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Too much water.....Sometimes, How to build swales  RSS feed

 
Don Goddard
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This is my first time on this website and I am having a little trouble grasping how it is structured, so cut me some slack if I am not posting this in the optimum forum. However this is a project issue so I think this is the right place.

I am a retired engineer/professor living with my wife on 20 acres measuring 1/8 mile N-S by 1/4 mile E-W Located on the Ozark Plateau in Missouri
It is bisected into the front and back 10 acres by a ridge running pretty much N-S and "Roughly" bisected bt a crooked ridge runing basically E-w. The intersection of the ridges is pretty much in the center and is about 30+ feet in elevation above the two low points. The house iies essentially on the east end of the E-W ridge over at the NE corner. and it is down hill in every direction from the house so there is no flooding issue for the house. I have a 1.8 acre pond on the South East quadrant of this land about 50 yards from the house.

Here is my problem. Just west of the house there is a low spot at the edge of a "grassy field" which drains into it. My "conventional garden" is between the lowest spot and the grassy field. Twice this year my garden has flooded due to run off from the grassy field. Once in the spring when the plants were first getting growing (which devistated many plants but but not all as some were able to tolerate the water, more or less.)

My intention is to steal a page out of the permaculture play book by establishing swales across the "grassy field" in order to retain that water on the field . I have been watching videos on swale building and since I am an engineer most of it seems very straightforward to me. The question I have is how to go about doing this.

AVAILABLE EQUIPMENT:
22 HP TRACTOR
SUBSOIL PLOW
4 FOOT WIDE ROTARY TILLER (TRACTOR MOUNT)
5 FOOT WIDE GRADER BLADE

ALSO AVAILABLE TO MAKE STUFF
MACHINE SHOP (LATHE, MILL, WELDER, HYDRAULIC PRESS ETC.)

SOIL TYPE AND ISSUES
CLAY SOIL, MODERATELY HEAVY
LOTS OF ROCKS AND THE OCCASIONAL BOULDER
HARD PAN

My intended approach to this swale building project (never done this before which is why I am seeking advice) will be to take the following steps

MOW OR BURN OFF THE FIELD TO GET ACCESS TO THE SURFACE FOR LAYING OUT CONTOUR LINES
the (field is currently waist deep in grasses, etc & burn off is considered to reduce weed seed load.

LAY OUT CONTOUR LINES.
the field is about 70 yards long up and down the slope.

FOLLOW THE COUNTOUR LINES WITH THE SUBSOIL PLOW
This will make tilling easier and dislodge rocks and boulders as well as break the any hard pan. making tilling easier and allow the tiller to run full depth more easily. In moist soil plow will run to about a 16 inch depth


ROTARY TILL THE SOIL ALONG THE COUTOUR LINES FO A SINGLE WIDTHOF THE TILLER.
This is to loosen the soil where the swale depression is to be made and the berm thrown up.

SET THE GRADER BLADE TO THE MAXIMUM TILT AND FOLLOW THE CONTOUR LINES
The maximum tilt is 6 inches deeper on one end than the other and with multiple passes throw up a berm and dig out the swale.


I have no budget beyond being able to fuel the tractor for this exercise, so the objective is to work with the tools I have. Renting an excavator or hiring someone to do the work is out of the question. So the trick will be to make a deep enough swale and a high enough berm with what I have. I can readily repeat the subsoiling and tilling of the the soil to get more loose earth out of the depression and up on the berm. Fortunately this field was apparently tilled and rock raked by the previous owner and I have previously tilled and rock picked the field to the depth of one pass of tilling. But tilling is best done with the tail board up so it can throw the rocks out the back when it finds them. Getting tons of rock out of a single acre of native soil is easy to do, there are lots of them!.

My technological questions here are?
1. Would this be a practical / doable way to establish swales
2 Is this likely to solve my run off problem that is flooding my garden
3. How many swales should I attempt to establish in the 75 yard long slope if the change in elevation is on the order of 10 feet
4. How hight should the berms be above the native soil surface or above the dug out swale
5. What would be good choices for seeding the burms with to stabilize them against erosion

Of course, assuming I get the swales established and stable I can then look into varieties of productive plants for on the berms in in the intervening space.

Ok, that is my ice breaker post, Feel free to comment

Oh by the way about 3/4 of my land is forested now, and the back 10 acres was scraped off with a buldozer about 20 years ago to make a pasture but has since reverted to oak forest with a few large trees that were not bulldozed . The oak that filled in the rest is just getting beyond the brushy stage but is mostly small not exceeding about 2-3 inches trunk diameter at breast height.

P.S.
A few comments on my hard pan.
There is a fence dividing my property running right along the North South ridge. When I acquired the property I needed a gate through the fence and built one and it required driving a few steel "T-posts". When the "spade plate" on the post was getting into the ground the bottom of the post hit the hard pan . To drive the post an inch or two farther so that the spade plate was entirely in the ground was difficult and the 20 lb post driver finally split the top of the post a bit. Subsequently after a survey established the correct south boundary line I hired a really big guy who could pick up an 8 foot long 8 inch treated end post on his shoulder and carry it 40 yards through the woods to its location. He hit the same hard pan in the forest and had to work long and hard with a heavy steel digging/tamping bar to break up enough of the hard pan to be able to get the post in the ground. Fortunately my single spike subsoil plow and 22 hp tractor seems to be able to get into the hard pan and break it up. The plow seems to get under it and wedge it upwards breaking the slab like structure of it. My point being that since that hard pan exists in the woods, that hard pan is essentially a natural feature of the soil and not necessarily the result of tillage practices. I guess the oaks and hickories can penetrate it as they seem to be thriving there.


 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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Welcome to permies!

You'll need an overflow from the swales in case they don't retain all the water - do you have an overflow route which avoids the garden area?

Is it possible for you to post a satellite view of the land so we can get a better idea of the features?
 
Don Goddard
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Tyler Ludens wrote:Welcome to permies!....... - do you have an overflow route which avoids the garden area?
No the low spot it is headed for is a bit of a bowl. By the time it fills up to find a path to drain the water is already into the lower edge of the garden If the inflow continues the whole garden goes under to a depth of 2 to 6 inches. I can get the water to go down faster by pumping it over the E-W ridge into my pond but that only shortens the submersion time and does not eliminate it. The best I could do would be to build a berm all the way around the garden and then make a diversion chanel that would re-route the water around the garden. My hope is that the swales will hold enough water that the low spot does not fill up until it floods the garden When the garden is 2 inches under the low spot is more like 4 feet under water if not more.

Tyler Ludens wrote:Is it possible for you to post a satellite view of the land so we can get a better idea of the features?
I thought about doing that but was not sure how photos are posted here and what the size limits are, let's see what I can come up with. If I do not run into size limits either pixels or file size this ought to make it. All the red dots show the trails I have cut through the woods. The N-S ridge approximately follows the line of the "cross-fence" show in white. The E-W ridge comes from the road (east boundary) between the pond and house up to the gate in the middle of the cross-fence and from there on west to just south of the large clearing.
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Our Land & Woods Trails
 
Don Goddard
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Well I tried to post a satellite picture of how our land lays but something went wrong because all that appeared was the image file name and the caption and I cannot find where the rules are that control the posting of pictures. So I will be glad to try again if anyone can tell me where the rules are so I can comply with them, but frankly this site does not work anything like any others that i have posted on so until I get the hang of it that picture probably won't appear. Unless of course the problem is that it is awaiting approval by a monitor before becoming visible.
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Second attempt
 
Burra Maluca
Mother Tree
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Don - check out some of the links on this page to help you settle in and find what you need to know http://www.permies.com/t/34193/tnk/permies-works-links-threads#267492
 
Rene Nijstad
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Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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Hi Don,

Just a couple of thoughts based on your information. I have no idea if any of them work, but there might be something helpful in these ideas. Try to find what is the least amount of work for the biggest effect. One thing in permaculture is not to pick fights that you cannot really win.

- maybe the bowl you describe can be dug out deeper and turned into a pond that holds enough water. Maybe you could dig a swale connected with it that can overflow excess water on the other side of the ridge?
- maybe a diversion swale around the garden can also overflow on the other side of the ridge if you could dig it all around it.
- how about raised garden beds, could that maybe help?
- maybe your garden is simply in a too complicated place and the whole area there could be a pond instead. Could you move your garden closer to the house, higher on your property instead?

Digging the swale you describe in your opening post sounds like a lot of work. Swales are not just water and erosion control systems, they are mainly tree growing systems, do you want trees in that part of the property?
 
Don Goddard
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Rene, I like your style of "bulleted" specific suggestions, but I am a retired engineer who has written a lot of specifications so I really identify with the organization of thoughts into line items rather than rambling paragraphs. This affectation of mine is about to become all the more apparant as I respond.


