Integrated Keyline Water Management System

Rescue Earth System

The Rescue Earth System is a holistic suite of diverse regenerative solutions that can be applied to all levels of society, economy and the environment.

Keyline Water Management

Keyline Pattern Cultivation / Subsoil Ripping

The Integrated Keyline Water Management System is a management tool that uses natural landscape contours and farming techniques such as Keyline Subsoil Ripping (more info below), Regenerative Grazing Management, Infiltration Swale Systems, Diverse Cover Crops, etc. to slow, sink, spread and store rainwater as well as build soil fertility.

With a detailed contour map of a property, the Integrated Keyline Water Management System can help determine the optimal placement for farm elements such as: infiltration swales, irrigation ponds, cropping & orchard rows, structures, access roads / tracks, fences, livestock rotation, subsoil rip lines, and more. 

“The hallmarks on the properties of successful Keyline farmers are lakes with water birds, contour and ridge line roads and contoured strip forests, dark fertile soil, luxuriant healthy green crops and feed.” Ken Yeomans

A shank of a Yeomans Keyline Plow. Keyline subsoil ripping and keyline agro-forestry have been applied worldwide in all major biomes of the world. It has been applied to many different production systems.

The Integrated Keyline Water Management System

Integrated Keyline Water Management System is any farming system that applies ‘keyline geometry’ to cultivation patterns with the goal of slowing, sinking, spreading and storing of rainwater. Another main goal is the formation of topsoil as both water storage & fertility mechanisms.

The central idea behind keyline design from a water perspective is to capture water at the highest possible elevation and distribute it outward toward the drier ridges using gravity, slowing the natural concentration of water in valleys. Maximizing the flow of water to the drier ridges using precise plow lines (or mounds) falling slightly off contour slows the movement of water and spreads it more uniformly, infiltrating it across the broadest possible area. It is both a flood and drought mitigation strategy.

While permanent subsurface drains are commonly used for disposing of excess rain in winter, very seldom is there conscious effort to spread that water to areas that do not have the same large catchment area (eg: ridges in the landscape).

Another important facet of keyline design is the establishment of effective water storage ponds on the landscape.

With the threat of extended flooding and drought predicted with climate change, it is becoming even more important to better manage abundant winter rainfall for times of scarcity.

The History of Keyline Design

Keyline Design was first developed by the great Australian, P.A. Yeomans (1904-1984), in the late 1940’s & 50’s initially as a practical response to the unpredictable rainfall regime he found on his new property, ‘Nevallan’, to the west of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Soil Conservation, as developed by the US Army Corp of Engineers was the predominant practice of the time and for a time Yeomans was influenced by this, though soon found somewhat deficiencies with the pattern of water flow its application expressed.

Yeomans went on to devote the rest of his life to the promotion, research and development of Keyline Design and in doing so was labelled by Permaculture co-originator Bill Mollison as ‘…one of Australia’s greatest patriots. Influenced’ by the likes of prominent organic agriculture figures in Andre Voison, Friend Sykes, Newman Turner & Louis Bromfield (among many others!)

Yeomans has been attributed with being the 1st person to accelerate soil formation through the stacking of methods, overturning the myth that it took 1000 years to create an inch of topsoil. Yeomans proclaimed that ‘…the landman’s job is not so much to conserve soil as it is to develop soil, to improve his soil his soil and to make it more fertile than it ever was.

The development of the Permaculture concept owes much to P.A. Yeomans. Stunned by the loss of his brother-in-law Jim Barnes, in a grass fire in 1944 on ‘Nevallan’, Yeomans brought to bear his vast experience as a mine overseer and earthmover to capture and store rainwater in large ponds (referred to in Australia as ‘farm dams’) across broadacre landscapes which ‘so lush and green all year round, they would be virtually fireproof’, not only for its enduring and effective landscape patterning, but also for the integrated business framework that he developed over the 40 odd years that he worked in developing a myriad of enterprises around Keyline®.

From the 1950 -1970’s there was a nationally (in Australia) published ‘Keyline’ magazine, authorship of articles & books, at least three operational broadacre R&D farms under his control, CSIRO support (up until 1958), a ‘Keyline Foundation’, an established international property design & development consultancy, Chisel Plow, ‘Delver’, ‘Tritter’, ‘Keyline Plow’, Lockpipe, ‘Bunyip Level’, and ‘Ag-Yo’ or ‘Yobanite’ manufacture & sales.

How Yeomans managed such a diverse business model over many years is a tribute to the man’s capability and is unparalleled in the Permaculture (or Agriculture!) industry despite the devices of modern communications.

