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Efficiently making swales

 
Jonathan Ander
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As posted on another thread (which kind of died with questions unanswered), we have about 16 acres. The western half is pasture (formerly for cows), the next 25% or so is a wooded area with a creekbed running through it, and the easternmost edge is a field that is mostly surrounded by forest.

The creekbed is dry in summer, but we got some rain last weekend, and I got my truck got stuck trying to cross it (dumb on my part). The neighbor who pulled my truck out asked "Hey, did anyone warn you about this area?" Uh-oh... no? "When it rains, real good and hard for a while, so we get a lot of rain, this area fills up with water, all the way up to near where my workshop is (about 500' west of the creek)."

After looking around some, we realized that the creekbed area is indeed lower than the fields to the west, east, and south for a good distance around (it runs off to the north, but slowly). We have a lot of pastureland (compacted sandy soil over a clay base, not very absorbent) draining into it.

Since we don't want our land to flood periodically (bad for building house, shed, etc) we are going to have to implement flood mitigation/water slowing solutions ASAP... that means a lot more swales and trees than we were planning on originally (we have already seeded clover to improve the basic groundcover). We already have a shed down near the creek, and would prefer to not have it destroyed by a flood.

If we do swales on contour every 50' for the western area, running 80% of the way across the property (north/south), that's over a mile of swale and berm to dig. The sandy soil is compacted enough right now that I have to use a digging bar to break it up before even shoveling it. Doing this by hand on the weekends would take a couple of years.

The peak month for rain for the area is May, and we would want to put seeds in for our trees in late Feb/early March. That gives us 2-3 months to dig a lot of swales.

Other than putting them in by hand, what is the best method? Ditch witch? Backhoe? Bulldozer? I have not been able to find a lot on this topic...

thanks
 
Jordan Lowery
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how big are these swales going to be? 5 ft wide? 10ft? 30ft?
 
Jay Ritchie
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How many acres of watershed would you estimate drain to the creek that your land is on?
 
Jonathan Byron
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Have you checked in with your local ag extension or soil and water conservation district? They likely have a lot of good info, and might even have some assistance programs.

David Sauter's books might be of value - in addition to earth moving, he talks in some detail about other things that go into designing and implementing a landscape project. His books are not cheap; Google books has a preview of one edition.

 
Jonathan Ander
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hubert cumberdale wrote:how big are these swales going to be? 5 ft wide? 10ft? 30ft?

I was thinking 1-2' like most swales that I have seen in the various videos and discussions. Should I be considering a larger size?

Jay Ritchie wrote:How many acres of watershed would you estimate drain to the creek that your land is on?

From the west, up to 2000'x500', from the east, maybe 300'x500' plus any runoff from the old growth forest (large trees, little underbrush), and from the south, up to 2000' x 3000'(?).

I'm not sure how many acres that is, but it's a LOT.
 
Jay Ritchie
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Jonathan McCoy wrote:
hubert cumberdale wrote:how big are these swales going to be? 5 ft wide? 10ft? 30ft?

I was thinking 1-2' like most swales that I have seen in the various videos and discussions. Should I be considering a larger size?

Jay Ritchie wrote:How many acres of watershed would you estimate drain to the creek that your land is on?

From the west, up to 2000'x500', from the east, maybe 300'x500' plus any runoff from the old growth forest (large trees, little underbrush), and from the south, up to 2000' x 3000'(?).

I'm not sure how many acres that is, but it's a LOT.




Well, that's about 164 acres, plus the forest. I don't think the swails will prevent flooding, but they would help retain water on your land after a rain or a flood. Digging a reservoir to capture some of this water may also be useful.
 
Tyler Ludens
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We have a similar situation in which our half our land is a drainage for hundreds up of acres upstream and floods spectacularly in heavy rain. So I empathize with your situation. I don't have much to offer in advice except maybe Brad Lancaster's Rainwater Harvesting Volume 2 which gives a lot of good information about different kinds of earthworks for controlling runoff.

 
Tyler Ludens
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Here's an article about building swales with a bulldozer: http://permaculture.org.au/2009/11/30/keyline-swales-a-geoff-lawtondarren-doherty-hybrid/
 
George Collins
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Sounds to me like a berm that keeps the excessive water off of your property might solve the flooding issue.

Might piss your neighbors off.

