Applying Keyline to ripping, sowing and tree planting

This post is a pictorial example of how to apply P.A. Yeomans’ Keyline-patterning for deep ripping, direct drilling or tree planting. It is meant to hopefully help clarify the subject a little for those who’d like to apply keyline patterning to their landscape in some respect, as I’ve seen and heard a number of incorrect applications and explanations floating around the internet. Nice to have a few clearer digital images too.

For a rundown on other aspects of Keyline design, a good starting point is to check out Abe Collins and Darren Doherty’s article, Keyline Mark IV, or visit Ken Yeomans site,, where you can purchase Yeoman’s book, ‘Water for Every Farm’.

Finding the Keypoint and Keyline

If you would like to take advantage of the water distribution benefits offered by keyline pattern cultivation, identifying the keypoint and keyline are critical.

(Click on the first image to see a larger slideshow)

Application of Keyline patterning for:

Cultivation (i.e. Deep ripping, Pasture Cropping)

If you’ve decided to rip a paddock to help ease 100 years of compaction (having properly assessed the suitability of the landscape for this practice), or you’re direct drilling for a Pasture Crop, it doesn’t take a great deal more effort to do so on a keyline pattern. Here’s how I go about it.

Tree Mounds

Utilising keyline patterning for setting out tree rows can be very advantageous for any situation where equidistant rows are favourable, particularly where machinery is utilised in management of the inter-row.  There are two well known proponents of this method: The first is Darren Doherty, (many would have seen the image iconic image taken of the Tree Crop paddock on George Howson’s agroforestry property, Dalpura Farm), Mark Sheppard is another.

Here’s an example of how to set out a 4 lane tree belt using keyline patterning.

The same sort of approach can be taken for larger plantations, but there has to end up being some stub rows, or else the runs can get ridiculously steep and be erosion hazards in their own right.

Before you do any sort of hillside cultivation or earthworks which encourage more water to soak into a hillside, make sure you check the local environmental conditions carefully, particularly the presence of dispersive or slaking soils, saline seepage or the occurrence of slips in the local region. Entire hillsides of topsoil have been lost by ripping in the wrong place.

Disclaimer: Where water flow is concerned there are substantial risks involved. While the information and images we publish are formulated in good faith, with the intention of raising awareness of landscape rehydration processes, the contents do not take into account all the social, environmental and regulatory factors which need to be considered before putting that information into practice.  Accordingly, no person should rely on anything contained within as a substitute for specific professional advice.

Please visit and ‘Like’ our Facebook page to hear about future posts.

Article and Images © Cam Wilson, Earth Integral, 2013

  1. Matto said:

    Stellar post, Cam! When deep cultivating on a flat floodplain, would you follow your valley pattern downwards, or would you be better off starting from your creekline and working up? It wouldn’t take much to manipulate water flow on level land

    • Thanks Dave!

      It depends on where the flows are heading. If the existing soil is really compacted, then rip lines could easily steer water from the ‘flood runners’ to other parts of the floodplain, firstly through the initial furrows, and later through capillary action as the soil improves. A good example would be in the post “Reinstating Nature’s flood fertigation infrastructure”. Water on the valley margin could easily enhance pasture production over a much greater area in those diagrams with the integration of deep ripping, or even rows of Casuarina or Poplars for a more permanent diversion.

      As far as direction of cultivation goes, if you are trying to steer water from any valley (or depression) towards a ridge (or slight rise) this rule of thumb works wherever you are in the landscape:
      – Look along the contour which you are going to plough.
      – If the gradient is steeper where you are starting compared to where you’re wanting the water to head to, cultivate uphill.
      – If the gradient is less where you’re starting compared to where you’re wanting the water to head to, cultivate downhill.

  2. Excellent work Cam! People wanting to know more can also go to our eHD lecture – Keyline Basics – Geometry…

  3. Hi Cam, thank you so much for an informative post. I have recently bought a GP 39 Yeomans Plough along with a new farm and new start in life. I have been self studying numerous integrated approaches to farming, including, Keyline, NSF, Permaculture, Holistic, Regen, Keyline (to name a few). I am overwhelmed and fortunate to have so much quality information. Although I have never met many of my inspirations, Darren Doherty, Alan Savory, Peter Andrews, Joel Salatin and yourself thank you for providing excellent information and being excellent mentors. I have started my own blog based on ‘An Integrated Approach To Farming’ at in which I aim to utilize a no. of sustainable techniques in order to be the best farm custodian I can be.

    Hoping to ask you a quick question: I have a number of long swale/contour type ditches on my property which I believe were constructed by the Soil conservation dept many years ago. I plan to use them as traditional type Permaculture swales. They are all on contour at varying contour heights.. I was planning to keyline cultivate above and below the swales on a simple parallel pattern.

    My pattern diagram is located on my blog under Keyline Menu. Your thoughts would be much appreciated.

    Once again, thank you. I look forward to following your page.

    • Hi Paul, thanks very much for the compliment but I’ve got a few more years until I’m in a that bracket of pioneers.

      Firstly, if you’re hoping to use your contours for water retention I’d get a laser onto them because most of them were constructed by Soilcon at about 1 in 400 (slowly directing water towards the valley).

      The presence of contours suggests you might have sodic soils in which case you need to be careful with both ripping and infiltrating water in the contours (you could end up with sheet and tunnel erosion issues). There is a good summary of sodic soils and how to recognise them on the Victorian DPI website.

      If sodicity isn’t an issue and you find the contours are actually drains, then low ‘dam walls’ can be constructed within the trench to retain water.

      When ripping in close proximity below the contours, because runoff will be minimal in that area, you don’t need to worry too much about the patterning. It’s the aeration and cracking of the hardpan that will give the most benefit on an overgrazed cow paddock.

