Organic Broadcaster

Farmers share what worked well for their keyline systems

By Joe Pedretti, MOSES

More frequent droughts and changing climate patterns are creating interest in permaculture concepts, especially water management sys­tems such as keyline design. Keyline design has been around for quite some time in Aus­tralia, where the more arid and hot climate requires water conservation efforts. But, just how well do these systems work in the much more humid and wet Midwest? To find out, I asked three farmers who have designed and installed keyline systems on their own farms.

Chris Blanchard, Rock Spring Farm, Iowa
Chris installed his keyline system in 2003 after visiting Mark Shepard’s permaculture farm in Wisconsin. Following the contour lines in the field, Chris used a two-bottom plow to turn a furrow downhill every 30 feet to create the swales/furrows necessary to hold and slow the water as it moved downhill. Chris’ farm is in the Driftless area of Iowa. His goal was to use the keyline system on his more steeply sloping hills above his bottom fields, which are used to grow vegetables.

Chris planted chestnuts trees on the downside of his furrow/swales and asparagus in the fields between swales. He also bought a Yeo­mans plow to cut the subsoil furrows to move water out to the ridge. The resulting system did hold water and move it out to the ridge, but the soil in the lower vegetable field would often become too wet to work. This was a particular problem in 2007 and 2008 when flooding soaked the fields and left water standing on the surface.

Chris also found that the furrow/swales were problematic for equipment. The combination of a swale/furrow and wet soil resulted in dropped wheels and stuck equipment. Chris remarked that “with more research, I would do it again, if I knew I could do it without affect­ing my lower fields. Keyline design must be considered on a whole-farm basis.”

Jeremy Peake, Peake Organic Dairy, Iowa
Jeremy Peake and his wife, Jodi, own an organic grass-based dairy and 1,000-tree apple orchard. Jeremy had read about keyline design and permaculture concepts after being intro­duced to it through Abe Collins and his ar­ticles on holistic management. “It made sense to catch as much water, and to keep the water that falls on the farm,” Jeremy said. “Grazing and permaculture concepts fit well together.”

Jeremy ordered five shanks for subsoiling and had his own Yeomans plow built in 2012. He planned and installed his first keyline system on 10 acres of grazing/hay ground. Jeremy found it was too difficult to pull all five plow shanks through his heavier clay soils, which were compacted in some areas. So he reduced them to three. He used an A-frame level and flags to lay out his contours and installed two swales using a one-bottom plow. He didn’t install any pocket ponds. “We have a lot of sinkholes on my farm, which make design more difficult,” he explained. “But, I would like to add ponds in the future.” The wet spring of 2013 also proved a challenge, filling the swales with water. “I could not cut silage when I wanted, so I grazed it two to three weeks later, and the soil was still wet,” he said. He plans to loosen the area again with the Yeomans plow. He wants to continue to install small sections of keyline systems on more of his farm when he can.

Grant Schultz, Versaland Farm, Iowa
Grant hosted the keyline design workshop de­scribed in this article. I checked in with him to learn more about his experiences.

Grant put in his first system in April of this year. It covers about seven acres that had been in sod. He used a sight level and flags and a tree transplanter to cut the soils. He found that using a sight level and flagging was very time consuming. He planted berries and a few chestnuts on the downside of the swales and planted a clover mix in between for grazing.

For his second installation, Grant switched to using a laser level and flags to establish his contours, but found this also very laborious. This hillside, about five acres, was set up using a mini-excavator, which he felt was too slow, especially with his farm’s rock-hard soils.

Armed with his previous experiences, and with a grant to help with expenses, Grant plans to use GPS technology in 2014 to complete a 100-acre installation. GPS will help to reduce the time and labor of finding the keyline and laying out the contours and swales, and will make the overall design much more accurate. He has surveyed his fields and planned the design on his computer using exact informa­tion on slope and farm topography so it can be uploaded to a tractor with a GPS system. He plans to use a custom swale plow rather than a bulldozer or excavator, which will leave fewer soil clods for a better seed bed. He’ll have 40 acres of this new installation in silvopasture with fruit and nut trees in the swales, and the balance in hay ground. Grant is confident that GPS-aided design and installation will greatly simplify the process.

Grant is a fan of putting in swales first and then subsoiling, believing that swales handle pulses of rain better than subsoiling alone. This prevents water from building up speed. “It is better to have a pond that stands for a few days than gulley erosion,” he explained. Rather than viewing swales as reducing productive land, Grant feels that the increase in productivity due to better water retention offsets any loss of acreage.

Grant recommends:

• Visit a farm with a keyline system or attend a workshop before you install your own.

• Install a single swale. Live with it for a while, and then evaluate.

• GPS can simplify the process, be much more accurate, reduce installation costs and speed up the installation.

Grant will host a field day on his farm in March to show his new GPS-designed keyline system. For details, see

Websites for information on keyline design: 

January | February 2014

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