Rene Nijstad wrote: Swales are not just water and erosion control systems, they are mainly tree growing systems, do you want trees in that part of the property?
I would love to have orchard type trees planted there. I cannot grow grapes or apples where the previous owners planted them because that close to the pond during the fruiting season there are so many humid mornings during fruiting tha mold and fungi devastate those crops, and cedar trees are so common here that cedar-apple gall runs rampant. Peach and cherry do well but the birds go after the cherries with a vengence and there is an insect pest that stings the peaches and implants a grub that wastes more than half the harvest and virtually all the fruit is damaged. So that will require careful selection

Rene Nijstad wrote:- maybe the bowl you describe can be dug out deeper and turned into a pond that holds enough water. Maybe you could dig a swale connected with it that can overflow excess water on the other side of the ridge?
Digging out the bowl to increase its capacity is plausible but if I can cut down on the runoff that alone may be sufficient. As for making a pond,
a-- I already have one
b-- the bowl most likely exists because of a "sink hole" formation. At some depth below the soil there will be a limestone formation and once the water percolates through the soil it disappears, most likely into cracks in the bed rock. This is why there are so many caves in this part of missouri. When flooded the water will extend for about 135 feet by 75 feet but if the rain stops, the standing water that was as much as 5 feet deep will have pretty much disappeared, although the tractor can not yet traverse that area as it is about the consistancy of tooth paste for at least a couple more days. After that it is solid again.

Rene Nijstad wrote: - maybe a diversion swale around the garden can also overflow on the other side of the ridge if you could dig it all around it.
- how about raised garden beds, could that maybe help?
That is not particularly practical because
a. the ridge is about 5 or more feet higher than the garden
b. The pond is higher than the flooding in the bowl and garden and the pond would start to drain into the bowl. Curiously my pond has no spillway for over flow as the back side of the pond is lower than the the dam and before the pond could overtop the dam it would be draining over the ridge, though I cannot imagine a condition that could provide that much water. The only way a ditch could drain the bowl would require a ditch through my neighbor's woods and that is not an option he would favor.


Rene Nijstad wrote: - how about raised garden beds, could that maybe help?
That would require raised beds that were thigh high at least. If I can trap the water on the grassy field I suspect it would be the easier fix, and give me more productive area.

Rene Nijstad wrote: Digging the swale you describe in your opening post sounds like a lot of work.
Well since I am retired but still living an active life, that is not such a bad deal. And if I can leave this property in better condition than I got it that is satisfying and may actually get it to sell for more so that my inheritance will be bigger for my children. Since I have the tractor and implements, part of my original post was to seek how to best exploith those assets in the swale building project. It would keep me busy and be a fun, interesting, and rewarding thing to accomplish. Not having done this before, I figure that by describing my situation I might get some advice that will keep me from having to "re-invent the wheel" and on the other hand if I take enough pictures I might come up with some innovations others can use. I got a good fuel efficient tractor at a reasonable price (A Ford 1510 built in Japan by Shubaro) and put new tires on it. The tiller was a little pricey but for working in this kind of soil and incorporating organic material is unsurpassed (so far as I know) I built the subsoil plow from a scrapped out "bucket mount Bale Spike (for round bales) And I got the grader blade cheap (they are relatively inexpensive used around here)

Rene Nijstad wrote:- maybe your garden is simply in a too complicated place and the whole area there could be a pond instead. Could you move your garden closer to the house, higher on your property instead?
That thought has crossed my mind. Had I realized that that piece of land could flood from runoff i would not have put it where it is It is only 30'x30' presently and I have higher ground nearby. I have several years involved in improving the soil and I would hate to abandon that and it would not be out of the question to borrow the neighbor's implement that scoops up soil behind the tractor and then dumps it where you want when you pull the release. Then i could grade it out smooth with the grader blade. Alternatively I could just establish a new garden farther up the grade. However that approach would not give me any improvement to the surrounding ground. So if the swales will give me enough relief from the occasional flooding of the garden then that would be the best option . I am also considering a diversion around the garden in case the swales could not handle all the water in a wet year. Just a 30% to 40% reduction in the water that can reach the 'bowl" should be more than enough to correct the problem so overflow spillways in the berms would be allowable.

Does anyone who has read this thread so far have the ability to direct me to instructions for posting pictures. I think I could make things clearer with fewer words If I could post a few pictures that I already have.

And again, Rene, Thanks for the suggestions, even the ones I have considered before, your comments prompt additional thoughts and variations. I might be able to put raised beds in parts of the garden that are worst flooded and put the plants that are easily killed by flooding there(tomatoes peppers, beans, etc.) and plants that are not so ill affected (sqash, and sweet potatoes etc) in the shallower flooding areas. My wife would really like the raised beds I think.




 
Don Goddard
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And at that topic after several different attempts it was discovered that the file name of the image was not acceptable So now I repeat the picture here explaining the lay of the land and the problem.
As I said before and add a few things here
-- the N-S ridge roughly follows the white line designated as the cross fence.
-- the high point of the property is approximately at the gate in the cross fence.
-- The E-W ridge runs from where our driveway meets the road up to the gate and thence roughly from the gate to just south of the large clearing.
-- The pond is in the SE "quadrant"
-- The grassy field is mostly in the NE "quadrant"
-- Only the south edge of the grassy field drains to the pond. there is a foot path visible which follows the ridge.
-- most of the SE quadrant woods drains to the pond.
-- The east low point is roughly at the center of the dam which parallels the road
-- The other low spot is at the very SW corner of the tract and you can see a crease in the woods which is a gully that drains there.
-- Behind the house is a bamboo grove casting a shadow and behind that is the sewage lagoon,( tha circular feature is the berm around the lagoon)
-- The lowest point of the bowl is just at the west side of the berm around the lagoon.
-- A very tall hickory tree is casting a shadow which lies along the west edge of the garden which measures 30x30 feet and it is about 80 feet from the garden to the lagoon.
-- This picture is too old to show the garden as I had not yet established it there.

So now we know why my pictures have not been showing. But this is the very first time I have ever seen a site reject an attachment which met the a classic Linux File Naming conventions. Was this written with a Microsoft application maybe?

Well enough speculating about what the origin of the posting problem was, I have bigger problems as shown in the second picture. My 30x30 foot garden is marked at the corners by the posts in this second picture. This water arrived during the night. and some more the next day. The water got so hight that it extended through the bamboo grove behind the the house and a few feet into the lawn. The left side of the picture lies along the north boundary fence. Just beyond the garden, toward the house the ground falls off into the "bowl" and about half way from the garden that "puddle" is about 5 feet deep. it is only about knee deep at the east edge of the garden and this picture is taken from the west edge of the water. So fortunately the swales I propose would not have to hold all the water shown to protect the garden.

This much flooding happened once last summer and again this December. That is the first time it happened twice in one year. The previous time it was this bad was about 7.5 years prior in spring 2008 My objective would be to establish swales across the entire grassy field from theh E-W ridge to the north boundary in the grassy field from the garden up to the tree line just East of the cross fence. That is a lot of swale and ought to hold a lot of water The next morning after most of the flooding was done, There was still water running out from the part of the grassy field all the way from the E-W ridge

P.S. That white building is a repurposed car port to which I added siding and placed on a slab to become my tractor/implement shed recently and is not in the first image.
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Layout of our land with woods trails shown as red dots
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Flooding December 27, 2015
 
Rene Nijstad
Posts: 184
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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Don, did you see this? http://permaculturenews.org/2015/08/07/rapidly-cut-swales-with-tractor-blade/

Having seen the pictures now, I would definitely move the garden, mainly to put it closer to the house for convenience but also because of the size of that bowl in your landscape and the huge amount of water it can occasionally receive. You have a lot of open space around the house so you can avoid this fight with the water. I would also seriously think how to use this water collection recourse in a better way. I think it's a blessing that you simply already have this feature in your landscape.
 
matt hogan
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I would not use fire to get rid of the weed seeds. It can mess with your soil (nutrients, soil life). After making your swales, pepper the place with seeds from nitrogen fixers (think peas or beans) and put them thick enough that they will choke out unwanted plants. Then plant your other plants amongst the nitrogen fixers.
 
Don Goddard
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Oh! Rene, you are right on target again ! That is specifically relevant to what I have in mind to do! And what is more that is a mere 2 1/2 hour drive from where I live. I did notice that one of the concerns expressed in the comments is that the deep portion of the swale where the water will pool the deepest is away from the the the berm instead of next to it. That was an issue I was considering in my planning and I believe that issue is easily reversed by three possible methods readily available to the equipment I have. So perhaps I I have something to offer in the way of refinement. I would like to arrange a visit to the "heal the earth farm" in KoshKonong Missouri. to swap ideas with them

Rene Nijstad wrote:Having seen the pictures now, I would definitely move the garden, mainly to put it closer to the house for convenience
Actually my first attempt at a garden was there for about 2 years but the soil there is some of the worst I have, I believe that it may have been scraped off at the time the house was built for fill around the house and for a berm on the north sice of the pond to prevent high water from flooding the yard. or overflowing into the 'bowl" My reason for moving the garden to its present location was twofold. The soil at the present location is WAY BETTER there as it is aluvium that has washed in there over the years and is far richer and way deeper. The second reason is that of privacy, I am a naturist and I often garden naked. Up by the house lacks privacy from passing traffic on the road, and the soil is so poor along the road that my bamboo groves there are slow growing and do no yet provide full screening after several years. The lush growth of the bamboo seen in the second picture is due in part to the much better soil behind the house..