I was talking to my daddy the other day and folks where I live (South Central Mississippi) have used "turning plows" since the days of plowing with mules to "terrace" the land. Pops suggested using a tractor. I believe this is the type of plow he was referring to:
Turning Plow

The terrace (sorta-kinda like what we all here refer to as a swale I think) is constructed my making several passes in the same direction.

Also, if I understand the concept correctly, when using swales, you need not capture all of the water. Rather, each of your swales should have a portion of its length where uncompacted dirt is not piled up on the downhill side but instead left flat(ish?) to "pacify" the water as it overflows the ditch. As the swale ditch fills, the water will overflow the "spillway." The overflow of the first swale will be captured by a second, similarly constructed swale further downhill, the overflow of which will be caught by a third, similarly constructed swale further downhill, the overflow of which . . .

When I heard geoff lawton talk about water harvesting recently in his podcast with Paul, he articulated his principle of doing so thusly: "SLOW it, soak it, sink it and grow it . . . and shade the damn thing." (emphasis added)

At no time do I remember him saying, "Stop it all dead in its tracks no matter what."
 
Tyler Ludens
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The old cotton fields in my area are like that, plowed to create a berm on the downhill side. Probably one of the only appropriate things folks did in this region - not to say trying to grow cotton here was "appropriate"!
 
Jim Porter
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Sounds like it might be a better use of resources to move the shed.
 
                                  
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I would look into building a series of ponds and dams to hold and move the water throughout the land. Try and focus on slowing down the water and letting the earth absorb the water and then have the remaining runoff collect in a pond. Look into some of sepp holzers books and videos. Hes the man!
 
Jonathan Ander
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I don't think the swails will prevent flooding, but they would help retain water on your land after a rain or a flood.

If they slow it down, that will help prevent the flooding by giving the "downstream" area more time to go down and clear out.

Here's an article about building swales with a bulldozer: http://permaculture.org.au/2009/11/30/keyline-swal...f-lawtondarren-doherty-hybrid/

Thanks!

Sounds to me like a berm that keeps the excessive water off of your property might solve the flooding issue.

I'm thinking of putting some brush dams in the creekbed/drainage areas right where they enter our property as another way to slow it down.

Ponds may come at a later date... swales and trees first.
 
                      
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I have some experience with a situation similar to yours. I used to own 150 acres in S. Ohio about 1/2 mile from the Ohio river. A creek ran through the western part of the land and, due to the "lay" of that land, the spring rains would back up and form a temporary 1 ft. to 3 ft. deep lake which covered 5 acres or more.

I used the keyhole plow a few times to try to allow the water to be distributed and absorbed with no success. Man! That was a tough job. I hate keyholing.

I used a 'dozer to make swales in the gently sloping sides of the flood area. They worked to a small extent but certainly not as expected.

During this time I came to the realization that the land which was downstream from my property was the cause of my flooding. It was kind of like an "ahaa" moment and a "duh" moment all at the same time. The creek bed on my neighbor's property was simply not able to handle the amount of water as it went into a steep sided, narrow, rock-lined pinch point. Actually it is a perfect place to install an earth dam if that is what is wanted. But obviously it was not what we wanted.

We abandoned our attempts to eliminate the spring flooding and learned to live with it.
 
Lolly Knowles
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Jonathon, we rented a "Terramite" several times during 2009/10. At the local Sunbelt, rental was less than $200 for a weekend with us picking it up on Friday afternoon and returning it Monday morning. They should be able to change the claw bucket to give you the width you desire for digging your swales. The back you save will be your own. The time saved should be worth the co$t.
 
Jonathan Ander
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What was your experience with using a bucket? My concern with a bucket vs an angled dozer blade would be that dirt would build up into the bucket, instead of naturally being pushed to the side to form the berm on the downhill side.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Jonathan McCoy wrote:
I'm thinking of putting some brush dams in the creekbed/drainage areas right where they enter our property as another way to slow it down.


We're planning to put in brush dams this winter. The scary thing about brush dams is you can have a "blow-out" if the first flood is a really big one, bringing all the brush downstream where you don't necessarily want it - in our case probably right in the middle of our driveway. I'm hoping we'll get a few smaller floods first so the brush dams can get nice and packed in and collect some soil and - I hope - grow some plants.
 
Lolly Knowles
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Jonathan McCoy wrote:What was your experience with using a bucket? My concern with a bucket vs an angled dozer blade would be that dirt would build up into the bucket, instead of naturally being pushed to the side to form the berm on the downhill side.


I guess I didn't specify much, did I?

