Owen Hablutzel

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since Jun 05, 2012
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Recent posts by Owen Hablutzel

Thanks Adam,

Yes, sounds like you've some pretty great soil conditions and pasture mix happening there. Congratulations!
This is not a scenario where I would recommend keyline plowing... even if there were some potential improvement it would not likely be enough improvement to justify the expense. More likely is that you would risk some responses that were less desirable, like breaking up mycelial net effectiveness for awhile, perhaps reducing brix of the forages, maybe some weeds in the riplines even? You could see an improvement in irrigation efficiency due to the ripping, but this alone would not likely be worth the risk trade-off... Doesn't sound like there are any compaction issues to speak of either.

Your best 'bang for buck' for continued improvement is likely to be increasing the density of animals and animal impact, in the context of holistic planned grazing. Would recommend taking a workshop on Holistic planned grazing. We will also cover in the workshop improvement scenarios such as pasture cropping, 'shotgun' seed mixes, biological sub-soilers, soil food web, etc... as other methods, beyond plowing, that could be of use in your scenario.

What keyline design can contribute is all of the other elements of design planning, beyond using the plow itself...
Hope we see you soon in Carbondale!
5 years ago
Thanks Dan,

Swale systems such as you describe (if I am picturing correctly) can be and have been designed and accomplished... Yes, you can design a 'spillway' at either end of a swale (and all swales generally should have spillways anyway), or you could actually put the spillway anywhere else along the swale as well... wherever some extra water will fulfill the most functions or address your goals best.

A question you might want to consider on the pasture area you describe is whether or not you need an entire series of interconnected swales at all... ? This will depend on what your goals are for the land. If your goals include a large hugelswale at the base of the slope for growing a diverse yielding polyculture, along with generally harvesting all the rainwater you can, and having healthy pasture above the hugelswale, then perhaps you don't need all the other swales... and could save the expense/time/energy of building them. Instead of harvesting water along relatively thin strips in the landscape, every so often, you could manage the pasture to be a 'sponge' over its entire surface area (not just thin linear strips), then catch anything else in the very bottom swale hugel... Managing for an effective water cycle--creating a sponge--on all of the land will store more water more evenly across the pasture, and can be accomplished by holistic planned grazing, by keyline sub-soiling on keyline pattern cultivation, or many other strategies which can be integrated to generate what I sometimes call an 'amplified topsoil explosion'! We will cover these in some detail in the Colorado workshop, July 22-24... hope we see you there!
5 years ago
Hi Lorraine,

Thanks for the further info and questions... Nice map of the project. Looks like you will be at a good phase in the project to be thinking through the design, and you are right that the keyline principles and design process will give great value at this stage.

At this point I don't know much more about the Magoye ripper than was in the pdf, as I've not actually worked with that tool (probably there is much more to find about it with some web research). Do think that it would have good potential though to at least mimic what is possible with the yeomans plow in places where it is too difficult or impossible to get a yeomans and tractor, etc, out to. Possibly mules, burros, or horses would be adaptable if no oxen are around? My thought is that it may take some experimenting but that if we can adapt a ripper shank to the Magoye model, and use it on the keyline pattern, this could be an innovation that could take keyline ripping to the vast majority of the world that can't really access it at this time! How amazing would that be!? Perhaps we could work on developing this idea and practice through your project! A big deal!

As for the timing, Yeomans did recommend plowing after a little rain, but always said the next best time to do it is 'right now' - or as soon as you can... so the precise timing is not generally that critical. One exception is when the ground is too wet, particularly in clay subsoils, where ripping can 'slick - off' and seal the sides of the riplines, which inhibits rooting, etc...

Thanks for keeping the project going, for your enthusiasm, and commitment to the project!
5 years ago
Hi Talia and Lm...

Talia, sounds like you've some tough issues happening there... so how generate solutions from the situation!? There are never any guarantees of course when dealing with complex natural systems, other than that they will surprise you! it may be a good idea to try some experiments on smaller scales before treating the entire place... ripping could potentially be of use, at least dilute some of the salty situation? and break up subsoil compaction... planting or seeding a lot of diversity and seeing what actually responds in those conditions might be useful too... perhaps reed canary grass (cows will love it too), maybe even rushes? the more the merrier to see what happens... using composts and/or compost teas as well could give back the biology missing, and help complex up the salts... maybe all along with your salt tolerant green manures too... experimentation can take some time but is usually worth it in the long run before spending too much time money and energy on a larger treatment at one time... good luck!


Lm, Keyline Design as a planning process is absolutely of benefit in any kind of environment for developing your whole farm layout.

Keyline plowing specifically can have benefits in less dry, more mesic environments also, depending on if by using that tool you are addressing something that is holding you back from soil improvement... a weak link. This could be compaction for example, which happens in all environments.

Where I would be much less likely to use that tool is in a healthy and well functioning soil, with a diverse active food web... if it is not 'broken' why fix it, or risk setting it back...

thanks for both your questions!