Rene Nijstad wrote:..... but also because of the size of that bowl in your landscape and the huge amount of water it can occasionally receive.
Alas the water is pretty useless there. It would serve much better if it stayed on the grassy field up the slope. That is the one area I have that is ventillated well enough that fruit trees or vines might stand a reasonable chance against the fungi that attack fruit trees and vines around the house. Also any water in the "Bowl" is soon lost as it apparantly does percolate several feet down until it gets to the limestone substrate and rabidly escapes into fissures in the rock. By some weird quirk the soil in this part of the state does not percolate well enough to allow for a typical drain field and for that reason sewage lagoons are quite common (they are ecologically more sound anyway!) But in areas subjected to flooding like my "bowl" once innundated they will percolate and for example that entire bowl of water disappeared in 7 ti0 10 days. For situations like my pond it apparantly takes a bit of expertise to get the clay just right so that the pond "seals" and holds water. As I say the water would serve me better if I could keep it on the grassy field which is why the permiculture swale approach appears so attractive to me.

Rene Nijstad wrote:You have a lot of open space around the house so you can avoid this fight with the water.
There is considerable value in that approach however If I go to the relocation approach I believe that the best move is to simply relocate the garden about 50 yards due south which would place it on the near level ground just on the north side of the ridge, but if I do that I would try to move the top 8 inches or so of the soil from the present garden, because as you might suspect the soil along the ridge is poor since a lot of the good stuff has naturally washed to lower areas over the years. The necessary equipment to do that is readily available to me.

Rene Nijstad wrote: I would also seriously think how to use this water collection recourse in a better way. I think it's a blessing that you simply already have this feature in your landscape.
Well If I did not already have an even larger stable pond (which came stocked with bass and crappies and bluegills)I would certainly consider what might be done with the bowl. But I really don't need the water there!. The resource is the water but not the location. or its concentration there. Hence the swale system seems the logical improvement to keep the water elswhere. I suspect that seeded to something that is grass like in nature would yield the best usage of that area as grasses will tolerate mild temporary flooding. Trees cannot go there as they would interfere with the function of the sewage lagoon which must be open to both wind and sun to function properly.

All that being said. Your recommended link about using a tractor grader blade for making swales was spot on with respect the information I have been seeking. You obviously have the sort of broad knowledge that a permi newbie like me needs to get up to speed. thanks much for the post.
Don.
 
Don Goddard
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matt hogan wrote:I would not use fire to get rid of the weed seeds. It can mess with your soil (nutrients, soil life). After making your swales, pepper the place with seeds from nitrogen fixers .......


I have had good luck with burn off previously on this field. Burned off during fall/winter weather the field came back in the spring with much less of a weed problem. The predominant cover at that time was tall fescue. It was later explained to me that this tall fescue around here is known to build up a strong "seed bank" in the soil (seeds which are viable but did not sprout in their first year) The field turned green as soon as spring arrived. The burn simply mimicked the effect of naturally occurring wild fires common to the ecology in the absence of man's intervention. However I subsequently tilled under the fescue and reseeded with what was supposed to be sweet clover to establish a bee crop and boost nitrogen and provide green biomass for composting. Alas either the seed was contaminated with weed seed or was not what it was supposed to be and all I got was some sort of plant of the aster family and some of the tall fescue from the seed bank and a few canadian thistles which are common in this region. very little clover was to be found in the field. Either it did not like the soil conditions or could not compete with the other plants very well. And yes I seeded the clover heavy according to the measure of the land. (I used areal photographs and an (engineering spreadsheet I wrote to get an accurate measure of irregularly shaped areas) of the field to assure proper seeding rate.

I can make the spreadsheet and technique available if anyone has need for it. It will for a few hours of computer time give you results about as accurate as if you hired a surveyor, However it will be for your own personal use, not for profit and should be freely shared and please retain my credit for the spreadsheet. It is a tool I freely gave to my students on the same terms for their own use.
The required resources are:
Access to a computer map service such as Google maps, mapquest, National Geographic maps, etc.
ability to capture map images from the screen (e.g. screen shots will suffice nicely)
Access to a computer digital photo application such as photoshop or Gimp (gimp is free by the way for Linux and Mac and Windows)
Access to and a minimal to moderate skill with a spreadsheet program such as will handle files with extensions like .xls (microsoft) or ods ("open office" usually on Linux) And probably MAC computers have an ability with one or both of those.
At least a highschool level concept of what Cartesian Coordinates are.

Of course the same thing can be accomplished with certain drawing programs or certain computer aided drafting programs so far as the calculations of area are concerned.
 
Miguel Henriques
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Hey Don Goddard

First of all, nice to meet you and congratulations on the amazing property you have!

I couldn't avoid replying to your concern.

I understand you might have different plans for the area, but as someone suggested before, are you sure you don't want an extra lake/pond??

From my experience, it's always w-a-y easier to work with water then try moving it away. I saw you mentioned that this has happened before, but now it happened 2 times in a year. That, in my opinion, is a great sign for you! You said that you wanted to use it as a grow area(correct me if I'm wrong), if that is the case, what exactly you are planning to grow there? If answered above, I might have missed it, if that's the case, ignore my question :p

Water is a fundamental resource, and we all know that we are depleting it pretty seriously. So I can't suggest anything else, other than work with the water you were blessed with .

Keep us updated on your situation. Best of luck!
(ps: yes, my first post here!!!, even though I have been around for a while)
 
Don Goddard
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Miguel Henriques wrote:.....I understand you might have different plans for the area, but as someone suggested before, are you sure you don't want an extra lake/pond??
Quite certain, for two reasons if no other.
When the water arives in such massive quantity it overflows into my sewage lagoon. While that does not stop up my sewage system and the dilution ratio is so immense that it might not violate any codes I would not want to have to try to build a different sewage system if anyone wanted to argue that.

Also to make this into a pond is not really a practical objective. The water seeps away too soon once an inundation occurs.The water does percolate through the soil but only under such flooding conditions does it appear to be a significant percolation rate. But because it does percolate it only stays for a matter of a week to 10 days and rapidly shallows out to finally nothing. Trying to seal that up so that it would remain a pond is out of the question, at least financially. and of no particular use as I already have a pond.

Miguel Henriques wrote:From my experience, it's always w-a-y easier to work with water then try moving it away.
But moving the water away is not the issue at all. I simply do not want it to arrive there in the first place. I want it to simply stay pretty much where it fell. It would be useful to me there and for that reason I want to build swales that will keep it on the "grassy field" That is where I need it. To allow the water to all run into the "bowl" is to lose it after about a week. I know this water is "run off water" because I have gone out in the rain, and right after the rain; and watched it flowing out of the grassy field ,and into the "bowl". It is nice to have plenty of water but letting it go there and accumulate temporarily simply does no good.

 
Don Goddard
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For those who went to the site that Rene suggested about using a tractor blade to make swales, but may be a bit unfamiliar with such an implement or this kind of use I thought you might find it interesting to view the results of an experiment I performed today in order to see how well my tractor and blade might be expected to perform such a task. Since I cannot embed the images in the text but they are only appended after all the text please reference the pictures in conjunction with the text or the text may not make much sense.

The left frame of the first picture shows the blade straight across the back of the tractor and dead level. In the most common arrangement of the 3 point hitch this means the blade can be lifted 10 inches above the ground and is a compromise between how high and how low it can go.

The middle frame of the first picture shows the more common position where the blade is still level but angled across the back of the tractor. In this case it has been rotated to its greatest extent of approximately 42 degrees and will throw off what it is plowing to the right side of the tractor.

The right frame of the picture show an example of what can be done to make the blade dig deeper at one side. In this view the low end of the blade clears the ground by 2 inches and the left end of the blade is 18 inches above the ground for a difference across the 5 foot width of this blade of 16 inches.

At this point I should interject a bit of information about implements. For doing swales with this blade I intend a 3 phase process as I work along the contour lines. First I will subsoil using my single spike subsoil plow which can run as much as 16 inches deep and it will do so in my clay soil if it is not dried out. That potential of depth is about as much as my tractor's power (22 hp engine, 19,98 hp PTO, 16.30 hp drawbar) and traction in this soil will readily handle. Note engine HP is the usual value cited for tractors. My tractor seems to be well sized for my soil and my subsoil plow.

For For grader blades the minimum power seems to be about 4 HP per foot of width of blade (mine is 5 ft)
For rotary tilling the minimum seems to be about 5 HP per foot of width. My tiller is 4 feet wide.