We weren't building swales at the time, just moving dirt. We were working on a hillside that is Milton silty clay loam (Mtd3) and it was compacted enough that the claw was needed to break up the ground. Each bucket full was dropped to the side; later we moved the earth elsewhere. Unless the soil was very moist there really wasn't a problem with it sticking in the bucket.

This year I made the commitment and bought a second hand Kubota. Recently we did have reason to be moving some wet dirt from that same location. Both buckets loaded up and had to be scraped with shovels and rakes to get the soil out, but ... we were trying to dump that dirt on the top of the wall around the cutout we'd made and the equipment was at the full length of it's range. The dirt might not have dumped even if it was dry. We will be getting some practical knowledge in the spring, though. The farm field north of me drains off into a big cut on my land and creates a similar flood pattern to what you have described. The field (Houghton muck) that is affected is about 2.5 acres and contains the driveway. I took some photos a few weeks ago and will be working on a plan for diverting that flow to a small pond area with overflow going to the county maintained drainage ditch. The contour map that I got from my local USDA agent will be helpful. The lowest spots show up darkest in the aerial views of vegetation.

 
Philip Freddolino
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I make five foot wide swales/hugelterraces with my tractor using a box scraper and backblade . It works great on slopes up to 1 in 4 .
 
George Collins
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I came across a couple resources that deal with efficiently building swales for small properties.

Creating low-cost swales on small farms
Small farm earthworks
 
Jonathan Ander
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We're planning to put in brush dams this winter. The scary thing about brush dams is you can have a "blow-out" if the first flood is a really big one, bringing all the brush downstream where you don't necessarily want it - in our case probably right in the middle of our driveway. I'm hoping we'll get a few smaller floods first so the brush dams can get nice and packed in and collect some soil and - I hope - grow some plants.


I'm not expecting them to stop the water and collect soil...just slow it down. That brings up another point, though... if we could get something to grow in the drainage areas leading to the creekbed (which are dry maybe half the year), that would also help with water take-up, and would slow its travel down. Would some type of reed be suitable? I think it may be hard to find a plant that will grow in an area that's under a few inches of running water part of the time and is dry the rest of the time...

We weren't building swales at the time, just moving dirt. We were working on a hillside that is Milton silty clay loam (Mtd3) and it was compacted enough that the claw was needed to break up the ground. Each bucket full was dropped to the side; later we moved the earth elsewhere. Unless the soil was very moist there really wasn't a problem with it sticking in the bucket.

Thanks for clarifying.

I will see what's available for rent... hopefully I can find a Bobcat with a dozer blade or something.
 
George Collins
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I think it may be hard to find a plant that will grow in an area that's under a few inches of running water part of the time and is dry the rest of the time...

Cypress trees might work.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Switch grass and probably some other grasses will grow when periodically flooded. Narrow-leaf Cattail will survive months in soil which isn't flooded, though they may die after protracted drought. So maybe a combination of catttails in the deepest areas with grasses on the banks, with maybe some willows.
 
Lolly Knowles
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I have nearly an acre of "wetlands" that is frequently underwater for months at a time. When it does dry out enough for tennis shoe walking, the ground is covered with the most beautiful long grass. It may well be prairie grass. I'll try to find a photo of the spot in its dry stage.
 
George Collins
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Here's another possible solution to your opportunity:
Tupelo-gum AKA Nyssa aquaticus
 
Jonathan Ander
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We had to raise the pH of the land, so I got lime distributed and disced it in over the front 2/3(ish) of the property (open areas). Last night I hooked up the box blade on the rented tractor, and determined that (even with it tilted to one side) it will not work for digging swales.... so tractor box blade is apparently out.
 
Rufus Laggren
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Been looking at methods/machines for roads and berming. But no experience. Just a question from what I've read in the last couple days:

Do you think a back blade (no box) on a tractor would work better than the box? Survey/mark the contour on the low side, keep the blade about the same depth as the low-side wheels, tilt the high side blade down a bit for cutting... End up w/a swale a litte deeper on the high side. No box sides so would cut into the high ground easier (no riding up); tilts more to cut deeper on the high side to offset the tractor's yaw (lean) on the slope; angled to continuously deposit the cut earth in the direction of the mound on the low side. A big enough tractor to operate a blade wide enough to cut the full width of the swale (after taking account the blade angle). If the blade could be offset to the (high) side it might make the cut easier on steeper slopes. If slope was steeper, more than one pass would probably be needed to cut the bottom of the swale all the way across its width. Not sure about trimming the contour flat-level after roughing in; maybe would self correct after some time if the rough line was pretty good?

