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Keyline ploughing vs swales  RSS feed

 
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I have posted many questions on permies about rehabilitating the neglected pastures on our recently acquired west Texas farm. We get an average of 19 inches of rain a year. The pastures have a mix of blue grama, western wheat grass, buffalo grass and bluestem along with yucca, catclaw mimosa and various weeds.

I have been reading about Swales and their water conservation benefits. Most of the pastures on our place are sloped. I have flagged some Swales in one of the pastures and am about to start installing them. Then I came across info on key line ploughing and its water conservation benefits.

Is one better than the other? Can they be used in conjunction with one another to increase the amount of water retention in my soil? Which one would work better for my situation. Rainfall is unpredictable in my area. We went 136 days with no measureable moisture then got 1/2 inch of rain. Now it has been 3 weeks with no moisture since that rain.
 
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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The way to do this is to use the keyline plow and swales together, form your swales, this gives you alleys inbetween the swales, use the keyline plow in the alleys so the water will soak in deep before it reaches the next swale.

You could also use the keyline as a prelude to forming the swale, in this case you mark the swale, use the keyline to break up the soil then form the swale, when you add this to using the keyline in the alleys, you will get the maximum benefit available during any rain event.

Redhawk
 
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Location: Jacksonville, FL
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My understanding of the keyline system is that you make your swale based on the key point, and then go up and down the hill from there with more swales that mimic the shape of the first swale. Doing a standard swale system would have each swale meander on its own path in order to stay level. The keyline system seems like it takes a little bit more earth moving and yields a series of rows that are consistent in shape from one to the next, just at different elevations. If you are using plows and earth moving equipment then the keyline system seems like a good idea. If you are doing it all by hand then maybe laying out each swale on its own would be less work.

With keyline it also appears to be slightly more space efficient. If you just wanted crops and have no goals of growing trees between some rows then you might be able to pack plants in a bit tighter. If you are looking for more of a food forest or personal permaculture space then it might not be worth the investment to force the land in to that shape. If the hillside is relatively uniform then you might end up with something looking like a keyline even without trying, so there are really quite a lot of variables.

The other major part to the keyline system is the plow. I'd imagine that different soil types would have different levels of results. I can't see my sandy soil doing any better by plowing it vs just top dressing and mulching. I also have much more rainfall than most people, so the nutrients in the soil get washed through quite quickly. People with different soil types and less rainfall might see much more benefit from it. I think part of the reason for the plowing in the original implementation was due to soil with little organic matter, low biodiversity, and gravel being close to the surface which created a shallow root zone. Doing the one-time plowing and utilizing swales worked to increase hydration and build up the soil. Having a larger root zone and increasing the organic matter in the soil increased how much water the soil could hold, which means healthier plants and greater yields.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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The keyline system set out in Water For Every Farm is based on a simple aquifer system with no more than gentle sloping land and no more than three sub streams to a major stream.
There are almost no places in the US that fit the model set out since it was developed in Australia.
In the US most aquifers are complex with a minimum of 5 levels (sub streams that move into larger sub streams that move into larger streams until we reach a river.
This means more slopes and junctures than the original keyline system was designed to handle.

Once you find your key point (in the US most land has more than three available to choose from, unless you are in the deserts) you lay out your first swale line with a 0 degree slope which doesn't really work in the US.
Here in the states it is best to have this water moving towards the ridges, the pond goes at the highest keypoint (why not let gravity be your friend).
Mark Shepard has done tons of work on developing a great system for the US and other countries that don't fit the three level Australian model.

Both the Keyline system and Marks Main Line system are supposed to have alleys between the swales, both have swales following the contour lines of the lay of the land, Marks has a 1 degree down slope so the water moves towards the ridges, where shallow gather ponds are placed.

The keyline plow is also known as a Sub Soiler, it lifts the soil while keeping the horizons in their proper place, this does not kill off any of the microbiology in the soil.
If you are looking to soak in as much rain water as possible before any runoff occurs then using one of these tools will open channels where water can move in and down deeper into the soil.
These "rips" can be placed the width of the plow all the way down a slope which gives maximum opportunity for the rain water to soak into the earth instead of run over the top and cause erosion.

The OP was asking about using the keyline plow, not the system so I answered his question and did not layout any method suggestions.