My reason for subsoil plowing is that there are large rocks in my soil that I from time to time encounter and the subsoiler is hefty enough that the tractor will not break it agains them but simply stall the tractor traction ability and the wheels start to dig.

By tilling with the tail board up, If I do encounter rocks the tiller will either jump over them or especially if I have already subsoiled it will throw them out the back on top of the tilled soil for easy picking.

The grader blade comes last because I am confident it will work more smoothly, swiftly and safely in loosened soil and not hit anything so well anchored as to damage the blade or hitch.

Two or 3 parallel passes will likely dig the swale and throw up a berm, if I read the article on swale building from the "Heal the Earth Farm" article correctly.

Moving on to the second picture. I should mention that there are more expensive grader blades that not only swivel around a vertical axis but also swivel around a horizontal axis aligned with the long axis of the tractor. But those cost a good bit more and offer only a bit more utility. However if one was going to build lots and lots of swales It should be possible to design a custom swale cutting blade.. Blades such as I have are less costly and are essentially plentiful.. In the second picture you can see how the 3 point hitch is adjusted to achiever the side to side tilt.

I cannot guarantee that my nomenclature for the various arms and links is standard but perhaps the annotated image will help this work out. The actually lifting force comes out of the hydraulic system by way of the "Hydraulic lift arms which move locked togeter as extensions of a shaft that is rotated by the hydraulic system. The one on the right is barely visible as only the top end of it is in the image but it is a mirror image of the left one." As the ends of the hydraulic lift arms move upward, the motion is transferred by the lift links. The left link may be attached at its lower end using any of the three holes on the end of the link making effectively longer or shorter to a length of 16.5, 18, or 19.5 inches. The lift link on the right is however continuously adjustable over a range of 16.5 to 23.5 inches which is a range of 7 inches. There is a note on this lift link that says "7 in. Exposed Maximum". This refers to how much of the threaded portion may be exposed. This was established when cleaning up the tractor and assures that the male threads are not disengaging from the 1 inch of female threads in the lower end of the assembly. It is a good idea to know this value with respect to your own tractor.

The careful observer will notice that the Hitch Arms which actually carry the implement also have 3 holes. The middle one of which is in use on both arms during this experiment. Using a hole closer to the tractor on these arms will lift the implement higher but can not lift as heavy an implement and using the hole farthest from the tractor will not lift as high or go as low, but will lift a heavier implement. Should it become necessary, the hole in the hitch arm closest to the tractor will not only allow lifting the implement higher, it will also allow lowering it into the earth deeper. The middle position readily handles my 556 lb rotary tiller and as the blade only weighs 230 lbs I could use the closer holes and may experiment with that. To achieve the tilt from end to end of the blade. the shortest possible lift link is used on one side and the longest possible lift link is used on the other side. Since both links at the shortest are 16.5 inches the left link was attached at its highest hole (shortest length), and that meant the screw adjustable right side link could be extended to expose 7 inches of thread, (longest length) . Because the lift links attach in the approximate middle of the lift arms that means that the at the implement the effect is nearly doubled. Likewise since the width of the imlement where the hitch arms attach is about half the blade width (on this grader blade implement) the effect is nearly doubled again.

Even though the lift arms can produce a very large tilt in the blade, all of it may not be usable. I found this to be the case because before I could get the maximum angle from one end of the blade to the other. The low end of the blade was touching the ground even though the hydraulic lift was all the way up. Hence I deemed I was about at maximum when the low end of the blade cleared the ground by 2 inches and the high end was 16 inches higher. I can likely get a bit more if I use the hole in the hitch arms that is closest to the tractor, but there was a little binding in the hitch arms and links which I need to investigate. I don/t think ithe binding was an unavoidable effect and was probably because the screw adjustable lift link was having to act as a jack to lift the entire implement. If the adjustable link is pushed upward too far while in use the adjustable link might end up having to lift up the rear of the tractor and that might not have been within the engineer's design specification for that link. So unless that link is especially "beefy" some discretion may be needed when taking the angle to an extreme,. and caution is advised.

Hopefully this information will prove useful to others considering this method of swale excavation.
Don

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Flexability of Blade Alignment
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How the tilt is changed in the 3 point hitch
 
Don Goddard
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Another issue arises in the matter of using a grader blade to cut swales that the owner-operator of the tractor needs to be advised of. Namely that the tractor very likely was not really built with this sort of work as a primary function of the tractor. This could lead to damage of certain tractor components. The primary original purpose of a tractor was to pull and originally the back end of the tractor came with only a drawbar. Only later was the ubiquitous 3 point hydraulic hitch added, and even then the primary purpose was just to allow the tractor to pick up the implement above the ground. The hydraulic lifting arms have always allowed the implement to be jostled or swung sideways but that was lagely an convenient afterthought. As a result the ability to resist lateral loads against the instrument is not necessarily robust. In the case of my own tractor side to side movement of the implement can be restrained by turnbuckles installed on each of the hitch arms as shown in the attached picture. below.

You should notice several points.
-- The turnbuckle attaches the hitch arm with an eye-bolt, but which is otherwise free to swing side to side,
-- The other end of the turn buckle is the solidly attached base plate of the roll bar which has no relative motion relative to the tractor.
-- The hitch arm is a flat bar which is desgned to lift a load and as most people know it is easiest way to bend a flat bar is by loads applied against the flat direction (for which reason its edge direction is oriented vertically.
-- The hitch arm has several holes drilled through it. which weaken it more in the direction against the flat and hardly at all in the direction against the edge.
-- There is a whole bunch of the hitch arm extending beyond where the eye bolt attaches the turn buckle to it (17 inches extending to be precise).
-- The more the load is applied beyond where the bar is supported, the easier it is to bend the bar.

Basically this hitch is designed to pull and is nowhere near as robust against lateral loads which are not usually all that great but in the case of a grader blade that is at an angle to the direction of motion is not really the case. The primary source of force against the hitch comes from the pulling force of the tractor, know as drawbar pull. When the grader blade is angled the angle of the blade serves to develop some pretty significant lateral forces, (especially if the blade hits an obstacle.

I am already getting a bit too wordy, but perhaps for the moment you will accept the expertise of a retired engineering professor whose specialty was Machine Design, when I say
A. The basic design of category 1, 3 point hitches will Try to carry the entirety of a lateral load on one and only one of the hitch bars.
B. After making an estimate of the strength of the steel in the hitch bar, I came up with, 590 pounds of lateal force against the implement would be expected to start bending the hitch arm!
C. After looking up the maximum draw bar pull of my little 22 hp tractor I found that to be 1900 lbs and at the least amount of angle the blade can be set to, under the right conditions hitting an obstacle with the blade when the surface of the blade and obstacle are slick but he tractor is getting good traction, the lateral force on the blade could amount to 787 pounds, (133% of the lateral load needed to bend the hitch arm).

I realize that several things need to happen at once for that to happen,but I think everyone here is familiar with Murphy's law.

Surely someone will read this and come back with a statement like, "Hey I saw a guy put in a mile of swales really fast with an 80 hp tractor and never had any damage to the machine". I have no problem with that so long as you understand, Loose soil with no embedded boulders, tree roots, or other obstacles can prevent large forces from developing. If the soil conditions will not allow full draw bar pull to be developed, then the forces will be accordingly lower. A large high power tractor may have a good bit more than just a category 1 hitch with a whole lot more strength. Someone may have effectively reinforced the hitch arms (I have often seen that especially when the bars have already been broken once). If the force required to bend a hitch arm is greater thanthe force to side-slip the tires then the lateral force may be limited to no more than the side-slip force, etc.. So for a variety of reasons some may have gotten away with just doing it without much care. However if your brother-in-law has offered to come and do the swale building using a grader blade and tractor, please be prepared, especially if it is your own tractor : .

Now should this post appear to be raining on your parade as you were planning to go out and using your tractor and grader blade to start a swale building business. Please take heart. As I haver already pointed out, pre loosening the soil can do wonders to lower the forces on the hitch, and a single spike subsoil plow is half or less the price of a grader blade. And as I have pointed out elsewhere my subsoil plow will bring my tractor at full throttle and a lower gear to a dead stop against a 600 lb boulder embedded in the hard pan, without damage, (and with a little finesse that subsoiler got the boulder loose and I dragged it out of the field with a chain )

And If you really want to get into the swale building business with a small tractor and grader blade. Although I have not yet run the numbers on the design a simple tie rod run diagonally from the hitch arm anchor point on the same side of the tractor as the low end of the blade, to the hitch pin on the other side of the implement; can protect the hitch arms from being bent, a length adjustable tie rod is needed if you tilt the blade by skewing the three point hitch, or two tie rods if you want to protect from forces on either side.

