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Remove Crop Drainage Terraces From 40 Acres

 
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First Permies post. Apologies if it’s too long.

We are buying 40 acres in south central Kansas and eventually want to get to a system with elements from Mark Shepard, Geoff Lawton, Joel Salatin, Greg Judy…etc.  we are thinking lots of grazing, lots of fruits and nuts, growing enough food to eat for free and recreation. Swimming, fishing, biking, hiking.  We don’t have a plan yet but we need to do something with this tilled crop ground. We are thinking cover crops and manure over the next couple of years while we build a home and get fencing up.

Eventually rainwater retention will be paramount because we’ll water might not be available or may be salty.

Currently has drainage terraces that are failing and creating new drainage gullies.  Don’t have money for water retention earthworks yet. For cover crops and building biomass until we come up with a real plan should we fix the terraces and let it function as it has for years or should we completely smooth it out, remove the terraces, plant cover crops and begin the evaluation period with a clean slate?  See where the water wants to go if this land topography was restored to what we think it naturally looked like?

It is flatter than it looks in the photos. Only 1 10’ contour line on the whole property.  Alluvial Plane, on the border between Tallgrass and Mixed Grass Prairie.

We are thinking if we can’t find we’ll water, our structures will be up high and built tall to use gravity to water animals.

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to move a lot of soil in efficient manner a bulldozer and someone who knows how to run it is invaluable , contour you property once and it's done.
just be sure you know what you want done ahead of time. this is assuming you have lots of good topsoil to begin or else top soil will have to be scraped up first, then recontour and respread top soil.
but this is just one opinion based on my previous experience.
 
pollinator
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For now I would focus on just the 2acre fenced in portion where your house sits. You can plant 1acres of fruit and nut trees (180trees on 15ft center) and a 1/4acre vegetable garden. 4 beehive and chicken coop for egg-layers and meat chicken. After you are done with that initial 2acrr you can expand and tackle the other 38acres
 
Rob Lancaster
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Thanks. We are not buying the house. It is a big expensive, probably inefficient house.  Land is 45 acres and that 5 acre homesite will be split off.  We will end up with a mostly square property with a square notch in the NW corner.  We are living renting in town 10 minutes away.  We will build on the property after an evaluation period helps determine the homesite.
 
Rob Lancaster
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We don’t know exactly what the plan will be but in the meantime we think building soil biomass and erosion control are the priorities.

We want to repair the soil as best as we can while also planning out a homesite.

We feel like doing nothing with it will result in a lot of weed pressure and deeper gullies. We don’t think that water retention is in the budget right away so this would be to just do something beneficial while we plan.  We were thinking cereal rye, manure and maybe sorghum-Sudan to get as much organic matter into this soil as possible before we plant a beef pasture mix in a few years. Once that is established we can begin planting trees, creating silvopasture, food producing perennials while grazing cattle.

That’s the pie in the sky dream but for now we feel we need to do something to set us up for future success.
 
S Bengi
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Ahh, I thought that the house was part of the package. I agree with your idea of just planting a cover crop some winter rye, daikon/tillage radish and clover. Those 3 will boost your soil fertility.

After that I like the idea of focusing on just a 2acre+ portion of the land and put in 1/4 acre vegetable garden, mulch the walkway(it can do double duty with a oyster/wine cap mushroom harvest). A 1acre orchard/food forest. Chalk out the floorplan of your future house/workshop/garage/bermed-greenhouse/etc. Maybe a 1acre pond too. I would also seriously consider fencing out that area too.

Next would be getting electricity onsite.

I would also check craiglist/etc for a cheap machine on sale so that you can slowly do some earthworks.
 
master steward
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Rob, welcome to the forum!

If I were buying this property and didn't want erosion from rain and wind, I would use winter ryegrass though that is a large area to seed.

Usually, winter ryegrass dies when the temperatures get warm.

Consider if you don't seed what will happen? Weeds, maybe?  Maybe just sow winter ryegrass around where you will first start using the land, especially where you want to have a garden. Similar to what Bengi said, "planting a cover crop some winter rye, daikon/tillage radish and clover.".

