Restoring Water Function: What is Keyline Contouring?

We are currently completing 1,000-acres of subsoiling in one of our northern pastures at the Circle Ranch. This is a very effective tool for us, when used in conjunction with planned grazing.

Many people ask:

  • What is Yeomans Keyline?
  • What is Keyline Contouring?

Here is how its inventor, the Australian manufacturer and conservationist P.A. Yeomans described it 60-years ago.

“In a smooth grassy valley, a location called the Keypoint can be found where the lower and flatter portion of a primary valley floor suddenly steepens. The — Keyline — of this primary valley is revealed by pegging a contour line through the keypoint, within the valley shape. All the points on the line are at the same elevation as the keypoint.

Contour plowing parallel to the Keyline, both above and below will automatically become “off-contour” but the developing pattern will tend to drift rainwater runoff away from the valley centre and incidentally, prevent erosion. Keyline pattern cultivation on ridge shapes is done parallel to any suitable contour but only working on the upper side of the contour guide line. This automatically develops a pattern of off-contour cultivation in which all the rip marks left in the soil will slope down towards the centre of the ridge shape. This pattern of cultivation allows more time for water to soak in. Keyline pattern cultivation also enables controlled flood irrigation of undulating land, which further assists in the fast development of deep biologically fertile soil, which results in improving soil nutrition and health.

In many countries including Australia, it is important to get optimum absorption of rainfall and Keyline cultivation does this as well as delaying the potentially damaging concentration of runoff. The Yeomans technique differs from traditional contour plowing in several important respects. Random contour plowing also becomes off contour but usually with the opposite effect on runoff water causing it to quickly shed off ridge shapes and be concentrated in valleys. The limitations of the traditional system of soil conservation, with its “safe disposal” approach to farm water was an important motivational factor in the development of the Keyline system.”

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    • Call Noah Small (805) 238-5791, or Ralph Moore (814) 443-1931. Noah is in California, Ralph in New York. Both are very reliable.

      If there is an American product that does this I do not know of it. Soil ripping sounds similar but I have never been able to find any other source for the equipment or practice Frankly, and this will offend some folks, this process is too cheap and uses no chemicals: it does not get on the Big Ag radar as a result!

      I advise you to stick with a proven product – 60 years experience – and do not try and reinvent the wheel.

        • Dear Devin,

          I am not sure where you are or what you have in mind but here is another thought. Have the plow fabricated in Juarez or El Paso. Buy all the Yeomans components: shanks, points, wheels, coulters, seed pots and all attachment fittings, and attach those to the plow where the frame is fabricated. It is just a thought. Cal me sometime: 210-240-3800.


          Chris Gill

    • Just wanted to say as another implement option, We have been using the Case ecolo till 2500 configured with no till shanks and no till points with great success.
      Keep up the great work!

  • I saw the youtube movies of abe collins. Where he shows, standing in a deep pit, what the keyline subsoiling plow can accomplish in 1 year, 1 season!!!. Amazed. But then I tried to relate to 1000 acres of subsoiling at say 3 miles per hour using a 10 ft tow behind tool…on a 40 hrs per week schedule…. thats months of work!!!! But the people of Circle Ranch don’t think that is worth mentioning…MONTHS of sitting on that damn tractor! THAT IS COMMITMENT

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  • I thank you for not only using Keyline Contouring and the Yeoman’s plow, but also for your meticulous photography and documentation.
    I spent summers of 53-65 in the Oklahoma panhandle on my Grandparents 1600 wheat/cattle ranch. Seeing what you have accomplished gives me a hankering to buy back the old place, and fulfill the dream they painted in my imagination.
    Your example gives hope for the future – keep up the great work!

    • Thank you very much for this nice compliment.

      Working to restore desert grassland is a lot like farming, but I have often wished that we could grow field crops. I would approach it so differently, using the ideas of permaculture and sustainable agriculture. One thing we are going to try this summer, is inter-plant chicory and alfalfa in an area that gets large run off, where we have restored grass growth to a remarkable degree.

      I hope you get to by your grandparents place.

      Thanks again.

  • Came across your post. Have a 5 acre spread where an acre of it is a north slope. Have been looking for a way to keyline a portion of it with the other side as a terrace as the slope is steeper. Is there an attachment to a riding lawnmower that would work? Have seen where you can get a cultivator for a riding lawnmower. If nothing else, could aerate the soil and help with plantings. Wanting to put in several woody beds of edible perennials along the lower portion of the slopes and direct rainwater where it slowly soaks in instead of washing away. From a cost standpoint, a riding lawnmower attachment would make more sense than spending money on a keyline plow, and don’t have an interest in getting a tractor. Would something link this work? —

    • The first thing to remember is to use a transit in setting your contour. An optical transit is lots of trouble and takes two people to use, whereas a laser transit is very easy and one person can set the contour.

      Set the line using irrigation flags like the sprinkler people use to mark broken heads. Set a mark every 50 feet and that is the line you follow when you cultivate.

      Anything that will dig a trench will create a surface pattern, which if placed on contour will tend to slow and spread water. A Keyline plow is better because it is opening the soil to water penetration.I think there are attachments for small lawnmowers and four wheelers which might do this. The main thing is to get at least 6 inches into the soil and create a pattern with a cultivation line every 18 to 24 inches.

      I strongly urge you to buy and read Water for Every Farm by PA Yeomans. This will help you understand the principles. Once you have those down experimentation is safer.

  • What’s up, everything is going perfectly here and
    ofcourse every one is sharing facts, that’s actually fine, keep up writing.

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