According to Yeomans the ‘inseparable trinity of landscape design’ were climate, landshape and water supply, with roads, trees, buildings, fencing & soils being the ‘more negotiable remainder of the hierarchy’. Yeomans labeled this prioritization the ‘Keyline Scale of Permanence’ as a foundation to the process involved with planning permanent landscapes. Interestingly it is now evident that the loss of carbon in agricultural soils.

I commonly say that Permaculture itself ‘lacks a clear decision making process’ and drought proof. Similar climate regions across the world suffer similarly and the clearly the adoption of Keyline methods would be a primary form of solid-state risk management for both rural and urban landscapes alike. I commonly get requests from clients and correspondents to design both fireproof & drought proof landscapes and fortunately Keyline provides the effective template.

The Keyline Scale of Permanence’ and latterly Allan Savory’s landmark ‘Holistic Management® Model’ ably provide the models for the Permaculture ‘toolkit’. These methodologies lack the integrated design principles such as those espoused and continually expanded by Permaculturalists, so combining these approaches makes obvious sense and follows the intellectual pathway led by Yeomans, Savory, David Holmgren, Bill Mollison along with Dr. John Toddix, Dr. George Chan & Gunter Paulix.

The following article serves to outline many of these processes as part of the ongoing evolution of Keyline or Keyline Design Mark IV as I am calling it, and was developed by Abe Collins & myself for our various seminars.

Keyline Design, as developed by P.O. Yeomans, is a way of managing land to work with the natural flow of water in the landscape to benefit and promote the healthiest ecosystem. The design involves a package of techniques for assessing a total land tract and then constructing wetlands, irrigation, roads, and plantings through a holistic lens. Its use is widely applicable in agricultural methods such as permaculture and silvopasture.

The objective of the pattern in Keyline pattern cultivation is to direct the shallow overland flow, which results from rainfall run off, to remain evenly spread and not follow its natural flow path to concentrate in the valley shapes. The same technique also provides the means for evenly spreading the water in the system of “hillside” irrigation named “Keyline Pattern irrigation.” It is the Keyline pattern cultivation that can convert what is commonly called “wild flooding” into fully controlled irrigation. — P. A. Yeomans, Water for Every Farm

Keyline pattern cultivation

Soil is by far the cheapest and most effective place to conserve water, with more layers of stacked benefits than any other way you could store it. One particle of humus can hold on average four parts of water, and so we start to see the cost effective, production-increasing effects of building healthy soils — the basis of all our production, and indeed, of civilization itself. For every percentage increase in soil carbon we increase the soil water holding capacity by 144 000l per Ha.

‘Keyline pattern cultivation’ is subsoil ripping done using keyline geometry. It is meant to penetrate the subsoil, to a depth of 2’’ below existing rooting depth without inverting the soil. The cultivation pattern uses keyline geometry to act as a micro-water management storage ditch as well, holding more water on ridges.

The effect is to loosen compacted soil and open up micro-water harvesting & diversion ditches across the landscape. In some pastures, it is possible to increase the rooting depth of forage plants by breaking up hardpan and allowing root access into these micro-furrows.

With water and root activity deeper than before the treatment, the opportunity exists to create carbon storage deeper into the profile via root exudates & soil microorganisms.

To summarize, potential advantages of properly applied keyline pattern cultivation include:

  •  Increase farm water use efficiency and availability
  • Support the capture, storage, and utilization of precipitation
  • Reduce nutrient loading into local creeks and near-shore marine environments
  • More even distribution of rainfall across the site, reduced flooding and drought risk
  • Increased oxygen, nutrient and water infiltration, increasing soil health
  • Improved soil structure, tilth & internal drainage
  • Fracturing of hardpans creating a deeper rhizosphere and reducing compaction

“The hallmarks on the properties of successful Keyline farmers are lakes with water birds, contour and ridge line roads and contoured strip forests, dark fertile soil, luxuriant healthy green crops and feed.” Ken Yeomans

A comprehensive design strategy for agricultural and urban development based on fundamental, repeating land shapes that have been created by water” Abe Collins

The central idea behind ‘Keyline’ water management is to consciously slow, sink and spread rainwater by relieving compaction, opening up pore space in compacted soil and distributing excess water towards drier parts of the landscape. This has the effect of buffering the natural concentration of water towards valleys and reducing flooding. 

By maximizing the flow of water to drier ridges (using precise plow lines or mounds that fall slightly off contour), we can infiltrate it across the broadest possible area. In this respect, keyline strategies can be both a flood and drought mitigation strategy. 

‘Keyline’ water management has the potential to enhance the water efficiency of any production system. Applications can include:

  • pastured livestock & grass farming
  • agro-forestry & forestry layout
  • orchard layout
  • silvo-pasture layout
  • alley cropping layout
  • annual vegetable production 
  • ecological restoration
  • watershed planning & management
  • urban planning (new developments)