just west of Monture Creek, the land slopes steeply up 100 feet or so, through heavy brush and considerable small timber, crosses a dozen feet of level, clear “walkway”, then slopes up a bit more to a barbed wire fence corner.  Away from the steep, out in the open, it’s a bit less than 50 feet.  When I first hiked the fence line, an old, rotten jackleg fence section ran from corner to creek.

What was left of it, that is.

Over time, mostly just working a couple of hours every Monday afternoon, I cleared the old, rotten stuff and young, growing juniper trees from that “open” area, piling the discards along the lower, brushy fence remains.  Looked to me like all I’d need to fence was…50 feet, according to the tape measure.

The open area, cleared and ready to be fenced off. Using this gap, cattle have been traveling freely between properties for years if not decades.

Getting started at Holy Waters required some thinking.  I did consider barbed wire.  After all, it’s what I know.  It would be cheaper by far, mostly because only three treated posts would be needed to construct a “brace” section at the downhill end of the gap.  The uphill end could be anchored to an existing post.  But for this terrain, barbed wire also presented at least one significant problem in that there would always be wire tension providing upward “pull” on the post  positioned where the ground levels off.  A T-post would be out of the question.  Did I want to dig three post holes, each of them preferably three feet deep?

Frankly, no, I did not want to do that.  My back had been bothering me for weeks (excuse) and I was lazy (truth).    Never mind that chiropractor Mike Welker of Butte got my spine all squared away later; the decision was made.

With jackleg fence, there are no holes to dig.  Most importantly, jackleg couldn’t care less if the terrain under it is up, down, or sideways.

In the end, I came up with an ancient, battered, yet totally workable 10′ flatbed trailer.  How old is it, you ask?  I’m not sure, but one tire’s max pressure listing is 40 psi…and the other is 35 psi.  The hitch is sloppy and the securing bolt so rusted in place that it refuses to budge.  Wiring the hitch lever in place is the only way to keep it from flying open.  The wood bed is in terrible shape.  Taillight wiring has long since disintegrated.

You get the picture.

My ranching brother in law donated an entire set of older, 18 volt impact wrenches and batteries.  “You might as well have them,” he said.  “I don’t do much with 18 volt any more.”    I got a deal on the posts and rails.  Our local building supply store in Deer Lodge had the necessary construction screws in stock.

The ancient, rusty, sloppy trailer hitch, wired in place.

For weeks, planning this out, I’d been plagued with step-by-step worries:

  1.  How hard was it going to be for my half ton GMC Sierra pickup truck to tow a load of posts and poles up Helmville Canyon?  That sucker is steep, twisty, narrow, and did I mention steep?  I mostly worried about the transmission, which has already been rebuilt twice.  —————————————————————————————————-
  2. What if that sloppy hitch came apart?  Huh?  Huh? ————————————————————-
  3. How tricky was it going to be, diving off into the barrow pit from Highway 200 west of Ovando, what with all that summer tourist traffic going on up there? ————————————————————————————————-
  4. On the circuitous uphill route, cross country, to reach the fencing site, how likely was the lowslung hitch to get hung up while crossing the one worst dip in the trail I’d scouted?

In the end, it wasn’t bad at all, demonstrating once again that the things we most often worry about do not always come to pass.  The loaded trailer pulled smoothly, nothing but the occasional loose-hitch -clunk!- to give it away.  Locking the tranny in second gear did the trick up Helmville Canyon, keeping the revs above 2000 rpm and pulling right along.  Traffic proved not to be a problem this day.

Break time:  Nearly 2:00 p.m., Trixi’s Antler Café at Ovando, Montana.  Chiliburger for breakfast (which I’d skipped) and lunch combined.

Parking lot at Trixi’s Antler Café.

Back on the highway, 3 1/2 miles west, dive down off the highway just west of the Monture Creek bridge, and….yay, everything held together.  Through the gate, up onto the property, wind around, climb, jam through the low spot.  Hitch did plow a shallow trench there for a foot or two, but no big.  Up over the final rise, turn around, back carefully down, and it’s time to go to work.

Photos of the fence-making process would have been nice but I didn’t dare.  Getting the work done was simply more important.  I had to keep my laser-like focus, make the decision to build a four-rail rather than a three-rail fence (knowing I had plenty of rails), lining up each crossbuck post set so the fence remained straight and true (nothing uglier than a wavy fence line constructed by somebody who obviously doesn’t know–or doesn’t care–what he’s doing), etc.

