Published Jun 11, 2015

Swaling for the Next Generation: Carney field day recap

By Sally Worley

Practical Farmers field day season has started off strong! Eighty individuals came together for a wonderful afternoon at the Carney Family Farm to talk about planning for a permaculture swale system in a livestock pasture. The day threatened rain, but instead delivered perfect field day conditions: cloudy, breezy and non-humid.

The goals of the field day were to:

  • Provide an introduction to permaculture and water farming practices;
  • Share how Bruce Carney and his family think these practices will fit into their current grazing operation and get feedback from attendees; and
  • Discuss existing resources, such as CSP and EQIP, and how NRCS incentives can help provide assistance when implementing permaculture concepts.

Introduction and farm history

Most of the Carney family participated in the field day. It is impressive to observe the support and open exchange of information being shared in this farming family!

Bruce started working full-time at his family farm in 1996. He worked on the farm as well as for a construction company full-time until just a couple of years ago when he retired from his construction job.

When Bruce came onto the 300-acre farm full-time, 200 acres were planted into row crops and hay, and 100 into permanent pasture. Today the entire farm is permanent pasture, and Bruce rents 300 additional acres of pasture ground. They grass finish 40-50 beef cattle and non-gmo grain finish 10-20 head of beef each year; all are direct-marketed.

Bruce is working toward year-round grazing on the farm, but still feeds hay 30-45 days a year. Most hay is purchased off-farm, and is the only fertilizer brought into the farm. Bruce built and started using a Yeoman plow this year. He has used it so far on 30 acres to help alleviate compaction on ground that used to be planted into annual crops. Bruce no-till drills annual cocktail mixes into his perennial pasture to improve quality of forage as well as increase soil health.

Swales and water farming

Bruce first heard about swales at the Practical Farmers annual conference short course featuring Mark Shepard. Then, last fall Bruce and his son Derek attended a field day at Greg Judy’s farm. At the event, Greg and Mark Shepard talked about permaculture and swales. Both Derek and Bruce left the event excited with new possibilities. Their takeaways:

  • There are ways to use water more effectively and keep it on the farm longer.
    • One inch of rain equates to 27,000 gallons of water being added to an acre of ground. Swales can help slow this water down and keep it from running off, increasing soil infiltration.
    • Bruce wants these water management techniques to grow additional forage, fruit and nut trees, improve wildlife habitat, and reduce erosion.
  • There are many ways trees can enhance their grazing operation.
    • Trees will provide windbreaks and shade, which make year-round grazing more feasible.
  • Enterprise stacking provides a plethora of options to create additional income and support future generations on the same acres.

You may be wondering, what are swales? I found a good explanation on the Permaculture Research Institute website:

Simply put, swales are water-harvesting ditches, built on the contour of a landscape. Most ditches are designed to move water away from an area, so the bottom of the ditch is built on a modest slope, usually between 200:1 to 400:1.

Swales, however, are flat on the bottom because they’re designed to do the opposite; they slow water down to a standstill, eliminate erosion, infiltrate the surrounding area with water, and recharge the groundwater table. When water moves along the flat bottom of a swale, it fills it up like a bathtub — that is, all parts of the bath tub fill at the same rate. The water in a swale is therefore passive; it doesn’t flow the way it would on a slope.

Government conservation programs

Paul Miller, local NRCS district conservationist, spoke about cost-share programs to help implement conservation on-farm. He talked about EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) and CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program). Paul and Bruce talked about how the key to maximizing the benefit of CSP and EQIP is advance planning. NRCS doesn’t have specific programs to add permaculture swales, but Paul will help Bruce figure out how to apply for financial incentives within current programs that help move him toward his farm conservation goals.

Planning for your soil type

Forester Luke Gran, who owns and operates Prudenterra, walked participants through Bruce’s web soil survey, and talked about how the soils on the Carney farm will inform species selection for swale planting.  Luke recommended the Iowa Woodland Suitability Composite as a good resource to select species for particular soils and settings. Luke also talked about how trees play an important role in swale establishment. Their extensive root system helps keep the soil in place.

Swale mapping at Carney Family Farm

After Paul and Luke spoke, Bruce and Derek showed attendees the layout of their future swales. The start and end points were established, and then, using a laser level, future swales were flagged out on a 1% grade. The zig-zag path of the swales will create a meandering water flow, versus the current straight down-slope grade water currently takes. This slower flow will increase absorption percentage, improve water filtration, and create an area in the swale prime for adding high-value crops.

Once planted, Bruce plans to fence swales off from cows to prevent them rubbing on, eating and breaking plants. Attendee John Gilbert suggested Bruce put the fence right on the swale ridge; this is a nice level spot that unless fenced, cows will use as a walkway.

Bruce is planning on making his swales about 18” deep. The size of the swale depends on what you want to plant on the swale. Bruce identified some drive-through pond areas in his swale system. These will not be permanent ponds, but shallow ponds that provide temporary, seasonal water and wildlife habitat when rainfall is heavy.

Attendee Nathan Anderson asked about optimal time to dig swales and plant vegetation. Bruce is hoping to move his soil around to create the swale topography next spring, and then plant into the swales by next fall. Bruce stressed that creating swales is low-risk. Both Mark Shepard and Greg Judy emphasized the small amount of risk in establishing swales on-farm. If the swale washes out before it is established, you’re back where you started without a swale.

Bruce talked about how he is involving his family extensively in the addition of swales to the farm’s pastures. These systems take time to mature, so Bruce will not be farming when many of the benefits of this system are realized. By adding an emphasis on water farming and stacking enterprises, Bruce is planning for the next generation of the farm.

The field day group discussed different grass species for planting swales versus pasture. Attendee Tom Wahl discussed how grass characteristics for orcharding and grazing are different. Grasses used for orcharding do not provide a lot of biomass for cows, and grasses used for grazing compete with orchard crops. Finding species that work on the swales will require attention to what will foster tree health.

During the field tour, Bruce pointed out a pasture he fenced off a few years ago from cows and planted small trees. The difference between the grazed ground and the ground where cows hadn’t been was stark. The grazed ground contained many species of grasses and legumes. These plants were putting out a lot of seed. The ungrazed ground consisted of mainly brome grass. This aggressive grass was very content, thus it had very few seed heads. Brome grass was choking out the young trees. This pasture comparison illustrated two things very clearly: 1) Grazing helps manage pastureland for species diversity and regeneration of seeds; 2) After you plant trees, it is important to manage the ground to get the trees established.

What does the family think?

The field day wrapped up back at the home place. The family shared ideas for enterprises to stack using the swale system. Ideas were many and varied, from fruit trees to asparagus, nuts, even to the annual peanut crop.

Bruce’s family shared their thoughts on the project. The next generation, niece Emma and nephew Cody, spoke about preserving the environment and global warming, and how ideas posed by Bruce and the rest of the family help work toward more responsible farm conservation.

Amber Miller, Bruce’s daughter, currently markets Carney Family Farm products. She spoke with confidence about their network of customers and the ability to market alternative products produced on the farm in the future.

When I asked Derek what he thought his dad should try from the robust idea list, he responded: “Everything, which is what he’ll do any way. It will be nice to try a lot of ideas out and see what works best for the farm.” Like father, like son.

Bruce wrapped up the field day presentation demonstrating the Yeoman keyline plow he built. At the end of the day, attendees gathered around and shared a delicious potluck. Practical Farmers potlucks, infused with homegrown and -made foods, are simply the best.