Cows and Keyline: Restoring Desert Grasslands

This 17-minute video, “Cows and Keyline” discusses the use of cattle and the Yeomans Keyline plow as the quickest, cheapest, and safest way to restore desert grasslands.

It also documents a project to repair a gully formed by an old road.

Aerial photography provides graphic comparisons of the result of poisons versus planned grazing and subsoiling using Keyline principles, the Australian method of water management in deserts.

CLICK HERE for HD version of: Cows and Keyline: Restoring Desert Grasslands from Christopher Gill on Vimeo.

Every Texas landowner should consider these ideas: this is information I wish I had had before we spent a fortune on ‘erosion control’ that accelerated erosion, and ‘invasive’ plant and animal control which harmed our wildlife and habitat.

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.
  • We run on USFS. Would they agree to something like this? It is so exciting to think the lowly cow grazed and rested properly can make a great contribution to low rainfall areas. Look forward to additional thoughts. Question-can we use a drone to find our cattle in a 45,000 area?

    • Dear David,

      Thank you for this response and question. I do not know what the forest service would say about this subsoil plowing. It certainly works better than herbicides, when properly used which includes holistic planned grazing. I would say that you could get approval for at least limited use on an experimental basis, given how slowly the agencies respond and the degree to which they resist change.

      I do not believe that the drone is effective for searching for lost animals. It only works effectively within eyesight of the operator. This is because you are not flying it by looking in a screen, but rather using the screen to orient the device while the basic line is established line-of-sight from the operator.

      I cannot emphasize strongly enough the need for cattle and also for a wide variety of wild animals. The plow will only work in fairly flat areas that have deep soils. The cows will only work in some areas and in certain ways, and so specialized animals that go into mountains and up onto ledges and down into canyons are also useful in those areas.

      Ideally, there should be eight or 10 large species in these areas. Down in Mexico at the holistic research area Chapa de Mota, outside of Mexico City, they have restored bare ground under forest using mixed herds of domestic animals: pigs, horses, goats, sheep and cows all run together on land that has no free water, just captured and stored rainwater. When you see a mixed herd graze you’ll understand why it takes lots of different animals to get this job done.

      Thanks again for your comment.

    • Scot Snelson of the forest service has been very pro-active with mob grazing and bio-char (Hope Mine project and Coal Creek project). I haven’t talked to him much about key-line that seems to be something which the NRCS is more pro-active about.

      We should be able to use all 3 techniques, keyline, grazing and biochar to increase carbon in the soil. We have a lot of beetle kill which could by pyrolized and combined with compost for reclamation projects. Add to this standard brush cutting and fire mitigation and there’s no end to feedstock for the oven. Right now the biggest impediment to add biochar reclamation is the cost of getting the feedstock to the pyrolizer but I know of one company which has developed a portable kiln.

    • Scot Snelson of the forest service has been very pro-active with mob grazing and bio-char (Hope Mine project and Coal Creek project). I haven’t talked to him much about key-line that seems to be something which the NRCS is more pro-active about.

      We should be able to use all 3 techniques, keyline, grazing and biochar to increase carbon in the soil. We have a lot of beetle kill which could be pyrolized and combined with compost for reclamation projects. Add to this standard brush cutting and fire mitigation and there’s no end to feedstock for the oven. Right now the biggest impediment to add biochar reclamation is the cost of getting the feedstock to the pyrolizer but I know of one company which has developed a portable kiln.

        • Hi Chris,

          Biochar is like charcoal on steroids. The pyrolizer is how you make it. You burn wood (feedstock) and turn it into fertilizer. Unlike the charcoal process the burn doesn’t off gas carbon into the atmosphere it traps the carbon in the char. This makes it a super fertilizer and, more importantly, great at holding water.

          There’s a lot of trash talk about biochar out there but the results on the Hope Mine and Coal Creek (both local projects to me) have been nothing short of spectacular. The “nexus” of biochar with mob grazing in mine reclamation is pretty astounding. Both projects were carried out with strict supervision and scientific monitoring.

          Morgan Williams runs biochar solutions and he’s the one who really knows all this stuff.

          As near as I can tell the biochar failures have been due to putting too much char in the compost.

          The other problem is cost. The franchise for a pyrolizer starts at $300K. It’s a perfect solution for a municipal landfill or the forest service (beetle kill) but it’s a non-starter for an individual. The Carbon Cultures tents however are extremely interesting. I like to think of them as mosquito nets for carbon capture. Portability is the key. I haven’t tried one yet and I’ve been told they have a limited life depending on how many times you fold and transport them but $8K sounds a whole lot better to me than $300K and you get a marketable product to boot.

