Published Dec 18, 2012

Drought-Proofing Your Farm, Part 3

By Margaret Chamas

Since real-world experience is one of the best teachers, the final day of Darren Doherty’s farm design and planning workshop concluded in a field where participants could see implementation of all the theories and discussion of keyline plowing and permaculture design.

With a brief background in farm planning and carbon and pasture management, attendees now asked how to most effectively and efficiently implement keyline.  What if someone cannot afford livestock AND plowing, or lacks experience or time?  Darren said that most often, the greatest bang-for buck comes from livestock and grazing.  While soil disturbance and forage clipping can be achieved with a subsoiler or keyline plow and pasture mowing, the additional cycling of forage through the rumen and trampling of manure back into the soil is a huge benefit.  Decomposition in the moist environment of the rumen captures nutrients in microbial biomass and byproducts (excreted in manure), while oxidation takes place on the soil surface, which releases some C to the atmosphere as CO2.

Some expressed concern at enteric methane emissions of grazing livestock.  Darren pointed out that the net assimilation of the pasture – particularly when growing rampantly with proper management – sequesters more carbon than cattle emit, despite the fact that methane is more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2.  Furthermore, cattle grazing high-quality forage produce less methane than those grazing high-fiber, low-quality forages.

How often does keyline plowing need to occur?  Depending on the existing landscape, and the manager’s goals and plans, it varies.  However, two or three passes is often adequate; a farmer may only need a keyline plow for himself for a few years.

Fencing was another big topic.  Since keeping animals in the same place for too long invites parasite infestation, the use of portable fence is advised to keep animals moving.  To ease labor requirements, Darren outlined some systems like Kiwitech that use multiple reels simultaneously to let out fence with step-in posts, with a  spring mechanism allowing the user to trigger the fence “release” from far away.

After lunch came the real fun.  At a nearby farm, Darren walked participants through the process of scanning the landscape and choosing potential building sites.  A small valley was located and the keypoint identified; using a laser level and measuring rod, the keyline was flagged.  A keyline plow loaned by the MUM then dug in and traced out that first contour line.  While the soil was a bit too compact and cold for ideal plowing, attendees could see how the plow essentially sliced into the soil and “lifted” it from below, without turning over the entire soil surface.

The conference was a tremendous success and an amazing opportunity to learn from a world leader in sustainable –sorry, REGENERATIVE – agriculture and farm planning.  Participants walked away with increased knowledge of what happens under their feet on their farms, and ideas on how to make it work for them and for the environment.  The sharing of ideas and information sparked additional conversations that will likely lead to more workshops and conferences on these topics in the future.


Resources: – Darren’s website – also look for HeenanDoherty on facebook – more farm planning help, particularly for planning and building dams – information on permaculture and courses