I would also plan what grasses I would want in my pasture area.  Look at what grasses are native to your area.

I am sorry that I can't answer your question about removing crop drainage terraces.  To me, it looks like the previous farmer used care to make those crop rows. So maybe he knew what he was doing?
 
Rob Lancaster
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Yeah I like the idea of developing a small homesite first, planting cover crops on the rest and building that soil until we can put in fencing and a native pasture grass. Maybe graze that 37-ish acres for a few years and then move on to developing the rest.

So, it seems like the least amount of work would just be to seed it as is and let the water go where it wants. The risk is multiple drainage gullies.

Probably the second-least amount of work would be to repair the current terraces so that there is only one main drainage. This doesn’t sound like a bad idea because while we are planning what to do, erosion is kept to a minimum.

Thoughts?
 
S Bengi
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Alot of folks import straw/woodchip to their 2acre homesite. But you have 37acre to harvest it from. And you will know exactly what it in it. No plastic, no pesticide, no seeds, etc. So to will be building fertility in your homesite at a 10x rate. And the remaining 37acre will still have some fertility from the roots that is left in the soil
 
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Do you intend to continue tilling the land? If not I think your gullies may resolve with time anyway. One shallow land like that it is likely only an issue when the soil is not covered by plants.

What is your climate like?
 
Anne Miller
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Rob said, "it seems like the least amount of work would just be to seed it as is and let the water go where it wants. The risk is multiple drainage gullies.



I might be wrong though, to me, it looks like the farmer made his crop rows on contour, especially when a person looks at the straight rows on adjacent fields.

Once a person gets in a cover crop of some type the water will flow to the natural contour.  If the soil is bare then the multiple drainage gullies might happen that is why a cover crop is important.

If this were my property I would try to seed a cover crop on as much land as I could afford to keep the erosion to a minimum.

Getting started on a black slate property comes with a lot of costs.  If this were my property I would make a list of what is most important financially and to make the property a home if that were what I planned to do with the property.

In my case, it was fencing because we got a great deal on fencing while we were waiting on our other house to sell.

Then we needed a place to live so that was the second most important item on our list. Then came the tractor because grass has to be mowed and the garden needed to be tilled.

Then came animal housing and a place to park the tractor and other farm equipment.

Animals, plants, trees for us were added slowly as we could afford them.

Take it slow and do a lot of planning.

 
Rob Lancaster
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My vision for it has been grazing meadows separated by wooded areas. Maybe on contour.

We do not intent to till going forward.  We will eventually plant perennial pasture mix. We would just plant the pasture mix now but I’ve read and heard on podcasts that if you don’t get a good base of biomass onto the soil first from cover crops, manure…etc, then the pasture mix might fail.

Climate is Temperate, zone 6b. Very cold, dry winters, very hot, humid summers. 34” of rain annually with high percentage of it coming early in the growing season

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First Permies post. Apologies if it’s too long.


First, I just want to give you a shout out.  Rob, I think your first forum posts, including their length, are perfect!  Bonus points for getting those aerial snapshots and climate/rainfall information.

You have succinctly stated your:

Long term and short term goals:
  • "Grazing, lots of fruits and nuts, growing enough food to eat for free"
  • "...and recreation.  Swimming, fishing, biking, hiking."
  • "My vision for it has been grazing meadows separated by wooded areas. Maybe on contour."
  • "building soil biomass and erosion control are the priorities"


  • Desired system style/methods:
  • "Mark Shepard, Geoff Lawton, Joel Salatin, Greg Judy"-inspired
  • No till
  • "beef pasture mix in a few years"


  • Challenges:
  • No formal site plan yet
  • Bare ground
  • Fresh water sources TBD
  • Gullies and erosion; earth works budgeting not established
  • Cold winter
  • Hot summer
  • "34” of rain annually with high percentage of it coming early in the growing season"


  • So, here is my novice opinion:

