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SWEEP Report #0

Cropping, Tillage and Land Management Practices in
Southwestern Ontario - 1986

Dell Coleman, Inland Waters/Lands Directorate, Environment Canada, Canada Centre for Inland Waters, Burlington, Ont. and Peter Roberts, Soil and Water Management Branch, OMAF, Guelph, Ont.


Executive Summary

Evaluation Summary (Tech. Transfer Report Summaries)

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Associated SWEEP/LSP Research


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Completed: March, 1987

Key Words:

tillage, cropping practices, erosion control, survey, interview, phosphorous, monitoring

Executive Summary

This report represents the results of a survey conducted on 1,115 farms in southwestern Ontario in the fall of 1986. The purpose of the survey was to provide a detailed data base for the Soil and Water Environmental Enhancement Program (SWEEP). SWEEP is a 5-year program to reduce phosphorus loadings in the Lake Erie Basin from cropland run-off and to improve the productivity of agriculture. The survey gathered information on cropping, tillage, fertilization and land management practices in 13 counties and regional municipalities of the SWEEP study area. All of these factors impact on phosphorus delivery in the Lake Erie watershed. This data was compiled to serve as a benchmark against which future progress in the implementation of soil and water conservation programs might be evaluated at the conclusion of the SWEEP Agreement.

The survey was conducted by means of a personal interview questionnaire, which was designed by the SWEEP Land Management and Cropping Practices Working Group (see Appendix A in report). A draft questionnaire was reviewed by a cross-section of individuals involved in soil conservation work, and was pretested with a number of farmers. The final survey questionnaire involved 40 different questions and required 45 minutes to one hour to be completed. Most of the data was recorded on a field by field basis for each farm.

The sample drawn for the personal interviews was stratified on the basis of county or regional municipality, township, and erosion category. Based on 141 townships originally in the survey, 10 completed interviews was set as the target to maintain statistical reliability. The final stratification into soil loss erosion category (high/low) allowed the study area to be divided into areas where soil losses were above and below tolerable levels.

Survey results were compiled on a county and regional municipality basis. The many factors analyzed included general information relating to farms in the study area; erosion control practices; various tillage and planting operations; systematic, random and natural drainage; and manure, nitrogen and phosphorus applications. To assess the representativeness of the results, the information was compared to crop acreages as reported in Agricultural Statistics for Ontario (1985), Census of Agriculture (1981) data, and the 1984 study of Cropping, Tillage and Land Management Practices in Southwestern Ontario by Wall, Vaughan and Driver. Since a high degree of similarity exists between the results of the current survey and the information included in the above reference sources, it is possible to extrapolate findings to the county or regional municipality level.

Cash crop farming enterprises (43%) predominated in the SWEEP study area, with five counties (Brant, Elgin, Kent, Essex and Lambton) having more than half of their farms in this category. This was followed by dairy (18%) and mixed farms (12%).

Swine, poultry, sheep, fruit and vegetables and tobacco together comprised over 18% of the study area. Results showed that the most common size of farm operation was 40-99 hectares (37% of responses) while the most predominate age category of operator was 45-54 (29%). Moreover, the predominant number of years the survey site had been farmed was within the 11-20 year category.

The principal crop grown in the study area was corn (36%), followed by beans (20%), forages (17%), fall cereals (12%), spring cereals (11%), fruits and vegetables (2%), and tobacco (slightly greater than 1%). Crop rotations were grouped into 6 categories based on combinations of row crops, cereals, forage, and pasture. Contrary to popular perception, only 1% of farm fields had no rotation at all. Rotations involving only row crops occurred 10% of the time. Forty percent of the fields surveyed contained a rotation of row crops, cereal and forage. In the 21% of the fields where a cropping change occurred within the last five years the main reasons for change were: economic (15%); reduction of erosion and better crop rotation (14%) each; and a change in crops, enterprise or land base (12%).

Survey results showed that only 3% of fields were strip cropped. Plowdown crop results showed only a 16% positive response rate. Three percent of the responses indicated the use of field borders. Land management control practices results showed that permanently vegetated buffer strips were the most common practice (23%), followed by erosion control structures (15%), streambank stabilization and tree windbreaks, each at (14%). Reforestation occurred least frequently, being reported only 8% of the time.