    • As you know the federal agencies are pretty slow to change, and as a general statement they think that planned grazing is snake oil. However, there is so much evidence now that this may be changing. With respect to the plow perhaps they would allow some experimental areas.

      I would have said that the drone will not work for your cattle search until this new drone was released last week. There are comments on that elsewhere in these answers.

      Good luck and thank you for your comment.

  • G’day,
    Thanks Chris for the excellent work.
    How many cattle are you running on these Keyline plowed landscapes or rather what density/time?

    Cheers, Darren Doherty,
    Director, Regrarians Ltd. (AU)
    (using a Yeomans Plow Co. Keyline Plow since 1994)

    • Hello Darren,

      This year we are running 250 5-weight stockers. We have run as many as 1000 but during the drought our wells pumped off and we were afraid to run any more until we are sure that our water levels are up.

      However at any time the Circle Ranch has 25 big longhorn, 100 desert bighorn sheep, 100 elk, 75 pronghorn, 50 llamas, 300 Desert Mule deer, 20 burros, 75 aoudad, 12 horses and 40 goats. We figure that is like 450 stockers, however not all of these animals use the same terrain so the equivalencies become very confused.

      With 50 paddocks and a 210 day grazing during the dormant season you can see that we are in any given place only a few days. Because our cattle owner does not want his animals mixed with our longhorn, the calves are lost every single day that they are on the ranch, in terms of knowing where to go to find the best feed in every pasture.We have a cowboy detailed to move the entire herd to a different corner of any given pasture every single evening, after they have watered.

      Hope this helps. Here’s to Australia for coming up with Keyline.

  • I would like to update readers on the latest new drone, because you might find your lost cattle with this one. These comments are from my friend Tres Steves, who is my drone coach:

    First of all, THAT VIDEO IS AMAZING! You did such a great job articulating the issue and showing the results of your hard work. I wasn’t even aware of this problem. What a great job you have done both at Circle and at communicating a message via your video.

    The release from DJI yesterday was the greatest advancement in RTF (ready to fly) aerial photography since the Phantom’s original release. The new platform (Inspire 1) is a ‘pro-sumer’ level aerial rig that is better than a PhantomVision2+, but not as industrial as the giant 1000mm octocopters.
    You may recall looking at the outfitted DJI Phantoms on Those were the ones with HD video feedback and more sophisticated gimbals and the like. Well, that is all a thing of the past with the release of Inspire-1. The new platform offers dual controller functionality so you can have one person flying the craft and another can operate the camera. The live video feedback is in full HD and the camera shoots in 4K (four times the resolution of an HD TV screen). The new camera doesn’t have a fish eye lens so you won’t get that distortion you saw when looking down and panning the camera up and down. Another cool thing is that the remote has HDMI, USB and other output ports in the back so you can connect an iPad as the live video screen or even a large TV in the back of the truck allowing a large group to view the live video. With the dual remote functionality, you can enter a flight path and then just use the camera remote to look at your subject while the craft flies itself. The camera can spin 360 degrees and look completely down. While it is flying you can look left and right without even moving the craft. Clearly the issue would be spinning the camera into the landing gear, well they solved that with what they are calling a ‘transformer’ which automatically shifts the way the craft flies to push the camera below the landing gear giving an unobstructed 360 degree view. This transformation takes place automatically after a new set of radars read the ground and assesses that the craft is at a safe altitude to transform. These new radars also provide the ability to hold position even without GPS lock enabling safer and more stable indoor flight and flight under tree canopies. One feature that I think you will really appreciate is the home point now moves. Now the home point is wherever the remote is. So if you are in a vehicle and you have driven a ways away from where you took off, when you say come home, it will come to you, not to where it took off. This could also be a cool feature if you were to take off of a boat. The flight time is 18 minutes (comparable to the Phantom 2+), but the craft itself is significantly larger and thusly more stable in windy conditions.

    So here is the down side, it is $3,300. But keep in mind, I built a $6K+ rig that won’t do what this will do. I am definitely adding this to my list for St. Nick.

    Here is a promotional video that tells a little about the unit:

    It will ship at the beginning of December (I suspect they will develop a backorder status relatively quickly).

  • Utterly fantastic and awe-inspiring. This Futurist accepts these premises and has seen them work on my little 1.63 acres outside of Santa Fe, NM. Thank you, so much for this video.

  • My good friend Allan Savory sent this comment, for which I sincerely thank him:

    Chris thanks for this – although I could not view it in Africa with too little broadband, but have been able to now I am back in NM. You have done a great job well done. I will spread it far and wide because there is no doubt regeneration can be kick-started as we know with Yeoman’s excellent techniques, and you have made the point well that it has to be followed up with holistic planned grazing otherwise all reverts back as we have learned over time.

