Keyline Plowing

Water winds its way downhill, seeking its own level. The Long Hungry Creek swells mightily after a big rain. Lack of moisture in the dry spell limits agricultural production. An obvious question arises, “How can we keep the water that falls on our farms for later use?”
Lateral trenches along the contour come to mind. If the water running down the hill during thundershowers could get caught in a ditch and go sideways at a slower pace, more would soak into the soil. This would work even better when the soil has a higher humus content.
A.P. Yeomans, an Australian farmer, developed a method of contour tillage known as Keyline plowing. A point is chosen on the side of a hill, farthest from either holler. A level line is made along the contour through that point, and its called the keyline. It may drop at a 1% slope towards that point, that is a one foot drop for every 100 feet.
I found a point and set the transit up. With my bundles of orange flags, I walked along the hillside while Betsy sighted through the transit and kept me on level. Soon a row of flags designated the keyline.
We went down the hill about 30 feet and did it again. Eventually four rows of orange flagging sprinkled the hillside. I couldn’t wait to get on the tractor.
There are special keyline plows. They have a small football shaped shoe and a very narrow shank. They make a mole like tunnel. I don’t have one.
I decided to modify a chisel plow by taking off every other shank. Now I had four shanks at two feet centers. I chained the cultipacker behind it to compress the ridges down a bit.
Not wanting to go too deep, I set the draft so it plowed to a depth of about three inches. Following the flags, I soon had four parallel furrows along the keyline. Then I went back and forth using each previous pass as a guide, until I got to the next row of flags.
Where the hillside gets less slopey, I made wider swaths. The idea is to stay fairly level, maybe going down hill a tiny bit as I moved towards the center of the hill.
The next step is to hook up the manure spreader and fling some good compost over the hillside. These fields have been over grazed and under fertilized for years. I am so happy to be spending some time and energy improving them. I plan to frost seed grass and clover in late February, hoping to get a stand in the small furrows.
Farming has to make money. When my small calves brought $3.17 a pound, it was time to compost pasture land. An eight month old bull calf is worth two dozen bushels of potatoes, I know which one requires more labor.
The growth of pastures is dependent on water. Rain falling on this hillside will have more trouble getting to the Long Hungry Creek. The darker color of the soil indicates good humus formation, which will be further enhanced by this microbial activity from the compost.
In the extremely dry conditions of Australia, keyline plowing has done wonders. Farms using it have ponds full of water and much better production. In our humid climate we just need to slow its pace as it moves ever down the hill.

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  1. How about a few pictures of the finished product? I’d like to give keyline plowing a try!

  2. We’ve been using contour strip cropping on our farm since 1997. Best conservation practice in terms of soil and water conservation to use if the land is to be cropped intensively. Google Earth our location and see how its progressed over the years. Lat 36.5805 Long -85.8495. I’d be glad to demonstrate how to do it without the need for an expensive transit or dumpy level.

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