      I couldn’t find the image of the ripping pattern you’re using. SW of the driveway just plow uphill, and to the NE of the drive, in the first valley the keypoint looks like it’s just below the contour and the valley-ridge boundary looks to be about 40-50m from the valley floor. Above the contour in that section of the property, just plow uphill right the way around.

      I wish you the best with your new venture. If you’d like feedback on any aspects of your design I’d be happy to provide my consultancy rates.

      Cheers, Cam

      • Hi Cam, thank you so much for taking the time to respond. Your information has opened my eyes to important considerations to which you have highlighted. Thank you!!!

        My neighbor told me he thought the ‘drains’ were designed to reduce and channel run off in specific areas reducing broad soil loss???.. Every 40m or so there are small gaps for water to run off after heavy rain. Lets hope they were designed as drains and as you indicated hoping to dam up the gaps at vary spots along the contour.

        Thanks again and as I move forward it may be wise for me to seek your consultancy rates as I prefer to be welll informed than to make costly and poor landcare decisions.


    • G’day, couple of points to add to Paul and Cam’s posts:

      1. I have Keyline Plowed a lot of sodic soils and provided you back it up with the pattern of cultivation (ie. pattern of plowing lines and timely management of grasses) I have seen this to very much remedy some of the issues one faces with these soils otherwise.

      2. A simple understanding in Keyline pattern plowing is that (generally) if you have a ridge contour then you should always plow parallel ‘UP’ from that contour. The reverse is (again generally) the case in valleys where you plow parallel ‘DOWN’ from that contour. On ridges the pattern of contours flatten as you go up the slope towards the crest contours and in valley they flatten out as you go down the slope towards the creek contours and therefore the next landscape component.

      Cam’s right, get your laser or other level out and mark out you contours so you know what’s what…Better still get someone like FarmingIT out and get a full blown survey done (about $8/ha + $1/km ex Colac VIC) so that you can see the real shape of your property and then start to develop the Keyline patterning that, in conjunction with the suite of other methods out there, will get your landscape in order and help you to get control of water.

      All the best,

      Darren Doherty

      • Hi Darren, firstly thank you so much for taking the time to respond to both Cam’s and I discussion on my question relating to Keyline cultivation. A pleasant surprise and privilege to have you comment. As a new start farmer it is wonderful to have experienced mentors and educators like yourself provide guidance to farmers like me…Thank you!

        I will certainly be reviewing both yourself and Cams advice and information and researching more. Although a huge investment for a starter like me, I feel confident my Yeoman plough and the application of other related practices will be the foundation to achieving my holistic goal.

        Once again, thank you for taking the time and writing a detailed response. I hope to meet you in the near future.
        Sincerely, Paul Hodgson.
        P.S. Thanks again Cam!

      • Hi Darren

        Thanks for your input. Whether sodic soils are present on Paul’s site or not, and not to have a go at you personally but rather to raise awareness around this issue, I am surprised that you don’t think it’s prudent to make someone new to land management more aware of the potential risks involved with sodic soils.

        Something I have noticed is that the popular literature which most are exposed to is often something of a sales pitch; the risks are often glossed over and the benefits exaggerated. For example, I have met plenty of long term practitioners of HM planned grazing who still put the practice in a ‘good light’ but nowhere near as rosy as someone who is an educator (for example the dichotomy of Landscaping vs Production; one of the most respected practitioners I know once said to me, “Those who think you can landscape and get good quality production, haven’t actually done it.”).

        There is very little information about deep ripping in the popular literature other than what Yeomans published and summaries of his work since that time. In his writing there is little mention of the issues of dispersive soils.

        I too have ripped sodic soils with good results; Col Seis, John Preistley, and Hugh Lovell were a few of the more well known names who were impressed with the results as well as people from the local DPI. In such situations, if you get good soil moisture following ripping without saturation, it’s very possible to get the benefits which are commonly touted, with the roots of the grasses and tap rooted plants helping to keep the rip line open.

        However, based on conversations with soil scientists (including one who is a farmer as well as one of the lead scientists in the CRC of Soil and Land Management) and experienced farmers from particularly susceptible regions, an exploration of the scientific literature as well as personal observation, I believe there are situations where caution should be observed.

        Firstly, from a cost benefit perspective, there is plenty of both peer reviewed and anecdotal evidence that in highly sodic soils it’s possible to gain very little benefit at all from subsoiling, with the shrink swell nature causing the rip line to slake, slump and re-settle. In the most extreme case I have seen, rip lines were put in with a Yeomans plough for tree planting which was followed by heavy rain. A month later once the soil had dried, you literally couldn’t find the rip lines with a penetrometer.

        I mentioned the potential for tunnel erosion if sodic soils are present, predominantly in relation to the construction of swales on such a site. However, in extreme cases I have also seen and heard of the same effect from deep ripping. Despite sheet erosion being taken care of by ripping on a Keyline pattern, I have no doubt that in a dispersive soil if the rip lines become too steep before a new contour guideline is set, that it would be very easy to the water diverted in the rip line to cause rills to form.

        I am very aware of the benefits that deep ripping offers, which is the reason why I went to the effort of creating these diagrams for clients and others to utilise. I don’t want to scare Paul and others who would like to try deep ripping, as it may be very appropriate on their landscapes. However, I think it’s important to also be aware of the risks as well as the benefits.

        This is based not only on personal observations and conversations with the experienced scientists and farmers I mentioned earlier, but also a case which I am aware of down in Tasmania a number of years ago in which a consultant went against the advice of local farmers and despite ripping on a Keyline pattern caused significant loss of topsoil from a hillside, which is still bare to this day. However well intended, I’d rather not be the cause of such incidents.

        Being based in the Southern Tablelands it’s an issue which I am particularly aware of. Cheers, Cam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: