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A Sliver of Keyline Pie

December 12, 2010

“In a rural setting Keyline is far more than a unique combination of water conservation and farming with nature. Keyline completely supersedes the widely imposed but misconceived concept of Soil Conservation. One of the typical benefits of Keyline is the rapid development of living soil.” Keyline Designs.

I mention keylines, or where slope meets swale, quite a bit in my grazing posts.  Our land has distinctive keylines, but until I really started getting into rotational grazing, I had no idea what a difference the management of our keylines could make in our grass productivity.  My prior experience with the hills we have pertained to making sure the tractor brakes were working or not, if it was not, you needed to know if you could ride it out to the flat.  We have one field that I would call flat, the rest lie like a rumpled blanket, most have odd shapes due to trees, and the lay of the land, because all of our open land was cleared by hand and horse.  If you have flat, valley floor type fields this post probably won’t be too interesting.  But identifying your keylines if you have them can make a difference, because you need to view your grazing land not as just an acreage number, but lots of micro-climates within each field.   I also don’t have vast fields so this pertains to high density, short duration stocking with a small herd of cattle, and small paddocks with 24 hour moves.  I need to maximize my grazing capacity, and this is the best way for me to do it, by paying attention to my land.

I see in keylines now, and I don’t think about them much since I know the drill so well, but after our snow began melting a few weeks ago, I saw something I had never seen before, not because it hadn’t happened before, but because I hadn’t been in this particular pasture when the conditions were the same, and quite possibly if I had seen this before I probably would not have even noticed.  Of course, I didn’t have the camera, which would have been priceless.  What I saw was just how much keylines really had to do with the soil temperature.   The cows were still at the house, and I went to check on the snow melt on the lower pastures, with hopes of being able to move them back to grazing, so I could quit feeding hay.  When I broke out of the woods into the pasture, the pasture was melted off all the south facing slopes but the slight north facing slopes still had snow, even though all received full sun.  And in this particular field the north facing slope in full sun is really flat or what I would consider flat anyway, the slope and swale are very slight.  But here it was in black and white, just a few degrees difference, which can really equate to quite a difference when you’re trying to grow a crop.

Since I didn’t have a photo to show you I decided to draw it out, so you could visualize what the heck I am talking about.  And maybe these grazing “maps” will illustrate why you can’t do simple math for rotational grazing, when you just figure only acreage and cows in the equation.  Good grazing is art and science.  Every growing season may be different and obviously every pasture may be different.  Scrawling pictures has saved my marriage more than once.  We are always saying the same thing, but we sure get the to the conclusion in a totally different way… . 😉  Maybe these drawings can save your pasture too.

Forgive the crudity of the drawings, they are not to scale.

This pasture is about 3 acres, flanked on south, east and west sides by conifer forest.   We tend to see our land as it appears on a map like the one I have drawn.  Flat.  This field is far from flat, and as you can see, where the humans were allowed their rigid penchant for straightness, three sides of this field are bound by straight fences.  Where the land fought the battle and won, was on the steep side where the land is too steep to work, therefore the land prevailed.  It’s easy to grow trees here in our neck of the woods, it’s hard to grow pasture.  Or I should say, good pasture.  I have both good and poor pasture.  And I’m trying to make more of it good.

I’m guessing too, if I asked you to make 16 paddocks in that 3 acre map you would start at the left side, following the straight lines and draw out  squares as close to the same size as possible, until you got to the canyon side and weird tits.  That is how we started out.  It worked, but it wasn’t the best.  It was better than one 3 acre paddock for sure, but the word keyline hadn’t entered our vocabulary yet.

This second drawing is how the field actually looks when you see it, and you’re paying attention to the slope and swale.  The dotted lines represent the keyline and my temporary fences.

This map shows how I actually grazed this pasture in November, taking into account the keylines.  When it was grazed in June it was grazed in 3 paddocks following the keylines.  A grazing map like this is good but you have to also notice the differences in your pasture.  I don’t keep meticulous notes about all this, but it is in my head.  If I were to take notes for someone else to graze my cows in this particular pasture this is how they might read:

1)  Good – thick grass where the swale has gathered some runoff over the years. No morning sun.
2) Poor – weaker and shady most of the day.
3) Good.  No morning sun.
4) Same as #2.
5) OK – shady but gets sun at noon.
6) Poor – weak grass, sun at noon.
7 -11) Good -south facing, full sun.
12) Poor – steep north facing slope.
13) OK,  with more sun on west facing part.
14-16) Good, with northwest facing slope.

You may have noticed the alternating good and poor paddocks.  I don’t like to only dole out paddocks on crappy grass for too many days.  You notice it right away in performance and attitude.  That way the cows are also depositing the previous days good forage on the weak areas, distributing better seeds for the seed bank and adding extra fertility.  Try not to have good and bad in the same paddock too, the cows will gravitate towards the higher fertility ground and steer clear of the weak ground.  They like to rest on the higher fertility spots, I am sure it feels good to them.

I did draw the water trough in paddocks 1,2,3, & 4 to show the 4-way split I can get away with when the weather is cool.  Of course, I move the trough when the cows vacate the paddocks.  The next trough move was split between 5 & 6.

How do I do figure out where to build the fence and do I build it all at one time?   That will be the next post.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2010 8:33 pm

    You are such a good teacher. I can see all of your years of experiences have helped you to work your land to the best for each paddock. It all makes perfect sense. I still say you should write a book.

    • December 12, 2010 9:01 pm

      Finding Pam, I try to convey what I know the simplest way I can. Lots of editing from the original drafts 😉

  2. December 12, 2010 8:43 pm

    You threw me with that word, ‘swale’. I Googled it. “a low area (especially a marshy area between ridges)”.

    I assume that you don’t mean the usual connotation, of being marshy or wet soil, or man-made intentionally to drain water.


    • December 12, 2010 9:00 pm

      Brad K., no, just as a term to describe our pasture geography. If we didn’t have well-drained soil, our swales (which aren’t man-made) would be wet, especially with the amount of rainfall we receive. Where I live, our flat land is actually ridge-top land, and the water collects in the ravines in its travel to the ocean.

  3. Anne Taliaferro permalink
    December 13, 2010 12:53 am

    Thanks so much for this post. This helps to clarify the concept for me. I agree with Pan – you are a good teacher & I think you need to write a book – or just collect your posts into a book.

  4. December 13, 2010 5:36 am

    Really interesting. I’m fascinated by simple practices that are practical and sensible, yet aren’t practiced widely in contemporary agriculture. You’d think this type of management would just be the norm.

    Look forward to the next post.

  5. December 13, 2010 8:12 am

    I’m really loving your whole blog which I’ve been reading for quite some time now. We’re in the process of looking for acreage now because we’ve just moved to OR. (SoCal to SoOre –Roseburg☺)
    Im sure I’ll be referring back to certain posts (like this one) when we eventually find our perfect place and get my animals moved up here. THANKS!

  6. December 13, 2010 12:00 pm

    Wow. While I don’t see myself doing any serious pasturing, this was a huge help. In this second winter some patterns of wind and sun are beginning to become clear. While my land is mostly pancake-flat, the barn and house are dead in the middle, and the orchard occupies the south east. I DO have soil differences, and I DO have significant differences in temps due to wind and shade caused by the house and barn. As our 12+” of snow has melted, I’ve been watching the patterns as the grass emerges, knowing I’ll be able to use that info – somehow – in my garden/permaculture planting.

    Hearing abt keylines at this moment really snaps it into focus. Although it’s not topographical differences, in my small, 10 acre scale, I’m dealing with much the same issues.

    Now if I can only find ways to turn this budding knowledge into useful information.


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