It seems for building purposes a swale can be considered a quite narrow (or wide, depending) road cut across the slope on the contour. So some of the same tools and methods seem plausible.

Rufus
 
Philip Freddolino
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Rufus Laggren wrote:Been looking at methods/machines for roads and berming. But no experience. Just a question from what I've read in the last couple days:

Do you think a back blade (no box) on a tractor would work better than the box? Survey/mark the contour on the low side, keep the blade about the same depth as the low-side wheels, tilt the high side blade down a bit for cutting... End up w/a swale a litte deeper on the high side. No box sides so would cut into the high ground easier (no riding up); tilts more to cut deeper on the high side to offset the tractor's yaw (lean) on the slope; angled to continuously deposit the cut earth in the direction of the mound on the low side. A big enough tractor to operate a blade wide enough to cut the full width of the swale (after taking account the blade angle). If the blade could be offset to the (high) side it might make the cut easier on steeper slopes. If slope was steeper, more than one pass would probably be needed to cut the bottom of the swale all the way across its width. Not sure about trimming the contour flat-level after roughing in; maybe would self correct after some time if the rough line was pretty good?

It seems for building purposes a swale can be considered a quite narrow (or wide, depending) road cut across the slope on the contour. So some of the same tools and methods seem plausible.

A backblade by itself can work if your ground is soft enough. I use a box scraper because it has rippers that will loosen the soil, remove any roots, and will lift out rocks. Keep in mind that a tractor can't work on much of a side slope.
 
Rufus Laggren
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> tractor can't work on much or a side slope...

Ah. {ding} Thanks for that point. The bits are beginning to come together vv. earthworks. So contour on a (>1:4 ??) hill = No tractor; dozer, backhoe or excavator needed.

> rippers...

I thought there was a ripper thing that mounted on tractors, pretty much same shape as a back blade more only vicious. I read that berms/swales are also plowed up. It does seem that rear blades (various) on tractors would be hard to regulate for depth of cut over bumpy ground; the cutters are 3'+ behind the rear wheels and every time the tractor pitched forward or back rear the cutter would either fly up or dig in. I guess the operator just gets pretty quick about raising or lowering the tool.

So for berms/swales:
Flat ground (not talking level) = easier work for moving machinery (dozers, tractors as opposed to standing excavators). Means quicker/cheaper.
Low side grades (<1:4 ?) = accessible for common tractors. If flat means much quicker job; if bumpy, then more passes needed to make smooth.

First part of the learning curve here re. what jobs get done best with what machines. Started a thread last year vv. what it took to make hugelculture. Same sort of thing - what are we looking at to get a farm job done. Lots of helpful instruction there but I really didn't know where the starting point was. I know a lot about buildings; not much about site work. Things getting clearer - what kind of work is required, how often, how to get it done. Much appreciate you comments.

Rufus
 
Erin Zosu
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Hello Jonathan,
Might be a little to late, but came across this video at another site.
May provide an idea of what type of equipment you need.

--P--
 
Nancy Ruggeri
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Hi Logan,
Recently Permies.com had sent out some emails where Geoff Lawton from Greening of the Desert had some great videos on how to make swales that lead to different dams on a perma culture acreage! I believe you can access them via this site or find him on you tube! either way I think its a great idea what your doing...water is the equivalent of our blood and should be treated as priceless!
 
R Scott
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I was talking with family this weekend that are big ag--the new GPS guidance systems on tractors are pretty awesome--better than the high-end surveying/construction gear of only a few years ago. They can be programmed to run a contour line automatically (planting on contour to reduce erosion by making every row a mini-swale)!! It would be pretty easy to run contours with the right tool to make swales.

One should be able to program them to run keyline, too, with a bit of work. At a minimum, you could contour subsoil as it stands today. I think I am going to plant that idea in my father-in-laws head, he is big on anti-erosion and stupidity of current big ag ideas right now (since he can remember the dust bowl) but is also very aware that farmers will do what pays.

Many are tearing out treelines and fences to plant more corn again We need to find a way to put recognizable $$$ into fedges for big ag guys. Then we could change the world.

I have seen some inklings of hope--chemical fertilizer costs have gotten to the point that cover crops are making a comeback but then they talk about knocking them down with roundup baby steps...

 
alex Keenan
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For trees you might look at alders, Bald Cypress, Dawn Redwood
 
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