Redhawk
 
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I'll try to answer your two questions first:

Can they be used in conjunction with one another to increase the amount of water retention in my soil?
As true Swales are always on contour (0deg slope) and Keyline plow rips (sub-soiling following the Keyline design method) only have one rip line on contour and the rest sloping towards the ridge I see them as not being possible to use together in their 'true' versions.
The Keyline plow rips are like mini swales with a slope toward the ridge, so if you wanted to replicate it while not having such a ripper you could potentially dig by hand and choose to make them as small 'swales', but these 'swales' are not then on contour (0-deg slope) so then not true swales but rather diversion ditches.
Once an area is well Keyline designed it will have the water retention and soak-in capacity to not have much run-off to talk of, but the Keyline design does include belts of trees (the same as a swale is intended to have trees, and other plants, planted in it and on the bank to maximize its water harvesting capacity).

Is one better than the other?
This answer is always 'It depends!'. What is your use of this pasture? Do you intend to ever run machinery over it, haying, slashing weeds etc.? If so, my guess is, the ridges and valleys of the swale(s) will be in your way, while the decompacted ripped soil will all be under ground so not in the way.
As I was hinting to above though, if you don't have a sub-soiler that can handle the curves that you will be following with the tractor, or of you plan to do the earth works by hand or with a digger/dozer you will need to choose swales.

I highly recommend you read 'Water for every farm' by PA Yeomans for a greater understanding of water's behaviour, and Keyline designing and its potental (even though it is not the easiest book to read).

Best of luck,
Esbjorn
 
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Ron, if you have a farm size property that you would like to make a financially viable operation, I would highly recommend the online farm design course by the Regrarians (Darren Doherty). I just went through the last one and wow!!! Darren is a real expert on keyline design, but there are another half a dozen of experts in different regenarative agriculture fields that teach and coach different subjects. The course is structured really well where first the framework is layed out n then every part builds on it. so at the end you have a rough draft of a design, now what you know n what you still need to research and sooooo much information that you can keep coming back to. It is really a holistic aproach that gives you the tools to make a farm not just ecologically but also economically regenerative...

more info   http://rex.farm/
Scroll down to course description for detailed info and a more informative video

If yours is more of a small scale property it is probably not so valuable. The cost is a little less than 1000 $ and you can bring in your hole team, family, business partners, employees, invertors etc.

Sorry for not answering your question directly, but I thought you or maybe some other people might find this keyline related info useful.

Hedy
 
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Location: Southern Manitoba, Canada, Zone 3B
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Hi Ron,
It’s been a very long time since I have been here on Permies. Thank you for bringing me back.
My first thought when reading your post was what is your purpose for this land? Second thought was how much are you working with? So I went and found your first post where you gave some info on this.

Wife recently inherited her grandparents 286 acre farm 35 miles northwest of Lubbock, Texas. The farm has been used for growing crops, mainly cotton, milo and corn. Of the 286 acres, about 100 acres is crop land, about 100 acres is in the CRP program, the rest is native pasture. The native pasture has been overgrazed and poorly managed for 70 years and is grown up in catclaw mimosa and yucca. Grasses present are prairie grasses like blue grama, buffalo grass, bluestem and western wheatgrass.

You talked about pastured pigs. Is this all you are planning or is there more livestock? Specifically cattle or sheep? As you already know your land is a perfect example of Brittle as described by Allon Savory. His Holistic Management system is what you need to be using. It is able to do most of what you want. That being said 286 acres is going to be a lot of work no matter what you do. Use your animals and get the grasses growing. Nature will take care of the infiltration.

On to your questions: my preference is to use the Subsoiler (Keyline plot) because it is less work and faster. They both have their places in different locations and environments. The others above have provided very good information.

Do you have visible surface runoff? Is there obvious erosion? I would start there with the subsoiler. A single day can make a significant difference for short term infiltration. I am not sold on the idea that the water actually “flows” to the ridge lines when using the Keyline system, but it does get the rain into the ground. And that is what you want. Ponds and swales could be used for localized water catchment and use. Such as for your livestock.

What kind of slopes do you have? 1%, 5%, 10%. How steep are they? I am on basically flat land so my use of a subsoiler is for breaking compaction layers and getting the water and roots past that first hard layer. I only have a few acres with enough slope to justify doing anything else.
 
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Researching keyline plowing, I found this-
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

To measure the effects of keyline plowing, we collected soil and forage samples from the keyline plowed pastures and from similar adjacent pastures. For good measure, we also tested penetrometer resistance and rated the pastures conditions. We sampled before, during, and after the two years of plowing.