    Trust the "Scale of permanence".  Some things are harder to change than others.  Here's the scale I like to reference:

    Edible Forest Gardens page 193, Jacke & Toensmeier wrote:Climate
    Landform
    Water
    Legal issues
    Access and circulation
    Vegetation and wildlife
    Microclimates
    Buildings and infrastructure
    Zones of use
    Soil (fertility and management)
    Aesthetics


    My recommendation is to focus maybe 85% of your energy on observation and developing the mainframe design and base map for your dream-site with:

    1. Landform
    2. Water
    3. Access

    And then maybe 15% for trial plantings and experimentation.  Kudos to you for thinking about soil health, but take note that soil health is way down there at the bottom of the list.  You are right to prioritize the flow of water.  It affects virtually everything.  Soil health can change way more quickly than landform, water, and access.

    So if you haven't already, get a journal and base map started.  Find micro-ridges and fingers.  Consider how your main access roads and paths can one day follow these ridges.  Find micro-valleys.  Discover and mark out all key points, thinking about how future swales could be started on contour, with dams and ponds built to take water on its "longest path" through the land.  Chart the path of erosion with a GPS, and think of ways to slow it down.

    As you do this, mark all noteworthy points with the tallest bamboo or stakes or posts you can freely source.  That way, if and when a heavy machinery earthworks opportunity comes your way, it will be easy to say "follow along these posts, I want the pond started at that flag off there in the distance, and a swale continuing along these markers"

    On a cold day, note un-obstructed wind directions in winter.  As it snows, note what spots are warmest and melt quickly, perhaps such information will help with finding good protected locations for animal shelter some day.  Discover highest and lowest points and mark them too.

    This post-tillage, post-herbicide (I assume) snapshot is a great opportunity for deeper understanding of the land absent vegetation.   It will be way harder to analyze the land shape in just a year from now, unless you have machinery to knock back succession to near soil-level.  Recall that dormant seed banks last +100 years, so with this latest land disturbance and management change, all those weeds and latent seeds are going to explode with joy come spring.  

    As the nun in Sound of Music says,

    "Climb every mountain, search high and low, follow every byway every path you know...ford every stream...follow every rainbow until you find your dream".    

    Even if your "mountains" are only 10ft elevation gain, and your streams are just gullies right now, they are still important.  Now is a good time for observation and planning.

    P.s. Edit to add: this site might come in handy:  https://kfs.mybigcommerce.com/
     
    Rob Lancaster
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    Thanks. This is really good stuff. Questions below.

    “focus maybe 85% of your energy on observation and developing the mainframe design and base map”

    I take this to mean:  don’t plant cover crops to control erosion, watch and plan.

    “You are right to prioritize the flow of water.  It affects virtually everything.”

    So should I repair the failed terraces, get water where the old farmer wanted it to go or simply observe this water flow until I’m ready to implement my plan?

    “get a journal and base map started.  Find micro-ridges and fingers.  Consider how your main access roads and paths can one day follow these ridges.  Find micro-valleys.  Discover and mark out all key points, thinking about how future swales could be started on contour, with dams and ponds built to take water on its "longest path" through the land.  Chart the path of erosion with a GPS, and think of ways to slow it down”

    My dad has a surveyors transit. I can learn to use that but is there some other way that I can use tech to do this. Is there an application that uses GPS to create a 1’ contour map? The best contour map I can find has 10’ contour lines. Not very useful in flatland.  Where do the 2+ concrete spillways fall into the plan.  Seems like they could be beneficial as spillways in the design. Maybe go ahead and make a contour line of stakes from those as well?  Not sure what is meant by chart the path of erosion with a GPS.  Where do I go to learn about doing the things in the above quoted paragraph?


    “It will be way harder to analyze the land shape in just a year from now, unless you have machinery to knock back succession to near soil-level.  Recall that dormant seed banks last +100 years, so with this latest land disturbance and management change, all those weeds and latent seeds are going to explode with joy come spring.”