So for us permies, I think we have a winner here but for some of us, and our equipment, certain limitations and necessary precautions are well worth considering. Therein lies an opportunity provided we recognize that there are risks to be avoided. If you are all eager to do this sort of thing, I would be willing to try to address specifics, and if you are near by, come and watch. I do hope to make a good photo record of what I do, or see if anyone wants to make some video footage.
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Lateral Restraint Turnbuckle
 
Don Goddard
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Well time has come to try building swales.
A fire (attributed by the fire department as spontaneous combustion in a mulch pile) burned over my grassy field and a little bit in my woods, has cleared the field and made it even more vulnerable to run off. So I figured it was a good time to get busy.

My first step was to till the field with my 4 foot, tractor mounted rotary tiller to even the ground out. It also let me pick about 20 gallons of rock out of the field.

The first picture is of my "land level" which consists of a 1"x4"x8' board to which I have added legs and feet at the ends. The joints are screwed and glued to assure that they do not slip. The paint job (primer and finish coat) are to prevent water absorption and warping. The 2' carpenters level sits on a cleat and is held to the side with screw and washers so that I can remove it for other use. lying in front of it are 3 of my custom garden stakes made from rebar, with a head welded on like a giant nail and a fancy paint job to keep them visible. The head on the stakes is to improve safety and make it difficult to be impaled if one should trip and fall on them.

The second picture shows the results of use of the system. The camera distorts things to much to judge how effective the process is. I added the red dots as otherwise it is not easy to see all the stakes. The line runs for about 225 feet across the field and when viewed in person does appear to have successfully followed the contour. It curves gently to the viewers right and then reverses to curve gently to the left at the far end though that is a bit difficult to see.

Because of "ripples or defects in the smoothness of the field occasionly a stake or two will seem to suddenly deviate from the smooth contour line. I can correct for this by simply adjusting the few errant stakes. so that the swale will follow the true general contour line.

Now all I have to do is dig a 225 foot long ditch across the field and throw the dirt up in a berm on the downhill side. Then repeat the process moving up and down the hill until I have somethng like 6 to 10 ditches. Doing the math, that works out to something on the order of 2000 feet or sort of 1/4 to 3/8 of a mile. Simple, right ?!?! Well yes and I would be simple minded if I tried that with a shovel and my 70 year old back. especially if I wanted the swales in place for this year.

My strategy will be to get the tractor to do the work.
Step 1. Smooth out the curve by making minor adjustments to stakes that appear to be aberrantly out of line with the rest.
Step 2. Make 2 or 3 passes with the subsoil plow to break up the deep soil on the down hill side of the curve.
Step 3. Make 1 or 2 passes over the subsoil plowing with the tiller to really loosen the soil.
Step 4. Angle my grader blade and make multiple passes digging the ditch and pushing the soil up into a "berm".
Step 5. Work at right angles to the ditch and berm with the grader blade to accentuate the depth and height of these features.
Step 6, dump compost in the ditch to make a spongy mass to soak up the water.
Step 7. Sow a ground cover of some sort on the soil to prevent erosion. Typically a grass that can be mowed.
Step 8. Assess what plants/trees to plant on the berms.

I hope to complete steps 1 through 5 for a few swales in time to stop spring and early summer rains from drowning my garden like last year.

I hope to document my process in further posts so that we can share ideas

So then I will now ask for some advice from those who have done swale building before and keep me from reinventing the wheel by trial and error.

I would especially appreciate advice on:

-- How far apart should successive swales be. It would seem that dimension would depend on
---- a. How steep the slope is, with steeper slopes requiring closer spacing
---- b. How deep the swale and how high the berm with larger size of swale and berm allowing for wider spacing.
-- What should be seeded on the field for erosion control
-- Choices of things to plant
---- a. How should I select varieties
---- b. What has worked well for others in similar climates and soils (zone 5 to 6 boundary, clay soil, )
---- c. Crops for production and cover that is easily maintained as needed during development of permanent plantings.

Please feel free to critique my swale building strategy.





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Level for mapping coutour lines
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Contour line marked
 
Don Goddard
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PRELIMINARIES----------Having laid out the contour line for the swale, These will be the preliminaries for actually moving dirt.

In looking at the images I have to offer, what you may notice is that the first thing I did was to smooth out the curves in the stakes I set using my land level. This I had listed as step 1. The process is fairly easy and requires only a modicum of care. For those of you in the scientific and engineering fields this is like making a graph with data that contains some random noise. A quick and easy way is to simply plot the data points and the "eyeball" where to draw a smooth line that comes close to all the points without necessarily hitting each one. So I just walked along the line and any time that there was a stake that looked like it was suddenly off to one side or the other. I pulled it up and repositioned it to fall in line with the others, looking at several stakes either side of the one I pulled up to see where I ought to put it.

For step 2 and 3 as previously mentioned, I got lazy and reversed their order. It wasnot too serious a thing to do, as it was sort of arbitrary, the purpose of tilling and subsoiling are both the same, Namely to loosen up the soil so it is easy to move. Another effect of both these processes is to get rocks out. The subsoiler is pretty impervious to rocks. If you hook it into too much of a rock, and if it is built appropriately stout for the tractor employing it, all that will happen is that the the tractor will be stalled, and usually you can clear that problem by raising the lift. which will often bring the rock to the surface or at least loosen it for later removal. The rocks that are close enough to the surface to be reached by the tiller may also be removed by it. For reduced wear and tear on both the tiller and operator. If the tail board is raised to the maximum, the tiller tends to throw the rocks out on top of the soil behind and not beat itself to pieces by keeping them in the tiller and once on the surface they are easy to find and pick up (if they are not too heavy). The reason I reversed the order of steps 2 and 3 was purely laziness. It is not all that much work to change implements because I use implement cradles on casters on the concrete slab floor of my tractor shed, and I do not even have to start the tractor to do that. However getting that PTO shaft in place is a pain in the back as it is awkward. So seeing as how the tiller was already on the tractor and the soil had been previously cultivated, I did the tilling first. But for soil that has not been disturbed in the last 2 years or otherwise prone to compaction, I would generally insist on subsoiling first. Why beat up the tillern unnecessarily on embedded rocks. Of course if you don't have rocks it shouldn't matter but I live on the clay soils of the ozark plateau where rocks are regarded as crop, as they tend to keep on appearing forever.

The first image shows the results of tilling (2 passes) and subsoiling two parallel baths to break up the hard pan and remove or loosen at least some of the rocks..

So that was the preliminaries for the soil, however there was also a preliminary to be carried out for the tractor to get it ready to move dirt. The explanation of the second image may be a good bit easier to follow if you go back 3 posts and review my choice of nomenclature for the hitch parts
-- Hitch arms. The two arms with ball and socket joints that the tractor uses to pull or lift the implement.
-- Hydraulic lift arms which are the two upper arms that are hydraulically driven to raise the hitch and implement.
-- Lift links , the two links which connect the two arms. The one on the right side is screw adjustable and on the left side there are 3 sets of holes that allow it to work at 3 different lengths.
And while you are back looking at that hitch picture please note that if you look at the left hitch arm you can see it has 3 holes where the lift link can be attached. Using the hole closest to the tractor gives a greater range of lift (low to high) but using the holes farthest from the tractor will allow a heavier implement to be lifted.
I used the holes closest to the tractor to do what the second image shows. and I also used the hole that made the lift link on the left side as short as possible. While I cranked out the screw adjustable lift link to near maximum length.

The blade is straight across in that image and for use to move dirt sideways I had to turn it to the 45 degree position. in addition to having it tilted. However at a 15 inch tilt, the low end only cleared the ground by 1 inch and I could not get out of the tractor shed without gouging the floor slab. So I cranked it back to 11 inches tilt and got enough clearance to get out of the shed. I did the first passes to make the swale at that setting as I did not want to be too greedy and get into trouble. With the angle set like that I could follow the contour stakes digging down next to the stakes and pushing up a berm on the left side of the tractor. The first several passes were made with the deep tip about 2 feet from the stakes and then more passes as close to the stakes as possible, and then I set the blade for the full 15 degree tilt and dug a bit deeper. The results of this work is shown in the 3rd image.

The two ridges on the top of the berm were due to the making the first passes 2 feet from the stakes and then making several passes close to the stakes. Then I followed up and got the ridges closer and higher by eliminating the tilt and making several passes with the blade angled at 45 degrees to sweep the first and lower ridge back toward the second and higher ridge. So Now I had done the preliminaries and complete the first phase of pushing the dirt around. Though there was still some work to be done which I left for the next day.





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Tilled contour for swale with two subsoil tracks if you look closely
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15 inch blade tilt, Near Maximum
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Results of Angle Bladining with a grader blade
 
Don Goddard
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So then come the next day it was time to finish the work on the swale.

The problem was to firm up the berm, and clean up the miscellaneous dirt around the project. This phase went a bit slow but not too badly. The grader blade was reversed and used to push the dird from the down hill side first. Given the lower traction in reverse the technique that worked was to back up into the berm barely skimming the original soil level and when the blade met the resistance of the berm then carefully raising the blade to sweep up the flank of the berm this corrected the downhill side of the berm 4 to 5 feet at a time.''