With thousands of soil samples, and hundreds of readings and scores, we found nothing; no increased organic matter, no changes in penetrometer resistance, no change whatsoever, unless you measure in worms. We did find more worms in our treated pastures.

There are folks out there, who are very nice people, who believe in the use of the keyline plow, who will be alarmed at these results.  So next week, we’ll describe more about this trial and it’s results.  We’ll even tell you more about worms and why more of them may not be as positive a result as you might think.  Down the road we’ll also share some results from a study on the use of keyline plowing to enhance carbon sequestration.  In the meantime, if you have experience with keyline plowing, and you have any data, please share it with us!
http://onpasture.com/2013/06/17/keyline-plowing-what-is-it-does-it-work/
 
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If you are trying to soil water absorption, you want all the swales to be on zero grade. 

This will mean that on steeper slopes you will have swales at closer distances.  This is a nuisance for using the land between the swales.

If you are trying to collect water, you want all your swales on a grade steep enough to move the water to the collection point, shallow enough to not cause erosion.  This can help or hinder.

E.g.  Consider a hogback ridge.  The ridgeline has a gentle slope, say 1 foot in 40.  The sides of the ridge are steep, say 1 foot in 10.

Run a contour line at one point.  Now drop down  2 vertical feet.  On the ridgeback, that puts you 80 feet away.  On the ridge side, you're down to 20 feet.

So you decide instead to keep a constant distance.    At 80 feet on the ridge side you are now down 8 vertical feet down  Depending on how long it took to get from the ridge back onto the slope you have something like 2 to 4 foot drop per hundred feet.  Your swale is not going to be happy with you.

This is an exagerated example.  Myself, I don't trust my tractor on 10% slide slopes.  But the problem remains even if you make the slopes much smaller.

On possible answer is the the interupted swale. 

Let the swale end.  Then start a new one down hill from it overlapping the end of the one above, with a bit of a rise at the open end.



--------------------------

                    \__________________________

There will be some erosion at the point where it spills down steeply.  Put a bunch of rocks here to dissipate the energy.
                     . 
 
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A couple points re this and the original question:

Doug Kalmer wrote:Researching keyline plowing, I found this-
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
...
http://onpasture.com/2013/06/17/keyline-plowing-what-is-it-does-it-work/



One needs to read the Part 2 post in this series, all the way to the end, to get to the most relevant information - the part where "that depends" is acknowledged, for example "Is it that keyline plowing is more suited for drier climates, where water is a limiting factor in production?"
Well duh. That's where it was developed and actually seems to make a difference, over decades at least. So assuming it will work the same in the completely different context of northern New England dairy farms is problematic.
It's far too common that we transplant a context specific or context sensitive method, approach, system, to a significantly different context and assume it will work the same.
And this author is trashing keyline for 99% of the article, until admitting at the very end that maybe the context has something to do with it.

The "research" has its own problems, mainly in that the sample size is far too small for any statistical value, and the uncontrolled variables are far too numerous. Also the cherry-picking of outrageous claims of rapid soil-building as what one should expect as a result. At least half the problem there is people making those claims.

However, anecdotally, it seems likely that keyline implementation is a waste of money in the context studied.

An open question is, does Holistic Management and similar short rotation grazing have benefits in that context?
And, did the fact that something like HM was already in use mean that adding keyline was moot because HM was already giving as much benefit as could be gotten?

If you read the details on how the animals were managed:
"Before and throughout the process, the dairy farmers maintained their grazing management. For three of the four farmers, herds of dairy cows or heifers grazed for 12 to 24 hours on the pasture, and farmers were careful to avoid overgrazing. ... The herds were brought into the paddocks when forages were at about 8-12” and came off before the forage reached 3-4”.

So these farmers were already doing something like HM grazing. If it was giving them benefit (more soil carbon, more root mass, etc. etc.), that benefit was already in place.
It could simply be that keyline couldn't add anything to the benefits already gained by HM, if any.

A better test of keyline would have been to implement it on land where HM type practices were NOT already in place.
Truly degraded, compacted, badly over-grazed land. Then we could see if there was benefit from keyline alone.

To the original question - the context you have, as described so far, is much more like where keyline was developed, than the northern New England dairy farm context.
And I assume you're not doing HM type grazing already?
So there's some chance you'll get more benefit from a keyline subsoil plow, used appropriately. It's always an experiment. Start small and see what happens.

The rest is pretty well covered by previous comments about what a swale is (vs. a diversion ditch), terrain impacts of swales vs. subsoil ripping, use of tree belts in classic keyline, etc.

