Restoring Desert Grasslands: Yeomans Keyline Subsoiling Results at the Circle Ranch, August 2014


Here is a cheap, fast, environmentally-friendly alternative to range poisoning with herbicides. When combined with holistic planned grazing of cattle, and a diverse population of wild animals, this practice leads to rapid conversion of subsoil to topsoil, increases soil fertility,  improves and restores water function, and, is sustainable.


Beginning in September 2013, we subsoiled around 1,100 acres in the Lopez Pasture, located in Circle Ranch’s northern high grasslands. We used a Yeomans Keyline plow pulled by this 67 hp tractor.  Plow lines were set on contour using a laser transit.


2013: Over time, plant communities died out leaving extensive areas of the ranch bare. These areas are showing surface erosion. In the left-center and lower-right are two creosote bushes which died from lack of water.


This is a typical response on the bare ground, which is interspersed with grass. Thistle, broom weed, croton, and many other forbs have sprouted in the furrows. No seeding was done.

A close up of sprouting forbs, showing bare ground beneath and around.

Another area showing response of bare ground.

Almost all of the 1,100 acres have responded at least this well.

In addition, many areas have sprouted new grass. Some of these plants are new; however, many are sprouting from old plants that have been comatose and dying for many years.



Some of these new grass plants represent rejuvenation, while others are seedlings.

September, 2013: Typical area just after subsoiling.


Same area in August 2014.

Typical response one year later. Note the proliferation of forbs in the plow lines, and the bushy grass plants in between those lines.

This pronghorn is grazing on new weeds, which are growing in the plow lines, appearing as green streaks. Pronghorn depend on weeds, which are disappearing because of range poisons and cattle removal. Pronghorn are disappearing fast and no “expert” can say why. Once there were as many as 50 million. Pronghorn were never found apart from bison. Hoof action of the great bison herds, and later cattle, sheep and goat herds, stimulated the growth of pronghorn food (weeds) as well as grasses. Pronghorn have big livers, allowing them to eat weeds that are toxic to many animals. Today, dying pronghorn are often infested with intestinal parasites, which in my opinion, are suppressed by the toxic weeds, critical to pronghorn diets. These same weeds are critical to quail and deer. Cattle, the bison substitute, get up to one-third of their food from forbs (weeds).

Poisoning these weeds with herbicides like Tebuthiuron (Spike) destroys the diverse plant community on which all grasses depend, and kills the food plants critical to the wild animals that such poison programs are intended to help. Plus, Tebuthiuron is highly toxic to animals.


Just as plants need all of the other plants in order to be healthy, so do animals. Creatures like this wild burro co-evolved with pronghorn. Horses and their ancestors have been in our deserts for 50 million years. Human impact caused them to disappear 5,000 years ago. They have been back for 500 years, and yet, our game “managers” say that these animals harm pronghorn. An entire industry has grown up around  the eradication of wild plants and animals that are declared to be “invasive” based on the false science of “Invasion Biology.” Invasion Biology is more akin to a religion since its deeply-held eradication beliefs have no scientific basis. Its practices are a costly boondoggle which harm habitat and wildlife.

In fact, desertification coincides with the removal of the natural impact of herding ruminants. Although much desertification is rightly blamed on poor ranching and agricultural practices, the rootcause of grassland desertification worldwide is the decimation of large herding animals, and their predators and cousin creatures that were essential to ecosystem health.

That is why at Circle Ranch, even though we have run as many as 1000 steers, our primary source of animal impact comes from mule deer, pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, elk, aoudad, llamas, alpacas, burros, horses and even a little herd of goats which we keep for cabrito. And we leave the predators alone. Our bottleneck is water for the animal numbers needed to ‘mow’ all the plant growth.

Everyone advocates biodiversity.  Use your common sense:  We cannot restore biodiversity by destroying biodiversity!


It has to rain! Planned grazing and subsoiling will not work without rainfall; however, even deserts get amazing quantities of water. Circle Ranch gets 12 inches per year: 1 acre-foot per acre, times 32,000 acres. That’s 10.5 billion gallons of water. Most of this runs off or evaporates within hours. Recapturing just a fraction of these billions of lost gallons creates more water than thousands of desert wells could produce.