The process was only slightly different on the uphill side of the berm The blade was allowed to slide down at the edge of the swale scrape across the bottom of the swale gathering the loose material in it and then as the blade encountered the flank of the berm the lift was raised sweeping up the uphill side of the berm. The work on both sides usually required two runs at the berm in each location to get the desired effect to the quality desired. The berm is a bit loose yet and will likely settle, but as it is quite high that should be entirely acceptable.

I almost finished the entire length, however the dark sky let loose with a cloudburst when I had but 30 feet remaining to finish on the uphill side. A mad dash recovered the camera and I ran the tractor at maximum safe speed to the tractor shed, leaving the hand tools for recovery an hour or so later. But the reward into the now muddy field was a chance to see the water puddled along the length of the swale in a most uniform distribution. Apparently I got the contour right to a high degree of accuracy.

Now I will have to wait anothe day or two for drying of the field to go back and get that last 30 or so feet.
Berming_Both-s.JPG
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Firming the Berm from both sides and cleaning the swale bottom
 
Don Goddard
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I have just finished making my second and third swales and I am quite satisfied with how it has worked out. I will have a few finishing details that I will yet have to attend to such as details at the ends to make them more resistant to problems at the ends during heavy rains, but the basic swales are complete. My previous post explains how I made the swales but sometimes technique has a lot to do with the success of a project. So while working on this project I had "technique in doing the 'angle blading' " in mind as I took the pictures. I should say that on a commercial scale there are probably faster, more efficient ways to get the job done, and at the minimum investment end of the scale, one can probably do this work with a shovel if need be, but "We works with what we has got". My method is however best suited to a small holding done with a small tractor and is fairly efficient. There are techniques to doing this with the commonly found rear mount grader blade and a small tractor and what I wish to share is what I found that works well for me.

The starting point is a reasonably smooth clear tilled surface in the field. The contour lines need to be laid out and marked as previously described in the post above. My main tool is my Ford 1510, 2-wheel-drive, manual steering, diesel tractor, made in Japan by Shubaro. The tractor has 22 horse power and weighs about 2200 lbs and has 200 lbs of concrete tractor weights on the front end, (primarily to counterbalance the 600 lb tiller). The limiting factor on such a tractor is the tractive force it can exert when operated on tilled soil. I if chloride solution is added to the tires or if wheel weights are added, it should improve traction but I had neither of those two traction enhancements. A key feature of the technique is that by using a subsoil plow and a rotary tiller I had loosened the soil on the downhill side of the layout stakes to a substantial depth, (the subsoil plow will run to 16 inches). For those who are budget constrained, I am of the opinion that the subsoil plow alone might suffice, particularly if extra passes with it are used, especially if they can be made closer together. The soil loosening was fresh and that is important because even a moderate rain will cause my clay soil to "set up". At the same time the soil was not wet as that would have interfered with moving it by reducing traction. If the soil is not loose the grader blade will not effectively move it and that is a point that I need to stress !!!

I need to be clear about angles as there are four of them to not confuse:
1.-- The implement was adjusted to be level from front to back If the frame of the implement tilts downward toward the back the blade will bite into the soil more aggressively in forward motion and if the frame of the implement rises toward the back it will be less aggressive in forward motion. These effects are vice-versa when pushing backward with the blade. All my work was done with the implement frame basically level.
2.-- With the bottom edge of the blade level to the ground, the only angle of the blade that I found useful for moving soil to the side was to rotate the blade 45 degrees, any lesser angle simply did not prove effective. As my blade is 5 feet wide this reduced the swath that it would grade to about 3.5 feet.
3. -- For pushing backward with the blade as in the final forming of the ditch and berm of the swale, it was only ever used with the blade square to the tractor
4. -- For the main effort of the forming of the swale the blade was "tilted". As described in the previous post this was accomplished by connecting the "lift link", on both sides, to the "implement lift arms" at their shortest length, at the lift arm hole closest to the tractor. The screw adjustable "lift link" was then adjusted "long"! With the blade square to the tractor a "tilt" of 15 inches in the blade could be achieved from side to side, but most of the work was done with this "tilt" adjusted to about 11 inches.

That pretty much covers the preliminaries. So to explain the technique in using the angled grading blade, I make reference to the 6 panes of the attached first photo.

The 1st pass is made NOT at the contour line marker stakes but about 2 feet downhill from that. This is important because the amount of soil to be moved and the distance it has to be moved simply will not be easily achieved with this sort of grader blade in a single pass so multiple passes are required, with half the dirt to be "angle bladed" done before the other half.

The 2nd pass Is simply made directly on top of the first pass but it is notable that, because the right tractor tire is running in the groove already made in the first pass, that it effectively has a greater angle relative to the the surrounding ground surface as the whole tractor is now leaning to the right..

The3rd pass is now made as close as practical to the contour markers as possible. This will be difficult if the first pass was not made far enough down hill from the marker stakes as there will be no good place for the right side tractor tires to run.

The 4th pass Is made directly on top of the 3rd pass, and at this point the double ridge nature of the berm is now fully formed, (it will be eliminated later).

The 5th pass is just like the 4th pass with 2 exceptions. This pass is made with about 50 % more tilt on the blade and the pass is made about 6 inches to a foot father away, downhill from the markers. This will give a broader bottom to the ditch and the greater tilt angle will heap the soil of the berm up higher.

The 6th pass is made with no tilt on the blade at all and its purpose is to push the two ridges of the berm closer together but not quite into a single ridge.

To make all these passes, I set the engine speed to 2000 RPM with the transmission shift levers in low gear, low range and forward speed of the tractor was controlled simply by listening to the engine, keeping aware of slippage of the tires and regulating the draft depth with the hydraulic lift control handle. In other words I regulated the traction load by controlling how much bite the blade was taking.

The second image is simply a repeat from the previous post, but I include it here for completeness. In the two frames of this picture you can observe That the two ridges are pushed together into a higher single ridge by pushing the soil up by raising the blade to sweep up the flank of the berm. The down hill side is done first so as to not push dirt into the ditch, but if a bit of that does happen, when the berm is worked from the uphill side that will be corrected .

When the berm is worked from the uphill side the blade is dropped ! at the very uphill edge of the ditch and pushed across the bottom of the ditch to clean and broaden it, and the blade is swept up the uphill flank of the berm to raise the top of the berm and consolidate the two ridges. As the blade edge comes above the original ground level the whole berm may be nudged a few inches down hill. This is OK and maybe even a bit desirable.

These final "push" stages require that repeated sharp "S" turns be made using brake turning of the tractor in order to reposition the tractor sideways the width of the blade for the next push. It might seem that there is a lot of clutch wear going to take place, but not so. This work is done at 1500 RPM with the transmission set to low range and the 2nd and reverse gears being used. The clutch is only being let up on a slower engine speed and again the speed of the motion is controlled by regulating the depth of the cut the blade is taking. Wheel slippage on the soil surface is also regulated by the load encountered as the ridges are pushed together 5 feet (1 blade width) at a time. The space required between the berm of the adjacent swale to the ditch of the next is about 20 feet for my tractor. However in the presence of an obstacle (tree) I was able with some difficulty to work as close as 12 to 15 feet. But this will vary depending on the length of the tractor + implement length.

I invite critique of my technique as I do not believe myself to be so clever as to have perfected the method to the ultimate. Also, I would like to benefit from anyone else's experimentation with this technique so please post your results if you try this. If I can offer any advice or suggestions please post or PM me if you like.

Given the amount of manoeuvring in the last stage and the need for traction, I suppose that among small tractors, a hydrostatic, 4 wheel drive, with power steering would be optimum, but as I said above "We works with what we has got !".
00_6_Passes-s.JPG
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6 successive angled blade passes to initially form the ditch and berm of the swale
Berming_Both-s.JPG
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Finishing the berm
 
Andrew Barley
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Location: Winfield, Alberta, Canada
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Don,

Thank you so much for posting, in such detail, the swales you've been doing. I have a similar tractor and tools to work with but had intended to rent machinery in the fall when I start my swale work. This gives me hope that I can use the tools I already have and save a ton of money in the process!
 
Don Goddard
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Andrew,
I am pleased that someone has found my information useful, and so soon too. I would be interested to know what tools you have, what tractor and what soil type and what sort of terrain. Things worked out quite well for me, although spring is often a time of high fire risk, fires sometimes do get started. A week or so ago that happened to us and the grassy field burned (with a vengeance too!) but we got it stopped as I have paths in my field and adjacent woods which also serve as fire breaks (intentionally so) and by backfiring we got it stopped on our land and the fire department arrived in time to help us and my neighbor finish it off on his land. This had the advantage that without all the plant fiber it was all the easier to reduce the field to a fine tilth (one pass with the tiller) which made the soil all the easier to move around (of course we lost the value of the organic material but probably lost a lot of weed seeds too. I had actually been considering burning the field off for just such reasons, however I had in mind a "controlled burn" and not what happened. The fire department believed it was spontaneous combustion in an accumulation of rotting vegetation at the edge of the field.

