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Conservation Choices: Contour Farming

Contour Farming

Contour FarmingWhat it is

Contouring means farming with row patterns nearly level around a hill – not up and down hill. The rows form hundreds of small dams that slow water flow and increase infiltration to reduce erosion.

How it helps

  • Contour farming can reduce soil erosion by as much as 50 percent compared to up and down hill farming.
  • By reducing sediment and runoff and increasing water infiltration, contouring promotes better water quality.

Planning ahead

  • Will more than one key contour line be needed because of steep or irregular slopes?
  • Are terraces or stripcropping needed for steeper slopes?
  • Are field borders needed to replace end rows in the contouring system to control sheet and rill erosion?

Tech Notes

  • Establish a key line around the hill by using a hand level or contour gauge.
  • Contour key line grade should not exceed 2 percent, except within 100 feet of an outlet. In that case, the grade can be a 3 percent slope.
  • Perform planting and other activities parallel to the key contour line.
  • Replace end rows with field borders to reduce erosion.


  • Use grassed waterways in areas where runoff is concentrated to prevent gully erosion.
  • Contoured rows should enter the grassed area of waterways on the level, but should direct water into the grass.
  • To avoid laying out new key contour lines every year, establish a permanent narrow strip of grass along each key contour line.

Iowa Practice Standard

Iowa Job Sheet