    • Great stuff!

      Just out of curiosity, how come the whole thing will revert over time if you don’t apply holistic grazing after restoration? It makes sense to me that the restored system might change in the absence of grazing if this was a historically grazed ecosystem, but why do you think it would revert to creosote flat? If the purpose of the keyline methodology is to mitigate channelization and compaction that was caused by improper grazing methods in the first place, what would cause reversion to creosote flat in the absence of grazing?

      Note: I’m not arguing against responsible grazing, just trying to get the big picture.

  • First I would like to say thank you for making and sharing theis video. Wonderful.

    60 Minutes ran a story last night on the severe loss of fresh water around the world but they highlighted Californias famed Central Valley and the alarming rate that the aquifers are being pumped dry. I was disappointed that no mention of keyline plowing or mob grazing was discussed to combat this desertification. I sincerely hope that this video is spread far and wide and can gain an audience with ranchers, farmers and policy makers.

    Even where I am, in the rainy North East of the US, I have personally seen amazing results from these techniques, espcially when practiced in conjunction. Lots of gratitude for making this video and supplying us with a wonderfully narriated commentary on these techniques, which can be shown and shared with others.

    All the best moving forward.


    • Dear John,

      Thank you for your response and comment. I believe these practices will help anywhere but in my opinion, and I may be making people angry here, those huge farming enterprises are built on an unsustainable model. I don’t know where the tipping point is but it has to be there somewhere.

      I have seen amazing results with planned grazing in forested areas so don’t think it is just something for a desert.

  • I’m just a city boy with no such responsibility or opportunity with respect to vast acreages, but I greatly appreciate the work you’re doing and that you made the effort to share it—and so clearly and effectively. I can only encourage you to continue doing so.

  • Dear Chris
    I enjoyed watching and learning on your and your teams endeavors. Congratulations! With my wife we breed merino sheep on an organic and sustainable basis in Chubut, Patagonia/Argentina. Part of our farm resembles in some areas to circleranch, however we have heavy winds. I will be definitely get familiar with yeoman techniques and discussing your findings with holistic mgt professionals in the region.
    Have you been familiar of using the yeomans plough and your techniques in environments with heavy winds?

    • Dear Chris,

      We do not get winds like Patagonia but we get sustained winds of 30 mph for weeks at a time in the spring.In my opinion the plow will work there. I have never been to Chubut but I have spent lots of time in southern Tierra del Fuego and I know how relentless those winds are. I would say that it all depends on your soil: can you move a plow through it at a depth of 12 inches or will you be getting rocks because you definitely cannot plow in rock. All the plow does is open the soil so water can get in.

      Don’t forget to use a laser transit.

      Buena suerte,

    • Excerpt from the above:

      “Cumulative soil carbon content increased to 2–3 m depth in rangelands with a woody component and to at least 1 m depth in open rangelands”

  • Chris, it is a spectacular and insightful overview relevant at the scale of challenges we face. We are preparing to host six months at World Expo (Milan 2105) and this piece is something we would like to use for sure. The intent together with partners Savory Institute and Cloudburst Foundation, is to explore systemically how to move forward the implementation of these practices in 1 billion hectares worldwide. The process will be one also based on a holistic approach from our partner Matt Taylor, which will allow conducting 2-4 day labs with investors, ranchers, other stakeholders, so that a deep and shared understanding emerges that enables concrete investments and commitments to be agreed on the spot.

    I would like to exchange ideas about how to involve Circle Ranch if that were possible.

    Best regards


  • Hi Chris

    THank you for sharing your great work. This is very inspiring for all of us commited to grassland regeneration. We are starting to use the Keyline concept in Patagonia, included in our holistic management framework.

    We have millions of hectares very similar to those you show in your video, and they respond quickly to planned grazing, we cannot wait to see what would be the response using the Yeomans plow and the whole land planning process of the Keyline design.

    We would like to receive all the info that you could send about your experience


    Pablo Borrelli
    Hub Leader Argentina, Savory Institute

  • This nice exchange with an Australian:

    Hello Chris, I am here is Australia. I just watched your vimeo, “Cows and Keyline: Restoring Desert Grasslands”. Thank you for what you are doing, thank you for the measured and thoughtful narrative. It is clear to me that you have a deep love for nature and for humanity. Thank you.

    Dear Jeff: Many thanks, I am so glad you liked the piece. Australia in so many ways has led the world to better range practices.


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