To quote my friend Steve Nelle, NRCS-retired range scientist: “When you pray for rain, just make sure you can take care of what you get. This is the essence of good range management in far-West Texas. ”

4,800 feet: In this photo, we are about 1,000 feet lower in a very large area of completely bare ground. The green grass grew after treatment three years ago. We have re-treated and gotten a lot of new plants, which need more rain in order to continue to grow.



Same area, extensive bare ground is seen in the far distance. In these areas, we mowed the creosote before subsoiling.

In the lower desert, we treated 700 acres in the 17 Draw Pasture. Here, we have a good comparison of planned grazing versus set stocking, and Keyline subsoiling versus no treatment.

Immediately below is a video taken from a small drone, using a random spot along our fence line. I was very surprised by these comparative outcomes, which are not visible from ground level.

Our neighbor ranches in the traditional West Texas manner. He runs a few cattle, perhaps 30 in this pasture, year-round. Just over his fence, we grazed 450 cows and their calves for 25 days in the winter of 2013. Our approach required and removed more grass than his approach. We did the subsoiling at the same time the cattle were being grazed, so we had both mechanical and animal impact (including that from all the wild animals mentioned above) on the soil.  I find the results both dramatic and satisfying.


If you want eye-opening new insights regarding what is going on in your pastures, a video drone is a very useful tool.

My family and I wish to thank the NRCS for its assistance with our Yeomans Keyline practices.

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  • Thank you for sharing this with me, Christopher. I want you to know that a comment I made to the BLM Advisory Board has gotten a great deal of attention due to the comparisons I made with your land and Diablo Wildlife Management Area. The link to your blog has now been shared in Holland and Bonaire as well, I am pleased to say. It is hard to argue with success, and clearly holistic range management is successful. I see no better way to bring the wild equid advocates, predator advocates and livestock interests together for a common good. The bottom line is that without healthy ranges we all lose. Thank you for the work that you do.
    Marjorie Farabee

  • These are impressive results. There are so many ways NOT to till land but ever since John Deere invented the self-scouring plough in the US everyone all over the world is into cutting up the soil once or twice a year (I understand subsoiling is different). Even as a child, not growing up on a farm but in a rural village and environment, I always wondered why after millennia of toiling humankind seems to have less not more topsoil at its disposal. As a young boy I thought we would actually have to drown in topsoil if each year plants and microbes converted more of carbon dioxide and bird manure into organic material that in turn would rot in place (unless with intensive harvesting we take more away than we put back in). “… plants need all of the other plants in order to be healthy …” Not only is this true and one reason all these mono cultures, with biofuels being the latest and most damaging fad, but people tend to forget that for each plant or organism they can see, there probably are several billion (!) that they can not see (and can never see with the naked eye). And thus they also do not realize that by spraying certain herbicides and fungicides they reduce these billions so drastically that the effects are felt for years afterwards but of course “they can’t explain them”. “… the root cause of grassland desertification worldwide is the decimation of large herding animals …” Indeed, there has just been a study by the World Bank about the African drylands which were until now thought to be rather like deserts and they found that this is where most African livestock is raised … Now, if no one could spot these large animals and put them in perspective no wonder they can’t see anything below that scale …

    • You are correct: we look at the trees but remain blind to the woods.

      Biodiversity – the diversity of life forms – is essential for ecological health. For the plant community to be healthy, it must be impacted by a wide variety of animal life. For the animal community to be vibrant, it must be supported by a wide variety of plant life. And neither can live without abundant soil life. Animals, plants and healthy soil in harmony determine whether water, minerals and sunlight can be used by what is called the ecosystem, food chain, web of life, or Mother Nature.

      The solution to desertification is not poisoning plants and killing wild animals, but protecting and encouraging plant and animal biodiversity.

      Biodiversity is universally praised in principle but increasingly ignored in practice: We cannot “save” biodiversity by destroying biodiversity.

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