A few of the rails were one step away from being petrified, they were so hard.  Leaning on the impact driver for all I was worth, adding a bit of arm squeeze and burning through battery juice like crazy, several of the screws tested things to the limit.

Got it done, finally, at 6:30 p.m. in a light, Oregon style rain.  Took a few pictures despite the precipitation, holding one hand over the camera to keep it from getting wet.    The fence looked good.  I even got cocky and jumped down from the top rail a time or two, slamming my boots on the ground hard enough to remind me that I land harder than I did half a century ago but doing no damage.  Hot diggety.

Completed jackleg fence section, seen from the back side while standing on my property.

Viewed from my neighbor’s side, “the cow’s view.” (Since I have no livestock on the property at present.)

Another angle.

The new jackleg fence section should last for decades.  It’s also taller, with more rails per section, than the older, rotten stuff.  Even so, that “old stuff” combined with terrain, vegetation, and scrap, provides a decent barrier to bovine grass prospectors.  All in all, this portion (down to Monture Creek) should be okay, even if two thirds of it does depend greatly on Mother Nature.

Where the old meets the new.

See the seeming “leaning” angle of that old post?  That’s a hint.  Right past that point, the slope drops down again, abandoning the level “cattle walkway” and plunging toward Monture Creek.

An old section, reinforced by natural vegetation growth and bolstered with oodles of scrap.

That’s really a downhill drop in the above photo.  The picture just didn’t manage to make it obvious.

Farther downslope. Note the old fence’s “juniper reinforcement.”

On the way back down the hill, I did get to see several “wild-flying” birds. Don’t know their species, couldn’t get a picture, but they flapped their wings at incredible speed while mostly hovering in place, sometimes for a minute or more, then darted off and down, disappearing in the grass.

Farther down, one gopher scurried from hole to hole as the truck passed by in granny gear.

Out through the barbed wire gate, close the gate, scramble up on Highway 200, cross the bridge, turn in to the main Holy Waters gate, and…whew.  And what a relief it is, a decent shift and no disaster.  Now for a place to–there.  Drop the trailer, chain and padlock it to a cottonwood tree, just enough to keep honest folks honest.  The ranch may not have any trespassers in the near future, who knows?  Plus, any self respecting thief would be ashamed to steal that trailer.  But come colder weather, I’ll be absent for the many months of winter around here.

For that matter, I’m only there once a week as it is.

Thus ends the first installment of the cowstopper saga, jackleg fence style.  It’ll be time next week to take a second look at the stretch of barbed wire fence west of the new jackleg section.  If memory serves, there are two places where the wire needs repair, tightening and splicing and maybe replacing a post or two.

In the meantime, let’s close with a photo from last week, a small plant with pink-and-yellow flower petals, the pink ones being heart shaped.  No clue what they are, except that they’re pretty cool.

Mystery “pink heart petal” flowers in Powell County, Montana.

Wait.  There’s one more, a bush with red-orange berries.  As a kid, we called these “gooseberries” but it’ turns out that’s inaccurate as gooseberry bushes have thorns and these do not.  As nearly as I can tell, this is the common bearberry aka Kinnikinnick, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. 

Kinnikinnick, also known as common bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.


5 thoughts on “Powell County, Montana: Cow Stopper Jackleg Fence

  1. Jeez, now you’ve made me feel inadequate! LOL
    I didn’t know what a Jackleg Fence was, but your pictures mad it evident that you basically set up an X of unburied posts as the ases, and the weight of the posts and rails keeps the fence in place! WOW! Your jackleg fence is truly nice to look at, is relatively child safe, and looks strong enough to handle a buffalo stampede! LOL I wonder if that same strategy would serve to allow you to build another fronteir fort, but one that can handle Montana Blizzards… I’m sure there’s a reason why no one has done it yet, but the thought came to mind… Of course, then you might have to call it a fronteir bunker…. 😉

    What really impressed me is how quickly you put it together, getting materials, transporting and putting them together, by yourself, in just one day. I remember how much time it would take for me to clear out paths with my machete and the two weekends it took to clear out and prepare a water hole for the family, and how this influenced me NOT to try to build any structures there, though I had bamboo galore. FYI, bamboo required a chain saw and was not at all easy to cut down in the mountain side… Maybe with a team of people we could have done more, but I didn’t have the strength, skills, experience nor battery powered drills and drivers that could have handled making fences and other building projects as you did… 😉
    Thanks for the story, Ghost.