I would encourage you to share with all here what you can tell us of the implements and tractor you have to bring to the task. as well as soil conditions and terrain. I too have been concerned with the high cost inherent in many of the articles I have read on swales and for those of us with lesser equipment and even lesser discretionary income, techniques that let us build such earth works are of interest. For instance I would expect that a single bottom turning plow might be adapted to the task as it could be used for the cultivation phase and might also accomplish some of the preliminary development of the berm. Then the remaining swale building might be accomplished with a grader blade.

My original ideas on how a grader blade might be used probably were overly concerned with forces on the implement and hitch linkage but I found no such problem, with the standard hitch and equipment. However I must give great credit to the subsoil plow as the sturdiness of such an economic implement renders it almost indestructible when attached to only a small tractor. My analysis of the ones available indicates that they are stronger than any abuse my tractor can dish out out, it is just that someone gave me the bail spike and the conversion was an interesting project for my machine shop and welder and my analysis showed that it would be strong enough, even though what I found at implement dealers would be stronger. If anyone is curious about how I made the conversion, details and pictures are at:
http://www.chaski.org/homemachinist/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=99704

Let us hear from you, and pictures would be nice if you can do that.

Best of luck in the endeavor,
Don

P.S. Estimating the amount of effort in a task such as this, I estimate something like 30 lineal feet of swale per hour expended, and that includes removing a couple of multi hundred pound boulders that were hiding in the soil These last two swales total 215 lineal feet and I started with a relatively smooth clean field. So if you happen to think to time yourself, others may want to know how big a job they are about to tackle. I have to say that the time I spent did not really engage me in more than a dab of labor hard enough to work up a real sweat. Mostly with my equipment it does all the work. A more powerful tractor might do it faster but there is a strong diminishing returns effect. For instance upping the tractor power from 22 to 220 horse power tractor could not have finished the work in 42 minutes! using the same technique (or as the saying goes, 11 stallions and one mare cannot make a foal in a month! Some things just take time.).
 
Don Goddard
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Yesterday I built yet another swale. I now have somewhere around 650 feet of swale with probably another 200 foot swale to build before I will be willing to say that I have built enough for my own purposes.

I have added a couple of points of refinement to my technique at this point. One of which is to realize that the smoothness of the field is important when layingout the contour line with a level such as I have built. and probably many of you have built a similar one. My field had been burned over and some of it had not tilled this year. Then as I laid out the newest swale, I ran from the tilled into the area not tilled that had had a year of growth on it. The lumpiness of the surface that had not been tilled, even though it was cleared of vegetation played hob with the level when it came to getting a reading I could trust. So I would say having the surface smoothed is important. My rotary tiller does a lovely job of this but various techniques such as plowing and disking or various types of harrow or even a log dragged over the surface would probably suffice nicely.

The next innovation I tried was instead of just tilling next to the contour stakes for a 5 foot width I increased this to 7.5 feet and then made the first pass with the grader Blade about 2.5 feet out. This time I was subsoiling after tilling and I now made 3 separate cuts with the subsoiler The right and left ones were made by running the right tire track where the left tire track had run previously and then making the 3rd cut while running the tires in the previous two cuts. This gave a bit more traction as the tires sank in a bit deeper and made the 3rd cut a bit deeper
This wider swath of preparation made the 3rd pass with the grader blade (next to the stakes) easier. and moved soil more effective. I also resulted in a slightly deeper and wider ditch by a few inches.

These changes to the procedure were minor but did have a noticeable effect.

"The proof of the pudding is in the eating", as the old saying goes. and in this case the design verification for a swale made this way is:
1.-- Does it intercept water effectively?
2.-- Does it hold water effectively?
3.-- Is the swale really on a level contour line?

As things worked out, The test was not long in coming. About 2 hours after finishing the latest swale, the skies opened and a downpour ensued for a while followed by a night of lighter but steady rain. The next morning I was eager to see the results. I went out with a camera and got images for the record.

The general slope of the field is downhill from SW to NE corner to corner. And as chance would have it the latest swale starts and ends at the other corners SE to NW, however the swale as is usual wanders across the field taking two curves. and crossing two paths (for walking or driving or fire break).

The human eye is a poor instrument for judging if a swale runs uphill or downhill or actually runs level. And the camera proves no better! But trapped water in the ditch seeks its own level. The following pictures show the results. The first picture has two frames, the left taken from the SE corner of the field looking along the swale and the second frame taken near and looking toward the NW corner at the last of the swale.

The camera makes them look like they are running up hill but the water in them is of a uniform depth along the length.

The final image shows where the swale has a break as it intersects the trail. On the left is the swale segment toward the NW corner of the field, and on the right is the center segment of the swale. As can be seen the water sets at the same depth on both sides of the trail.

So I arrive at the conclusion that my technique not only lest me use my tractor and implements to build a swale but my mapping of contour lines is also proving adequate to locate the swale.

As another matter of technique. It can be readily observed that when laying out contour lines for the swales. If one starts in one place and gets into a part of the field where the slope is gentler the swales will get farther apart, but if one get into a part of the field where the the slope is steeper the swales will get closer together. Given that my tractor and implements require about 20 feet between swales and the ditch plus berm takes another 5 feet or so at least, I probably need to start the layout of the next swale where the slope is steepest so as to assure working room, I have managed to work in as little as 12 to 25 feet but it was quite difficult by comparison to where I had more room. Of course the more swales you can put in the more water you can hold and where the slope is gentle run off erosion should be gentler and less erosive even though more rain will fall in the wider area, and vice-versa where the slope is steep.

So far so good.......

Now I would like to ask if anyone can direct me to where I can find instruction to select proper things I should be considering for planting on such a field of swales, but at least I think I have a good start on controlling run off such as caused me a local flooding problem last year as documented at the start of this thread.

4th_Swale_SE-NW.JPG
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Trail_Break_of_Swale.JPG
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Dave Dahlsrud
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Nice looks like you're ready to throw down some cover crop seed and plant some trees!
 
Don Goddard
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Dave Dahlsrud wrote:Nice looks like you're ready to throw down some cover crop seed and plant some trees!


Yes, planting something is the next objective however I think I have some rock picking to do which I have to put off yet another week as the doctor says I must avoid heavy lifting and bending over for another week yet while my eyes heal from the cataract surgery. But what I really need to do is get a cover crop in while it can benefit from the spring rains to get started. I am just not sure what my best choices might be. And I am very open to suggestions. I do have one more swale laid out which has a length of 175 feet. It is above the last one shown in the above photos and will be about 25 feet from that one. It should be the last one I need for flooding control on that slope. The field has a well defined ridge down it but the other side of the ridge is part of the watershed for the pond and while the pond is recovering from the sink hole repair I would as soon that the water on that slope gets into the pond as promptly as practical so that when the hot weather of summer arrives the fish do not suffer. But a cover crop is the next priority for my slope of swales, and with my rush to get the swale in place for flood control I have not had much time to select something. So if anyone has suggestions to offer, I will be most interested in suggestions. I am on the boundary of climate zones 5 and 6 and the soil is clay and tends to be acid.

 
Tyler Ludens
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Is there a particular reason why you want to remove the rocks?

 
Don Goddard
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Tyler Ludens wrote:Is there a particular reason why you want to remove the rocks?

-- Around here the freeze-thaw and wet-dry cycles rapidly move rocks in the soil to the surface until they protrude high enough to trip on or destroy mowing equipment etc. A field that presented no risk one year can break equipment the next. The way they rise to protrude from the surface has resulted in them being referred to (tongue in cheek) as a major native crop in the region.
-- Seeing as how they range from a few pounds apiece up to several hundred pounds apiece they impose and impediment to various activities
-- They are a hazard to my equipment
-- They are a hazard to my back on the occasions that they are in the way.
-- Also they do occasionally prove useful in other applications such as firming up the bottom of a waterway that has to be crossed occasioally but is simply too muddy to support any weight. In which case allowing them to work into the mud supplies sufficient firmness to prevent getting stuck,
-- as weights they can be attached to fence wires and posts where a fence has to cross a low spot and tension in the fence wire would otherwise pull posts from the ground over a period of time.
-- As my soil is highly prone to forming a hard pan they are an impediment to revising the soil structure.
-- The larger ones are useful for establishing a "denial of access along certain routes"
-- The smaller ones are useful for establishing anti-mud-splash zones along side buildings (used with geo-technical cloth trench lining).
-- the medium to small ones are useful for establishing "French drains" often with tiles or geo-technical cloth.
-- the small ones (ballast rock size) are useful in driveway construction.
-- They can provide a free draining ramp onto the tractor shed slab.
-- When the turn out to be exactly where a swale goes, they can be an impediment to digging the trench or impose a weakening inclusion in the berm
-- If one has a sufficient quantity they can be used to establish a raised road or driveway that dries quickly and is sufficiently raised to blow clear of snow if that is a winter problem where you reside.

