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Two Soil Improvement Practices – Should You Spend Your Money?

By   /  February 1, 2016  /  10 Comments

Asking the right questions can save you time and money. Here we demonstrate how we asked questions about Keyline Plowing and Soil Balancing to decide if those practices work for farmers and ranchers.

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Baloney Detection Questions

Should you keep your money in your pocket? Here are questions you can ask. And if you like, click on the picture to get the full size, and maybe even print it out and hang it on the fridge. 🙂

Last week we introduced Michael Shermer’s “Baloney Detection Kit” questions along with an example of how Kathy got bamboozled by not asking these questions that would have saved her $10. This week, we’re going to show you how we used those questions when we looked at couple of practices that have been recommended to producers as ways to improve their sustainability and profitability.

The Yeoman’s Plow and Keyline Plowing

The two part series we published in 2013 on Keyline plowing covered research done by Rachel Gilker and colleagues to see if using the plow and the keyline system resulted in the claims that had been made and that had Vermont farmer’s intrigued and hopeful.  We won’t go into all the details of the study here, (those are covered in these two articles: “Keyline Plowing: What is it? Does it work?” and “Keyline plowing results: 522,720 worms for $280“), instead, we’ll show you how we use The Questions to give us an idea of whether or not this is a practice we’d recommend jumping into.

Claims for Keyline Soil BuildingFirst, here are the claims: Simply described, keyline plowing is a system of subsoiling using something called a Yeoman’s plow, a thin-shanked plow, with shallow angles on the feet of the plow. To keyline plow, the farmer must first determine the “keyline” of the slope, where the hillside shifts from convex, toward the foot of the slope, to concave, toward the top. The Yeoman’s plow is then used to create channels parallel to the keyline, throughout the targeted landscape. The idea is that these channels will distribute water from wet areas to dry areas. According to claims, this will reduce compaction, enhance plant growth, and speed soil building, as in 8-12″ or more of topsoil per year.

We skipped right to Question 4. “Does this fit with the way the world works?”

No, it doesn’t. Research has been done the world over, by countless soil scientists, for years and years and years, all coming to the conclusion that it takes decades and even centuries to build topsoil.

How about Questions 3, 5 and 8? Have the claims been verified by someone else? , Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?, and Does the claimant provide positive evidence?

Rachel found no evidence, data, or research either proving or disproving the claims about keyline plowing. There are pictures, and yes, pictures can be worth a thousand words. But they’re only valuable if you have information to go with them about what happened before the picture was taken. Meanwhile, when Kathy first heard about keyline plowing, she was told that it was a common practice in Australia and that ranchers had parked their old plows as decoration at their ranch gates and taken up the Yeoman’s plow instead. After reading studies by Australian soil scientists that corroborated the lengthy process for soil building, she contacted some of them, thinking that perhaps the papers were old and the new practice had changed their minds. They were unaware of the practice and had never seen a plow parked as decoration at a ranch gate.

If you’re a producer, at this point you might choose to move on without trying this new idea because it’s expensive to attend the keyline courses and to rent or purchase a plow and invest time in the practice. You might not want to make the investment without a better guarantee of a return. But at the time, Rachel’s job involved helping farmers figure out if new practices were worthwhile so she worked with four of them in Vermont for 2 years to test the keyline process. As noted in the articles on her research, they found no changes as a result of keyline plowing other than an increase in worms.

Now, as scientists, we’re perfectly willing to change our minds should more information become available. If anyone out there has data to share, do send it on!

Soil Balancing

In most cases the process of developing scientific knowledge is one of scientists building on or taking apart each others’ theories and studies. By testing theories and re-working studies, we get new information, and reach stronger conclusions than we would by working alone. Scientists may even change their minds about theories based on this new information. That may seem wishy-washy, but to scientists, changing your mind when you get new and better information is what makes us smarter. But scientists are only human, and in some cases, in spite of what the data shows, a human being might choose to go with his preferences instead.

Soil balancing is a good example. Beginning in the late 1800s, scientists began studying soils, learning about nutrients and trying to figure out if there was a ratio that helped plants grow best. They were hoping for that magic bullet that we all dream of and a couple of scientists proposed ratios for Hydrogen to Calcium to Magnesium to Potassium. You can read about their studies in this On Pasture article, but right now we’ll jump to the chase and tell you that all but one person ended up refuting the soil balancing concept.

Here are the questions we asked and the answers we found when we put together that article:

Have the claims been verified by anyone else?

No, they haven’t.

Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?

Yes, and the theory of ideal soil ratios has been disproven over and over again.

Does it fit with the way the world works?

No, the research shows that plants grow well in a wide variety of ratios. The limiting factor is typically calcium, which increases when well-meaning land managers make changes to reach this so-called “ideal soil.”

Where does the preponderance of evidence point?

To the fact that this theory is false.

Farmer and Rancher ScientistsYet even today, many still think that the effort they are making to balance their soil is having an effect. So what did scientists do? They studied what was going on in these cases and determined that it is not the soil balancing that is improving the soil, but the other practices being done in conjunction with it like applying compost or lime, and planting cover crops.