Another question is, what is your soil composition? % clay? % sand? % of organic matter? And so on...a critical part of context when talking about any spread slow sink methods (swales, subsoil ripping, ponds, diversion ditches, etc.).

There are soils in which swales are a type one error, because when dug and wetted and exposed, the soil hardens to near or completely impermeable and nothing infiltrates (there's areas of stuff like that here in the Siskiyou region of southern Oregon). You get a long, narrow pond, with high surface area to volume and thus high evaporation losses.

 
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Ron,
You've been given lots of great information already.    Keep in mind that context is INSANELY important here, a place with an average rainfall event of <0.25" on a regular basis has much different infiltration needs than one with 0.5-2" a few times a year.  Soil type obviously plays an important role: if you have eolian blow sand like much of Southern Utah where I live then keylining is pretty functionless, if you have heavy compacted clay it can drastically improve infiltration.

All that said, I recommend that you reach out to Chris Gill, he's keylined thousands of acres of creosote scrub down south of El Paso.  He swears by it in your region and says he has disrupted the creosote monoculture and gotten actual grasslands back using the technique.

He did a presentation at the Quivira Coalition conference a few years ago, here's a video he showed about his use of keyline on his 32,000 acre ranch:
http://circleranchtx.com/keyline-101-video/

There should be NRCS funding available to help offset the cost, check with your local office.  Again, Chris might have some good contacts with you on this front.  He also owns a plow that he might let you borrow!

As an aside, if you are interested in regenerative ag in this region I HIGHLY recommend attending the Quivira Coaltion conference in ABQ in November.

Good luck,
~Josh
Boulder, Utah



 
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Location: Central Virginia USA
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Thanks for that link Josh, a really good resource for any teacher, or a good lesson if uncertain about how keyline can be used.

And I will reinforce the concept --"it depends" --context is everything, Keyline has proven it's worth over and over, but that doesn't mean it is the exact tool for every application.

Thanks again
 
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What about using a drill and poke holes 6 or 12 inches on all our land to retain rain water better? These holes can be any diameter
 
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Location: North Country of NYS
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This may be of benefit to some.
https://onpasture.com/2013/06/17/keyline-plowing-what-is-it-does-it-work/
 
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Location: Upstate NY
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Larry Streeter wrote:This may be of benefit to some.
https://onpasture.com/2013/06/17/keyline-plowing-what-is-it-does-it-work/



Perhaps she came up with exactly the results she was looking for. She slags off a bunch of peoples work and opinions and then as far as I can see doesn't publish a link to a peer reviewed paper, abstract, etc?

I would have preferred to see a soil scientist go into a degraded pasture and try to rehabilitate part of it or try to solve some sort of water related issue in a challenging setting.

My takeaway is that they probably went into healthy pastures and two years of plowing didn't make enough of a difference to justify their efforts. Good to know.

 
Ron Metz
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WOW!!! I haven't been on here in a few days, thanks for all the great replies. I have a lot to look into. The pasture land I am trying to work on hasn't been managed in over 60 years. It is overrun with yucca and short catclaw mimosa brush. It has been overgrazed for years by cattle and does have some areas of erosion. The soil ranges from sandy loam to areas with a bit higher clay content.

My plan is to rotational graze pigs on the pastures after I get it set up. My main concern is water retention in the soil because our rainfall is so sporadic. That's why I was wondering if Keyline ploughing  would help water absorption.

From September 2017 to today we have only received 1/2 inch of measurable rainfall. The challenge is next month we may get 8 inches in a few days, then nothing again for a long period of time. Thus my question about Keyline ploughing in conjunction with Swales. Since I posted the original question, I have laid out and dug 5 Swales on the south end of one of the pastures. I used a tractor with a three point adjustable blade to grade them following the marker flags, then another tractor with a front end loader to clean them out and bank the soil. I have acquired a piece of three point equipment that I think I can modify into a subsoiler based on pics I have seen of the Yoeman plow.

The Swales are on a 0 grade contour. My intention was to rip the soil between the Swales to increase rainfall absorption while the Swales held water. Anything to get the precious rainfall into the ground instead of running off. While digging the Swales, I did make an interesting observation. At the top of the slope of the pasture, the ground was pretty dry. While digging each successive swale going downhill, the soil got moister. The soil in the last swale at the bottom of the slope had the highest moisture content. Thanks again for all the great info.
 
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