Or to put it simply they are often a pain in the posterior where they are and sometimes have useful value elsewhere.
Other uses have been noted for permaculture strategies.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Excellent answer, thank you!
 
Don Goddard
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Now that I have demonstrated a technological application of ordinary tractor and implements to the construction, what I need as the growing season comes racing at me is a crash course in what to plant in this field. My headlong race to build the swales has been driven by my desire for flooding control in the area of my vegetable garden which was heavily damaged by run off from the slope last year. I have been pleased and surprised to see how it is working. After I made the first swale, a heavy rain showed me that it was working as expected with substantial water bein retained and I went on to build more until I have 5 swales across the slope. Then after an even heavier rain I went out to inspect again expecting even more water trapped and was at first dismayed to see not much water in the swales, before it hit me that the lesser amounts was the expected result as now each swale only hast to hold a much smaller amount of water as each only gathers the water from the previous uphill swale to itself. This means that the multi swale systemcan hold much water without being overwhelmed and they can keep a very substantial amount of water on that field.

With that capability to make an effective capture system, I need to find appropriate crops to plant that are suited to my climate zone, and then find sources and planting information.

Can anhone here point me in the right direction so I can start working on alleviating my ignorance in those areas.
 
Don Goddard
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ADDENDUM

At least a few times I speculated as to whether the above swale building technique really needed the rotary tiller. This was because not everybody has such a wonderful implement, and they are not cheap and the cost of replacement tines is not cheap easier and they have to be replaced every few years even when used moderately.

It seems that I have sprouted far more sweet potatoes than I will need unless we get hit by a late spring killer frost that kills all that I intended to plant, but the local food pantry charity does take fresh garden produce and can even occasionlly send folks to harvest it.

My planting technique for sweet potatoes is to shovel trenches, throwing the dirt up into ridges. Flooding the ditches is the easiest way to water the plants and if they are planted in the tops of the ridges they can be more easily harvested with less wastage by thrusting a shovel under the ridge from within the ditch.

Having found that the sequence of
-- the subsoil plow,
-- rotary tiller,
-- grader blade,
was quite successful. I did not tinker around to see if the tiller was really necessary as I needed to get the swales in place promptly to avoid flooding such as happened last year, and I figured that I had no time to spend on further experimentation.

However now that the swales are built and I needed some ridges to plant the excess sweet potatoes in, I figured I could afford the experiment. It would not be building swales per se, but the concept is the same and so is the general geometry.

As can be seen in the picture below, what I did was build two ridges with a ditch between. The amount of dirt in the ridges is comparable to what I did for my berms during the swale building although I left these ridges a bit broader because I did not do the final step of pushing the berm up by backing the blade into it in a push mode. For my planting purposes this is just fine. As the ridges and ditch lie between two existing swales the ditch essentially follows the contour line and this will be useful in distributing irrigation water equally.

As to my experimental technique I made about 7 passes with the subsoil plow spaced approximately a foot apart with the plow running as deep as it would go. This was done on the field which was previously tilled under about a month ago and barely has started to sprout the previous cover crop of fescue and weeds. The subsoiler was running about 12 to 14 inches deep. After the first pass the subsequent passes seemed to be going easier and the plow did not exceed the traction of the tractor so frequently. This suggests to me that the close spacing of the plow passes was resulting in the ground breaking up between adjacent passes due them being so close . I then switched to the grader blade and made multiple passes in the same fashion as when building the swales and berms.

The astute observer may note the slightly yellowish coloration of the clay at the bottom of the ditch, which attests that I was cutting as deep as when building swales. The grader blade moved the subsoiled earth with only slightly more difficulty than when I had subsoiled and rotary tilled.

So I think it now stands established that my swale building technique can be accomplished without the expense of a tractor mounted rotary tiller. (at about $1500 to $200 or more), that is significant. especially since a new single chisel subsoil plow can be had for under $200 at times.

The next question that some might ask is, "Is there any advantage to using a rotary tiller anyway?). I believe the answer is, Yes! So if you have one, go ahead and use it (maybe). I base this answer on the fact that my soil type is a stiff clay with many rocks.
-- As it happens I did not turn up any rocks in this experiment, but other parts of this same field are rife with rocks. After an initial subsoiling any rocks within the depth of the tiller are pre-loosened from the surrounding clay, and the tiller, run with the tail board raised, will be able to flip them out on top of the tilled soil behind the tiller which makes them readily available for removal. However that was not an issue at all in this experiment as this part of the field is nearly free of rocks. I think the subsoiling alone followed by the grader blade should not have too large a problem with rocks but the results may not come out so smooth.

-- The effort for the roughly broken soil to be pushed around by the grader blade was slightly greater when it was only subsoiled, the degree of difference may be somewhat variable in various soils.

-- If no tilling was done, and the soil was covered with heavy, stemmy growth such as a tall tough grass, the results could prove less satisfactory. A rotary tiller does a wonderful job of chopping such cover to leave a finer tilth, but that is not to say that plowing and disking in a conventional way would not do just as good a job if done before swale building.

So then "results may vary" as the saying goes, but the good news is one can use this basic technique without having the expense of a rotary tiller. But do please note that I made subsoil passes at 1 foot intervals this way and I made them at about 2 foot intervals when using the tiller. From my experience I would say that the grader blade needs to work in thoroughly loosened soil to be optimally effective.

When using the blade skewed to one side to displace the soil horizontally. The blade can develop enough side thrust to push the back of the tractor in the opposite direction you are trying to make the soil go, However, I should point out that my tractor only weighs 2200 lbs and has 22 engine HP. or about 18 draw bar horse power. If attempting this with a heavier more powerful tractor using wheel weights and maybe chloride solution in the tires, (and with comparably more sturdy implements, I might add !!!) the job might go faster. But if using a tractor like the Ford /Shubaru - diesel 1510 2wd (or maybe the comparable and ubiquitous Ford 8N series), having the soil well broken before grading is probably preferable.
Swale_Without_Tiller.JPG
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ridges for sweet potatoes
 
Don Goddard
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My most pressing reason for building swales at this time was a wish to get some flood control as my garden area is below the sloping field where I put the swales. Of course with the swales built I will move into permaculture of that area at a more leisurely pace. So today we had our heaviest rain of this spring so far, We have had more in other years but this one was pretty heavy and then rained for hours aftwrward at a respectful pace. It was enough to raise the level of our pond 1 to 2 inches in about 2 hours by direct infall and I am expecting run off to meet or exceed that much in the pond. We returned home just about the time the rain was giving up. Of course I was eager to see just what the swales had accomplished and as usual I took my camera on the inspection tour.

My swales are interrupted by some access lanes which cross the field and because the steepness varies the distance between the swales does also Where the slope is steeper the contour lines converge to a closer spacing and vice versa when the steeness is flatter the contour lines get farther apart so the amount of run-off area draining into any swale varies

In the image you can see various segments of various swales and they are holding hundreds of gallons of water that would have headed for the low spot near my garden But none of the run off from the field reached the garden There is however plenty of water and given the fairly uniform width of the water in the swales it is evident that the swales are both uniform and level to a degree of accuracy that is quite satisfying (especially for a first attempt!).

The one swale that looks a bit under-filled in the lower right frame has a very small run off area to feed it as it just clips off a corner where two of those lanes I noted above intersect. There was another place where a swale did not have as much water in it as most of them but it was at a place where the swale was close to the one just up the hill from it. The lesson I take from this is that if you make two swales and at some point they diverge considerably, it may be desirable to place a short swale in that place where the other two are far apart. Otherwise the down hill swale could be overwhelmed in a heavy rain and a washout could occur

In each case I am standing on one of the lanes that divide the field. In the case of the swale segment shown in the upper right frame you can see where I had extra dirt left over at the end of a swale segment and I pushed it up into an "end wall" that runs back up the hill, the lower center frame of the is a different segment of the same swale on the other side of the lane There was no dirt for an end wall on that side of the lane and the swale is ready to overflow on to the lane. While not absolutely necessary I think it can be seen that such a simple end wall could add a great deal of capacity and resistance to over flow and may be worth considering to add resistance to a break through overflow.

It is pretty clear that my berms are plenty high enough, but seeing as how they are largely made of loose earth with very little packing I expect them to settle considerably and loose the sharp ridge that characterizes them at the present Given about a year or two I expect that they will become nicely rounded and a bit lowrer. The berms in all the frames are actually about equal in height but I think that the lower left frame shows the berm in the best detail and the best angle to get a sense of their actual height.
Swales_After_Heavy_Rain.JPG
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Views of the swales after a heavy rain
 
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