So should you practice soil balancing? If you’re still convinced that it is a useful practice, we suggest you balance the cost with the benefits and perhaps look at the other things you’re doing and consider whether or not they would get you the same result for less money. In fact, that might be a research project you could do on your own place. So next week we’ll share some information about how you can do a little research without too much investment.

Stay tuned!

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About the author

Rachel and Kathy are co-editors of On Pasture. They often collaborate on articles so that you get the best they have to offer.

10 Comments

  1. Frank Egan says:

    G’day to both of you, I am so glad that you did not take offence to any of my remarks as I was keen to put a view without disputing any of the points you had made. I would also like to point out that I am not either a scientist or an academic, but just a farmer who was educated at the School of Hard Knocks and received my degree from the University of Life.
    There is a difference between a “farmer “ and an “academic “ and by farmer I don’t mean the businessman who drives down to the farm on the weekend in his company Merc, but the farmer who has acquired “stock sense and an understanding of the landscape he lives in” over a lifetime or even generations. This farmer will see things that the academic will never understand because it can’t be written down on a scrap of paper and replicated later. The farmer deals with and solves problems on a day to day basis, whereas the academic even on University Farms work in controlled environments.
    When introducing any new innovation the farmer must always apply the “common sense rule” and he/she must always remember that the middle man is only there to generate a profit for the manufacturer and the inventor of the idea gets almost nothing in return. Do you really think the book publisher “cares “if the information within its covers is used appropriately? I think not it’s just about another sale.
    Complaints abound from academic circles about the lack of “take up” by farmers of their research findings I wonder if it’s because they (the academics) fail to show a “real world” outcome in a farming sense. In passing you mentioned both Prof Fred Provenza and Beth Burritt and by chance they have both been following a program we started in 2008 which relates to holding excess moisture within the soil profile and the methods we use to hold nutrient load and debris within the place it is generated. To my mind it’s such a “waste” to see moisture leaving the farm via the drainage lines. Up in your part of the world what sort of difference would it make if much of your” snow melt” was held in situ to supply moisture over your summer dry period. As an example we experienced a very dry (El Nino) period in Nov/Dec, but by mid Jan it had started to rain in total we had 150 mm, but it was not until we had had 125 mm that any sort of runoff occurred. In the following two weeks the growth we have achieved is nothing short of astonishing.
    I do hope you find the above of interest and I am happy to talk further about it if you think there is sufficient interest.Frank

  2. Frank Egan says:

    I do not want to be seen as disagreeing with your comments, but perhaps add to the discussion with the following observations.
    Much of the time the transplanting of systems, programs and even varieties of species from their countries of origin to lands far away even though it may seen “similar” there will be subtle differences which make it difficult to replicate the performance of the original success. Why? Because the original success was born of the need for a solution to a problem of that particular environment.
    Australia, unlike Europe and the North American continents was born via the lifting of the ocean floor apart from a small area on the East coast which was via volcano activity. With few exceptions our top soils are shallow and deficient in almost all of what the northern hemisphere would deem necessary for successful agricultural outcomes. Most of our success was born of “adaption” to the existing conditions and therein lies the key when attempting to transplant any systems or concepts. When the new farmers from the north first came here they brought with them all of their methods and tools from their homeland and the results were disastrous for our fragile environment and many of our flood plains today are a result of “all” out the topsoil from the surrounding heights being washed to the lowest point in the landscape .Because we did not have the “deep topsoil’s” they were used to, the plough simply cut into the sub soil at the same depth each time it was used and so was created what we term as a “hard pan” through which neither water or plant roots could penetrate .The Yeoman’s Plough and the Keyline system was developed to overcome this problem, so if you transplant the concept to a deep topsoil profile it stands to reason that the results will “not” be the same.To add a blanket of carefully prepared compost will certainly produce tremendous results,but is it a real option over 100’s of acres?
    On the subject of supplying “ad lib” minerals Pat Colby’s work in Victoria is often “dismissed” in the USA and elsewhere and its my view that they show a distinct lack of understanding of why the program was developed. She was running a Goat dairy in Victoria in an area where the soils were nothing short of “dreadful”, now dairy animals “shed” Ca every day in the milk they produce and with her local soils being deficient in almost everything she set about researching a supplement to overcome her problem. We used the results successfully for many years when we had our goat herd and when we changed over to sheep we modified it slightly to reflect the changed need and environment.Frank

    • Rachel Gilker says:

      Frank, thank you for taking the time to write. You are correct in pointing out that there are differences in the geology, soil type, and management in different areas. We offer to you that there is no scientific study that we could find of benefits due to Yeoman’s plow or Keyline plowing anywhere in the world. While we are thoroughly supportive of innovation, we also suggest that anyone investing time and resources in the future and potential improvements of their farm and land should have knowledge that those investments will pay off. Without documented evidence of benefits, even from Australia where the ideas originated, we can not promote the use of a practice. If you have such evidence, we would be thrilled if you would share it. When we tried it in Vermont, we could not find any evidence of the promoted benefits on any of the four farms. Similarly in dry land California, the use of the Yeoman’s plow in a Keyline design showed no benefits, and was actually deemed to be detrimental.