  2. I have always admired the look of jackleg fences. I have seen many of them, while living in TN. Rarely saw them elsewhere. Mostly decorative places elsewhere. They only work well for keeping larger animals in or out, not dogs or goats. Looks like you did a nice job.

  3. Manny: Didn’t mean to make you feel inadequate. I can say that tackling the conditions you had would most likely leave me feeling that way in pretty short order. Yes, I did transport and build this in one day, but like Abraham Lincoln with his preference for chopping down a tree (5 hours sharpening his axe, 1 hour chopping), there was a fair amount of prior preparation here, too–including visits to the chiropractor. Overall, the one full day of work that produced visible results was preceded by four or five partial days of prep work. 😀

    Your description of the construction is correct, lacking only mention of the occasional diagonal brace rail on the back side. (I could have gotten by with a single brace rail for that little stretch but as you know I tend to overbuild a bit and I had extra rails left over, so….)

    The fence wouldn’t likely stop a buffalo stampede. In reality, not much does. Except a cliff. As for a Montana, upgraded version of the Border Fort (Frontier Fort), I would like to build exactly that–but won’t, for the following reasons:

    1. Building codes. Inspectors would likely have a cow if I tried anything too radical for the times (i.e. 21st century).

    2. Appearance. For the Border Fort, that’s exactly what I wanted–both structure and “look” that warned potential bad guys, “Hey, this place is ready, do ya feel lucky?” With endless streams of illegals rolling across the border and through our property on their way north, it made total sense. But at Holy Waters, I have to strike a balance–include defensive features where possible but without making the place look too different from the neighbors’ houses. Basically, keep a relatively low profile, shunning undue attention. Even though the building site is mostly shielded from the highway and there are no other houses within sight, the home’s appearance will be known in a rural community like this one. A frontier bunker’s advantages would be offset by the area’s collectively raised eyebrows.
    Becky: I like the look of them, too. I’ve seen quite a few in western states, especially sagebrush-covered Wyoming, though many of those are older and get replaced with barbed wire when they’re no longer of any use. Like you say, they’re not meant to exclude dogs or goats. For cattle and horses, though, they work well.

    Your compliment on my “nice job” is appreciated. Even though I’d never built any before, the work was straightforward and enjoyable.


  4. Cool fence, Ghost. How long did it take you to build it?

    You mentioned you’re only in town about a day per week. Are you spending time with Pam? Where will you go come summer?

    That beautiful pink and yellow flower almost looks like a type of orchid. Sure is pretty!

  5. Thanks, Sha. It took roughly 8 to 12 hours of work to clear out the old, worthless fence line (which included a number of young juniper trees that had grown up in the way). A few more hours were spent securing a trailer and getting the posts & poles to the site. Actual build time was 3 1/2 hours, including cleanup.

    To clarify the topic of being “in town about a day per week,” the situation is this:

    1. Pam lives in southern Arizona, full time.

    2. I live in Deer Lodge, Montana, full time–distance between our front doors, 1,325 miles.

    3. After moving Pam back to Arizona in late April of 2018, I was “absent” from her roof for one full year. It took me most of that time to recover from caretaking over a 21 1/2 year period. Pam lives alone–except for two young Main Coon Cats I brought to her on Mother’s Day, when I was at her home for 11 days. Interestingly, we both seem to do better living under separate roofs now than we were doing together 24/7. However, we talk on the phone most days, and sometimes more than once per day. And her son has really stepped up to the plate, always on call, running errands, chauffeuring, fixing things around the rental that are easier to fix than bug the landlord about, etc.–despite having his own family as well.

    4. The “one day per week” is the time I’m spending during good weather at Holy Waters Ranch, a bare-ground acreage near Ovando, Montana. Distance between Deer Lodge and the ranch gate: 75 miles. I intend to build there someday, getting back out of town, although as towns go, Deer Lodge is for me “the best.” In the meantime, I’m doing little bits of fencing (once per week) to (a) feel I’m bonding with the ranch and to (b) demonstrate to my ranching neighbor that I’m one of the good ones.

    Never thought about that flower looking like an orchid. In real life, it grows in stands–several hundred plants in the group from which I chose this specimen. Each plant stands straight and alone, about 8 inches high, with “stuff” growing out of the stems, all the way from the ground up. The flowers are no more than 3/4 of one inch across, at most.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.