5 years ago
Good question Adam,
This comes up often... Yeomans' used to say that the ideal time to use the sub-soiler was at the beginning of the rainy season just after the first rain or two had softened the soils up a bit, but before the majority of the rains would come so that your riplines would capture and store all of that seasons precipitation... He would next say that if you couldn't time it for this 'ideal' then the next best time to use the sub-soiler is 'right now'!

This does not mean of course that you needn't put any thought or strategy into your timing of its use, since there is always value in that, and you will always have trade-offs that can be thought through in relation to your goals. Your proposal is an example of strategy and may be quite sensible in your context. Good to see folks thinking this stuff through coherently! Hope to see you at the workshop, Adam!

With keyline flood flow irrigation the irrigation furrows are often established even before the plowing, and the subsoiling is done between those before irrigating... this might mean less chance of re-compacting anything after the initial pattern ripping.
5 years ago
This is a very exciting realm, Adrien, where my experience is that more and more folks are interested in these savannah style, perennial, agroforested, silvo-pastoral systems... thankfully! Marks excellent book is only increasing the awaremess and incentive of folks to try this....

The systems I've seen that use Holistic management along with keyline and savannah style tree systems are only recently being implemented, and not as far along as New Forest Farm (though as you mention, mark is not doing holistic planned grazing, per se). These are clients of mine, who have begun to implement these kinds of systems, which obviously takes time to do, and to get up and running. You can't start with a 'turn-key' system with all the trees grown, pastures diverese and abundant, animals humming through their 'ballet in the pasture' (Salatin's term), etc...

What all of these places do have is a holistic goal, a vision of the healthy functioning landscape they wish to see there, a design, and a plan to work towards the vision in steps, monitoring and adjusting as needed, all along the way! My hat is off to them, and there are more folks like them all the time! It is a deep honor to work with folks with such vision and among my favorite kinds of designs to do...
5 years ago
Hi Adrien,

One way to integrate hugelkulture swales with keyline design would be to lay out the hugelswales in the keyline pattern, slightly off contour, running a bit off-slope out toward the ridges... In the ordered design process that keyline uses even if you wanted to use more standard hugelkulture swales you would still do the planning and positioning of these in the landscape based on keyline priniciples... the shape of the land essentially guides the layout of all that follows... following this sequence will result in sensible and effective placement of elements, even if you are building smaller scale hugelswale features rather than ones running across a whole property... the design process guides sensible placement of these, or any features needed in your design...
5 years ago
Have done no keyline workshops as of yet in Canada or the Eastern US, but am in talks with potential convenors in both of these places for future events... always open to taking this workshop anywhere folks are interested!
5 years ago
Hi Jen and Adam...
regarding frequency of sub-soiler use... it is possible that it would be a one time thing... depending on how effective the result was, your goals, and the effectiveness of subsequent management... the overall context is your guide... many crop farmers, for example, using tractors for a variety of passes, use the yeomans plow along with the final pass to de-compact soils compacted by all the heavy machinery...

the typical way it has been presented is that it may take 2 or 3 passes in a pasture renovation scenario, with each subsequent pass ripping a bit deeper than the last, allowing life to slowly filter activity deeper into the profile, and generate topsoil out of the underlying subsoils... this might happen over 3 years, or could be shorter too... conditions, context and goals will be decisive.

If the plow is used as one tool to help break an ineffective water cycle, achieves a good response, and is then followed up with good planned grazing management, this might be the only time using it...

Yeomans would sometimes re-rip pastures that hadn't seen any plow use for over 10 years, and see some re-improvement (he was a relentless experimenter).


as far as tractor power to pull the yeomans plow... in general 15-20 horsepower are needed for every shank in the ground. In heavier soils with caliche or tough compaction, one is likely to need a full 20 horse per shank.
Where a tractor available doesn't have the 'oomph' one can always remove a shank and rip using one less...

The general costs are a couple of gallons diesel per acre, labor to drive the tractor, and any surveying costs for the topography used in analyzing how to best accomplish the keyline pattern cultivation on your specific ground.

5 years ago
Hi Adrien,
good question! in the picture you mention with the 'puddling', if you look closely at that photo you can see that the picture was actually taken during a downpour rain event... so the water you see being held in the landscape by the keyline pattern cultivated ripline 'grooves' is actually water that is slowly soaking into the soil to be held and stored there... this of course leads to significant positive outcomes in terms of vegetation response, soil biota response, potentially carbon sequestration, and on down the line... So that picture is a demonstration of things functioning exactly as they should in a heavy rain event post plowing... that landowner had previously had the experience over a decade or so of losing any litter or mulch layer he was able to slowly build up over several years, anytime he had a strong rain like that one... because the water would just all runoff the property and carry the organic material off of the surface with it... so all the 'puddling' water would otherwise be running off the place, except for the keyline pattern is now holding it onsite in the pic....

And even in areas with higher regular rains, this pattern cultivation can help prevent some of the puddling issues because the pattern holds water where it falls, rather than allowing it to concentrate so heavily in low spots that would tend to puddle up easily otherwise...
5 years ago