      As to the subject of mineral supplements, there is a wonderful inter-connection of soil, feed, manure, with animals being a point of connection in that cycle. While we don’t discount minerals as supplements, we just want to repeat the value of researching new ideas, whether in person or in the literature of others who have gone before us, before accepting new practices as truly beneficial and investing in them. We have seen too often that the adoption of new ideas is done alongside the adoption other practices that offer proven benefits. When those benefits are observed, they are often attributed to the “fancy” new practice.

      Your question about spreading compost on 100s of acres is a good one. The folks that did the work also did modeling for the potential impacts of spreading compost on a very large scale. Their results show that, while getting as much compost as you’d need, and actually spreading it is logistically difficult, even after considering the environmental costs of making, hauling and applying the compost, if they were able to cover all the rangelands in California with 1/2 inch of compost, they could make the whole state carbon neutral. That’s a big deal considering all the cars being driven in that state. What we like about this research is that, given the pressing need to begin to respond to climate change issues, now we have a potential direction, and we don’t have to guess and potentially do something that provides no benefit.

      We are thrilled by the new knowledge that comes from careful consideration of ideas. Science is our friend in determining which ideas are best for us to adopt.

      Regards,
      Rachel and Kathy

  3. Frank Egan says:

    G’day,I think the term “new topsoil” is misplaced instead if you think about it, if you break up the sub soil layer to allow better water penetration does it not follow that the roots of plants will follow?Over time the decomposition of this underground material will lift fertility and soil biology and so give the appearance of “new soil”.

    The free feed system of a complete mineral supplement will allow the animal to “absorb” what it needs and to discard what it doesn’t,with the result that the plants have the opportunity to use what in not available in most “depleted soils”.In our own case the principal ingredient is Dolomite with its Ca /Mg balance(CO3)2 facilitates the absorption of all the other elements.Frank.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      You have 2 good hypotheses there, Frank. One is that subsoiling improves water penetration and root growth which may in turn increase organic material (which is what the decomposed underground material would become). The other is that excess free fed minerals come out the other end of the animals and are added to the soil. Those are just the kinds of things we can test for, and we think it’s a good idea to do that because otherwise we’re potentially spending money on something that isn’t providing the results we hoped for. In the next piece in this series we’ll give some examples of how farmers and ranchers can figure out if the research has been done to answer their questions, and if not how to do their own test at home without breaking the bank.

      As an aside, I worked with some folks in California who had one of the leaders in the keyline field set them up for their own test. What they found is that the subsoiled area was drier, and plant response was not as good as on areas where they did not subsoil, but applied compost instead. In the end, thanks to in-depth research in coordination with a staff of researchers, they found that compost application is the best method for improving pastures and for actually increasing carbon sequestration.

  4. John Marble says:

    Dear Kathy and Rachel,
    I’ve focused most of my career on the twin pillars of ecology and economics. When it comes to agriculture, I vet each new input scheme against a basic standard: does it make sense ecologically and economically, followed by another basic question: will I enjoy doing it? Key line plowing, cafeteria minerals, irrigation etc. etc. Thus far, the only inputs I find acceptable are a really good (but modest) mineral supplement and managed grazing.

    Thank you for your efforts at helping us all make progress.

  5. s says:

    Sseems to me the main benefit to keyline plowing is better water infiltration on hard compacted soil. Especially when rain comes in sudden big storms on steep slopes. We have fortunately been getting a lot of gentle rains that soak in well this year in California. The increase in topsoil claims does not make sense.

  6. Jim Elizondo says:

    The best option is to monitor blood to make sure the mineral program is working correctly.
    Then you can adjust it and in cases of deficiencies caused by extreme excesses it may be necessary to inject the deficient trace element.
    There is still some we dont know

  7. Gene Schriefer says:

    Wonder if you would care to comment on cafeteria style mineral. I recall Fred Provenza implies livestock have some nutrition wisdom, but do they really “know” when they are deficient in ALL micronutrients?

    Seems like every 10-12 years this resurrects itself.

    Should producers keep their money in the pockets?

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Here’s what Beth Burritt said in the On Pasture article she wrote on research she, Fred and others have done on this at Utah State University.

      “Should you invest in a cafeteria-style mineral program with a full complement of minerals? Probably not. It can be expensive to supply animals with minerals they aren’t likely to need, so focus instead on what they are most likely to be deficient in. In Utah, where I live and work, the most common mineral deficiencies are copper, manganese, zinc and selenium and the most common vitamin deficiencies are vitamin A and E. Focus on supplementing your animals with salt and the minerals and vitamins listed above. To find out what you might be lacking in your area, visit with your veterinarian, or your local NRCS, Conservation District, or Extension staff.”

      Here’s the full article that goes into how animals choose why we may not have gotten useful results from past studies. http://onpasture.com/2014/10/27/can-animals-figure-out-what-minerals-they-need/

      It seems like this topic deserves a little more time and attention, so we’ll put it on our “To Do” list and get you more information. 🙂

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