Reading land capability

Even on some smaller farms, ranches and properties, the land is not all the same.

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Each of these will affect the potential uses of that piece of land and will set the likely "safe" use level, also called the land's capability.

The capability of the land is an estimate of the ways you can use that piece of land and how hard you can push it before the resulting degradation becomes too great for sustained use.

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Different systems of assessing land capability come up with different estimates for any given piece of land. But the differences between the estimates are not so important.

What is important is having an estimate that works for you and then watching how the land responds to your management. Then you will find it easier to make your management respond to the needs of your land.

Once you work out the capabilities of different parts of your land, you can manage them appropriately on a daily basis. This way, the land stays in good shape for future use by you and by those who come after you. This can have a big effect on the resale value of your land or on what your children inherit.

The easiest way to identify land capability is to look at the land through factors that affect it, starting with the ones that have the most effect.

Often the most significant influence on capability is slope. Slope is fairly easy to identify on most land by looking. You will see where the slope changes enough to affect erosion and drainage.

The height in your landscape and the aspect of any spot will have had an influence on what type of soil is in that spot and as a result how it can be used. This not height above sea level as it is often quoted, rather it is in relation to the rest of your land.

Soil tends to be shallowest on the ridges and towards the tops of hills. It tends to be deepest in the bottoms of valleys and particularly along the rivers and creeks. This is because it has slowly (sometimes rapidly) moved downhill as rain and wind have eroded it. Plus river banks and particularly the flats are often enriched with soil from neighbors who are upstream.

Some of the slope, height and aspect effects on capability are to do with the soil type and depth. Some are to do with access. Other key factors are the potential for erosion and the need to ensure safe working.

A simple way to get a handle on your land's capability is in Possible uses of land, based on vehicle access.

Prime agricultural land can be used for almost anything in normal agriculture with no need for any special soil conservation work. This might be soils that are generally deep, fertile, well-structured and well-drained. They may be on river flats, flood plains or coastal plains with little or no slope.

Land totally unsuitable for all or most agricultural or pastoral use includes cliffs, lakes and swamps, steep areas along rivers and areas with a high proportion of rock.

In between are parcels of land that fall into land capability classes
Work with the land and the land will work for you
Some friends of mine operate a small boutique organic vineyard and winery on a very steep parcel of land. Because
  • the land area is small
  • they have adapted their methods, expectations and choice of varieties to the specifics of the land
  • each of them is very skilled in all the work they do
  • they work well together
they are able to hand harvest, hand prune and generally manage the land with minimal problems.
With each parcel of land, the climate, the soil type, the slope, the drainage and your preferences will determine how you use the land.

Wind and rainfall are often major factors, although sometimes temperature is more important such as for frost-sensitive plants or for plants or animals that don't cope well with extreme temperatures.

Shallow soil (particularly on hills and ridge tops) may be suitable for scrub or bush but not suitable for timber unless the local timber is a spindly one, in which case it may be suitable only for firewood. But if the timber is spindly, the return is unlikely to be worth the effort, time and risk of harvesting it.

Any area that is rocky is almost certainly suited only for non-agricultural uses unless there is no need for tillage and the rockiness does not interfere with production, harvesting or other management activities. For example, there might be a lot of surface rock but still plenty of room for timber trees, fodder trees, pasture or patches of vegetables etc.

Some areas may be suitable only for regeneration or repair. Such areas might be:

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Getting an overview

A view from a high point overlooking the farm or ideally an aerial photo that includes your farm and some of the surrounds will help you identify areas where there is or has been:
Aerial photos are sometimes available at a discount through farmer groups or from your local soil conservation authority etc.


A significant watercourse such as an intermittent creek or anything more permanent than that is often best treated as a separate land unit. Some farmers group all their waterways into one land unit even though the waterways may be scattered throughout the property. This is because they need and get the same sort of management. They may also put in this category any areas that are significant in the drainage or that feed water storages (earth tanks, dams, reservoirs, wells etc) or that need special care to reduce the amount of silt that collects in the water storage.

Naming units of land

Sometimes the names for different land types are obvious: "Shallow ridge", "Spindly timber", "River flats", "Salty seep". The easiest way to find a name is to identify what makes that spot or those spots different from other areas. Then give it a name that means something to you, not necessarily to anyone else.

You may also want to identify areas that are prone to Other units you may separate out include boundary areas where you want to establish a buffer between the neighbor and yourself to

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The easiest way to record all this is usually to mark these details on clear overlays that are firmly aligned with your photo - the typical whole-farm planning approach.

A handy addition to this is to have a photocopy of your farm map with you out in the field and as you think of ideas for improving the farm or notice areas needing attention, you can mark them on it using an ordinary pencil. This allows you to change them as you go through the process and as you get a better handle on each land unit and its boundaries, needs and assets.

Once you have identified the different land units on your farm the next step is to adjust your management of those land units. The simplest way is to incorporate them into your whole farm plan (if you have one) and adjust it accordingly. Then you can manage each area within its capability. This may mean that you need to fence it. If you don't fence it, you will need to treat it in a way that suits the adjoining land units if they are of a lower standard. Or treat them in a way that suits this land unit if they are of a higher standard.

Fencing need not be permanent as long as you know where to put the temporary fence when you are moving animals into or out of that area.

A suitable next step might be:
Adjust your management of those land units you have identified to make them more sustainable.

If you are looking at a printed version of this page and you would like to visit it on the internet and get a stack of other info that may assist you, the full web address is

Related info:

The boiling frog principle

Dispersible clay

Return a third to the soil

Selective grazing

SWOT analysis to boost profit


Hard pan

Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP)

Non-inversion tillage

Non-inversion tillage as a herbicide




Ground cover

Possible uses of land, based on vehicle access

Learning from pests

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Even on some smaller farms, ranches and properties, the land is not all the same. There may be differences in aspect, slope, type of soil, depth of soil, management history and vegetation.

Each will affect the potential uses of that piece of land and will set the likely "safe" use level, also called the land's capability.

Once you understand the differences and the different needs of your land, it is easier to keep it in shape for optimal production and for future generations or for resale.

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This page was updated on December 27, 2007