Keyline 101: Desert Grassland Restoration

This 18-minute video explains how we use P.A. Yeomans’ Keyline concepts to improve water function at our family’s 32,000-acre Circle Ranch in the Chihuahuan high-desert grasslands of far-West Texas. The Keyline explanation is followed by a discussion of water harvesting and the role of drones.


NOTE: this post was originally published to this site in November of 2015.


Keyline 101 from Christopher Gill on Vimeo.

This video was filmed in the Sierra Diablo Mountains, Hudspeth County, far-West Texas, for presentation at the Quivira Coalition Conference in Albuquerque, November 11, 2015.

Photography, script, and narration by Christopher Gill

Laura and I wish to acknowledge the following individuals and organizations for their help and friendship. Their areas of expertise and contact data follow:

Evidencio Seijas, Foreman, Circle Ranch:
Allan Savory, Savory Institute:
Courtney White, Quivira Coalition:
Bill Zeedyk, Water Harvesting:
Abe Collins, Keyline Consulting:
Ken Yeomans, Keyline Consulting:
Fred Porter, Keyline Bulldozing:
Gary Fuentes, NRCS:
Steve Nelle, Rangeland Consultation:
Noah Small, Yeomans Plow Sales and Service:
Ann Adams, Holistic Management International:
Richard Teague, Range Science:
Jim Howell, Rangeland Consultation:
Guy Glosson, Rangeland and Cattle Consultation:
Dale Rollins, Wildlife and Quail Consultation:
David Theodoropolous, Habitat Advice:
Holistic Management International (HMI):
The Quivira Coalition:
The Savory Institute: contact@savoryinstitute.orgNational Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)The Yeomans Plow Company: Woodward Cantu, Script editing:

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.
  • Mr. Gill,
    Your cost per acre is much lower than the estimations of several other evaluations of keyline plowing. I’ve found cost estimations between of $40-$60 per acre for a single pass (based on cost of recommended 4 passes divided by 4). Why are other estimating cost of 4-6 times higher? Can you provide any more data on your cost/ acre?

    • Dear Brant,

      I do not understand your methodology, why would there be 4 passes across the same land? Our plow makes one pass with five shanks running about 22 inches apart. Because the plow is 12 feet wide, each pass is 12 feet wide, so every time the plow covers 3,630 linear feet it has plowed 1 acre (43,560 ft.²). Change the plow width and these numbers also change as I explained: 12 feet wide hits the “sweet spot”.

      We can plow about 20 acres per day. In some places we can plow more than 20 acres per day.

      Our costs include eight hours of diesel, one day of labor, and an allocation of tires, plow points and repairs reduced to a per day cost. I estimate these variable costs to be around $200 per day, so divided by 20 acres equals $10. Actually we have NRCS cost share contracts of $7-$10 per acre, this reduces the cost below $10.

      This $10 does not include purchase and depreciation of plow and tractor, or a profit.If we were to contract to have this done the cost would be higher. If I only had, say, 200 acres to treat I would contract it out. But with big areas it makes much more sense to buy a very cheap tractor and a small plow as I discussed in the video.

      The problem with the Yeomans plow is this 20 acre per day limit: the plowing goes quite slowly.

      I hope this answers your question.

  • Subject: Yeomans Plow and Mesquite

    Message Body:
    Mr. Gill,

    Thank you for taking the time to post so many useful articles on your website. I especially appreciate you publishing results of the practices you use to manage habitat on your ranch. Your latest video describing what is useful and what is not is especially helpful. If possible, I would appreciate your insight into the use of your Yeoman’s Plow on some land my family operates in South Texas.

    For at least 40 years the ranch was, “understocked and overgrazed,” as Mr. Savory likes to say. Prior to that it was large pastures with only stock tanks to water the cattle. Now much of the land is dominated by mesquite flats with nothing growing underneath. The soil is eroding and pedestaling around the mesquite stumps. The mesquite is of the bush variety and rarely gets over shoulder high. The grass responds well to chemical brush control, but soon goes back to mesquite. I would like to get away from chemical or mechanical brush control and move towards a holistic approach and manage for perennial grasses instead of managing against brush species. So, with your experience with the Yeoman’s Plow in Texas, could we use it to subsoil the mesquite flats without first removing the mesquites? It seems as if we might constantly have to replace shear pins every time a shank hits a mesquite stump. I have seen Yeoman’s “Stumpjumper” and it looks like it might be a viable alternative. However, I would like to keep the operation as simple as possible. Would your plow work on these short mesquite flats?

    Any insight you can offer or a reference to someone who is already using the Yeoman’s Plow in the brush country would be greatly appreciated. Again, thank you for showing us we can save our native rangelands using holistic practices. Thank you!

    Best Regards,
    Kevin Rothe
    Universal City, TX

    Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for your kind words; These are thoughtful questions.

    Follow Allan’s cheapskate inclinations and avoid purchasing the Stump Jumper: it is just too expensive and will probably require a big tractor.

    I do not know of anyone using Keyline on open ranges anywhere in Texas, other than ourselves. I have never professed universal knowledge on the use of the Yeomans plow and have often told my friends that the creosote flats of far-West Texas are easier to deal with than the juniper breaks of our ranch on the Guadalupe, or the brush lands of South Texas.

    What do you hope to achieve? The elimination of the Mesquite? Or the stimulation of plants within the Mesquite? Or a combination of both? How big is your country? How old are the trees? Depending on the answers, maybe a combination of a mower and an even smaller (4-ft) plow might be best to thin out young trees and get around those that are left. Animals are really necessary and exotics may work best. Call me at 210-240-300 and we can visit.


  • Responding to this question/comment:

    Hello Chris, at the Circle Ranch what soil depth do you consider deep enough to Keyline Plow? At our family place in Blanco ,TX our avg. topsoil depth is maybe 6 inches at best. I see that Circle has some shallow soil depth also in the hills. Appreciate all the info you are putting out on ranch improvement. Thanks, Alex

    Surprisingly, rather shallow. 12” is what I have been advised. This is with the new Unverfirth plow, which is less disruptive of the surface and surface plants, and more adjustable in terms of ability to keep level in different conditions – which minimizes disruption from shallow-running chisels running too high because the plow is too low at one end and too high at the other. If you are using a Yeomans, it needs to be a little deeper. I would have thought that the right depth was deeper, but then these desert roots are shallow. Maybe successive plowings would be at 18”. But the moisture in desert grasslands appear to me to be restricted to the upper 2’. So how is recharge occurring? Beats me.

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