    Again, I read this as:  just watch and let the weeds come up.  I can probably mow close to observe. In-fact, I should probably mow right before weeds go to seed to prevent more weed seeds.  Land has deep plow ruts. My grandparents let plow land go to pasture in the 70’s and to this day it is still very bumpy. Should I disturb it one last time (whether or not we are planting cover crops for erosion) with a cultivator or leveler to really get everything smooth before observing then let it grow and observe.

    “streams are just gullies right now, they are still important.  Now is a good time for observation and planning.”

    Let the gullies be and grow during observation or repair terraces and plant cover crops, don’t repair terraces and plant cover crops?

    Recurring theme question: simply observe or make small, temporary landform and water flow changes to reduce erosion while observing?
     
    George Yacus
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    “focus maybe 85% of your energy on observation and developing the mainframe design and base map”

    I take this to mean:  don’t plant cover crops to control erosion, watch and plan.


    I think what I was trying to convey with that statement is: if given limited resources, time, and energy (both mental & physical):
  • Cover crops are good.
  • Controlling erosion is better.
  • Aligning all of your short term efforts with your long term plans is the best!

  • Quality observation helps with developing quality plans.  In other words: the permaculture principle of Observation -- it pays to have "protracted and thoughtful observation" and strategy rather than jumping into lots of immediate or long term labor.  How long is "protracted"?  Longer than expected/usual.  So that's why I (arbitrarily) picked 85%.  

    I think getting cover crops down will certainly improve the soil everywhere, help slow erosion, and buy you time as you get a little closer to understanding your long term goals and how it could look on the property.  But is it the best decision to sow cover crops where you know a road will be built, or where a barn will go, or a pond dug, or a forest planted, or a "Zone 5" wilderness re-established?  Maybe not.  It depends on your own personal risk tolerance for "prototyping" and making early design decisions.  

    Certain areas could be staked out or marked, dug up or cordoned off, or spot mulched with perhaps pioneer trees planted or perennial seeds sown rather than cover cropping it all.  Maybe certain patches and strips of area become immediate trial plots, rather than cover cropping the full area, in an attempt to "obtain a yield", or to perhaps advance a food forest succession, or perhaps to develop nursery seed acclimated to the site.  For instance, if you plant, say, 100 pioneer trial plants this spring using a variety of methods in the right general locations, and most survive and go to seed, now you won't have to buy nearly as much nursery stock later on, or you'll learn what doesn't work well.

    So should I repair the failed terraces, get water where the old farmer wanted it to go or simply observe this water flow until I’m ready to implement my plan?


    I confess I'm having trouble visualizing these failing "drainage terraces".  I think of a terrace as a nice vertical-ish riser and a mostly flat, horizontal-ish bench, with maybe a "contour bund".  Terracing is amazing for nutrient retention, and I can't wait to build some myself!  But whether to repair them or not depends on your goals:
  • Responsibly preventing water from eroding other's roads, structures, and settlements is an ethical goal.
  • Slowing that water and sinking it into the ground is a solid future-climate resilience goal.
  • Preventing nutrient and soil flow off-site, and channeling it to production systems is a time-tested permaculture goal.
  • Channeling that water into a future pond oasis is a beautiful recreational goal.

  • So if repairing the terracing gets you to such goals, go for it!  But if somehow the "broken" terracing is actually helping you, then it isn't really broken, it's a "design feature" :)  All depends on your goals.

    It is definitely good to think about what the old-timers were trying to do, as there is always a great amount of wisdom encapsulated in the "old ways" and folks.  I think Anne Miller is correct, and the previous farmer may have worked his machines mostly on contour.  That could save you a lot of mental design work.   But it could also be that the farmer based it on other things, like existing access lanes going to/from their homesite, or simply the square shape of the property lines.

    But the better questions are not necessarily where did the old farmer go, and where did they want the water to go, but:
  • Why did he set it up the way it was and how did it fall into disrepair?  Is there a better way to prevent it from breaking again?
  • Where (and why!) is nature taking the water, and compare that to
  • Where do you want the water to go, and why?

  • How (and over what period of time) you choose to observe the land in order to make quality decisions is up to you:  
  • Those awesome aerial photos you shared are an excellent form of observation.  
  • Your one-line contour map is another, and there may be other county or US gov maps floating around.
  • Going back in time on Google Earth to see which areas are greener (and therefore wetter) is yet another form of observation.  
  • Walking out there (safely) on a rainy day is a direct observation method.  


  • Talking about observation segues into surveying and mapping.  

    My dad has a surveyors transit. I can learn to use that but is there some other way that I can use tech to do this. Is there an application that uses GPS to create a 1’ contour map? The best contour map I can find has 10’ contour lines. Not very useful in flatland.


    I keep thinking about buying a transit, but I've held off on doing so for my design site.  I doubt you would need 1' level of contour detail for a basic understanding of where the water is flowing and what the land is doing and where to put your main roads.  But learning the transit seems like it will pay off and be super helpful come installation time.  Maybe you could even write a post here on permies about your experience learning to use a surveyor's transit?

    Regarding mapping technology, this thread might help a little bit.  I'm still looking for a quality Android app myself:

    https://permies.com/t/154356/Mapping-apps

    Of course there are other solid lower-tech methods like bunyip water levels and A-frames.  There is something to be said for just analyzing the map you have, and then going out there and saying "Yup, here's a key point for later" or "that little spot would be a great place for a pond, let's mark it out."  And then marking off any contour lines from those critical points for later reference.  

    And compare it all to those pictures.  There's a lot to learn even from the comfort of one's chair.  I've attached a quick mark up of one of your photos.  My gut says that the yellow areas are downhill areas of erosive deposition.  It's a classic "branching" permaculture pattern, like a river delta.  And obviously those blue lines are where the water is washing during rain events.  So that's a potential energy flow to fill a pond, or move nutrients from an uphill animal setup downhill to production zones.  But I bet you could get even more utility if you can snake the water down through the landscape.  In between the blue lines at the yellow ellipse it is likely higher in elevation, and I bet it is more eroded and compacted due to the tractor turning the corner.  Those red lines might be mostly on contour, and could serve as a great reference to map out on GPS for elevation gain.  But since they converge they can't be on full contour.  And where do they seem to go?  To the former homesite.  So maybe they are helpful as a design reference, or perhaps the will need to be greatly modified to a different access path to your new Zone 0.  

    Sorry for the super long post, there's obviously a lot to think about!  And as a land owner, you get the pure freedom to do things however you deem best.  You may feel a ton of societal pressure against you in choosing the "permaculture path" compared to the "conventional" ag around you, but don't let that temper your dream!
    Access-Erosion.png
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    Anne Miller
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    I keep wondering if one of these permaculture artisans looked at or bought that property, what would they do?

    eventually want to get to a system with elements from Mark Shepard, Geoff Lawton, Joel Salatin, Greg Judy…etc.



    Maybe their advice would be very similar to what George has suggested.
     
    pollinator
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    I'm still puzzling over the photos. Were these ridges or erosion control. How deep are these ridges? Were they intended to drain water? Or was the idea to retain blowing snow in winter?

    Here's the wild card: If this was leased/rented land, the farmer would be using absolutely gigantic equipment, sometimes covering the width of a football field. I may be wrong, but the pattern I'm seeing suggests someone doing the best possible with a gigantic machine in a tight space.

    My 2 cents.
     
    Rob Lancaster
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    George’s advice is amazing. I need to ponder on it a while.

    “still puzzling over the photos. Were these ridges or erosion control. How deep are these ridges? Were they intended to drain water? Or was the idea to retain blowing snow in winter?”

    These terraces for erosion control. They are slightly off contour, slow water down and direct it to the small concrete spillways in the main draw.  They are far enough off of contour to not work as swales Here is some info on them from ncrs.  These are broad base terraces. Used widely in Kansas to control erosion in crop fields.

    Hopefully the link works. Still a newb to posting in forums.

    https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs142p2_006954.pdf
     
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