Farmers were asked to state the type of tillage equipment, timing of tillage, tillage depth and tillage direction employed on their fields. The moldboard plough (74%) and fall tillage (73%) are still common practices. It is encouraging to note the use of the modified moldboard plough, the disc/coulter and chisel plough. Their use, however, varied considerably from county to county.

Study results showed that most fields (61%) were primary tilled to a depth of 11-15 cm, while few (1%) were ploughed to depths greater than 26 cm. However, it was surprising to note that a significant proportion of the fields were primary tilled at shallow depths (18%). Very little consideration for slope was given when ploughing. The direction most frequently ploughed (63%) was not related to slope. Contour ploughing occurred on only 5% of study area fields. The highest number of fields being contour ploughed were in Haldimand-Norfolk (12%) and Huron (11%).

Seedbed preparation (secondary tillage) methods were employed most often between March and May (85%). The most prevalent type of seedbed implements were the cultivator (49%) and disc and harrows (30%). Seedbed tillage was most often done twice. The most common reason for repeated tillage was that the seedbed was not fine enough. Approximately 20% of farmers have changed tillage practices in the last 5 years. Based on those who have changed, 30% gave the primary reason for change as a desire to reduce erosion. Additional reasons were changing crops, equipment or land base (19%) and to reduce cost (16%).

In the study area the most common type of planting equipment used was the row crop planter (45%) and the seed drill (46%). Modified row crop planters and seed drills, used to plant in heavy residue, were each used in only 1% of the fields of the study area.

Results showed that most farmers also tended to plant without consideration for the effects of slope (61%). A significant proportion (16%) plant up and down the major slope.

Results relating to systematic, random and natural tile drainage showed that systematic drainage frequently occurred in 5-10 hectare installations (33%). Randomly installed tile drainage most frequently occurred in small installations and least frequently in large installations. Natural drainage followed the same pattern. Forty-eight percent of responses indicated naturally drained areas being 1-4 hectares in size. Naturally drained areas of 21-40 hectares occurred only 6% of the time.

The use of manure, method of application, timing of application and the timeliness of its incorporation into the soil are all pertinent factors in understanding the potential effects upon water quality. In the SWEEP study area less than 40% of the responses indicated that manure was applied. Of those farms on which manure was spread, 83% of the fields were spread using a tractor and spreader. Responses indicated that 77% of the manure was applied during the spring, summer and fall. Only 9% of the respondents indicated they spread manure during the winter, while 14% indicated it was spread all year long. A cross tabulation of manure application with type of farm operation revealed that in the case of year round applications, dairy farmers accounted for (46%) followed by mixed (22%) and beef operations (15%). Where winter applications occurred, 34% were made by dairy operations, 23% by hog operations and 20% by mixed farm operations.

A review of the manure incorporation in the study area showed that approximately 30% of the time manure was spread onto forage crops. In only 14% of the responses was manure incorporated within the recommended 24 hour period. Almost one-third (32%) of the responses indicated that manure was not incorporated for more than three days.

Data on some 3,800 fields revealed that nitrogen fertilizer was applied on the basis of the farmer's experience (48%) and on the basis of a soil test recommendation within the previous year (27%). Applications of nitrogen were highest in the spring (88%) with little variation by county with respect to timing of applications. The principal method of nitrogen application was broadcasting (49%).

Forty-eight percent of the responses about phosphorus, the main nutrient of interest in the improvement of Great Lakes water quality, revealed it was applied based on experience. Twenty-eight percent of the applications were made on the basis of soil testing within the previous year while 24% of the fields on the study area did not receive phosphorus applications. Applications of phosphorus were highest in the spring (83%). An average of 13% of the responses indicated fall applications, while 4% of the responses indicated both spring and fall. Two methods of phosphorus applications accounted for 95% of phosphorus applications: 48% of the responses indicated broadcasting was used, while 47% indicated application through the planter.

When farmers were asked questions concerning erosion control measures on their farms, fifteen percent indicated that erosion control measures were present. Most often the control measures had been privately funded.

The sources of information on soil erosion or conservation were farm publications (81%), radio and T.V. (65%), OMAF news (61%), books or journals (34%), and research institutes or universities (22%).

Earlier studies of erosion and sediment transport by the Lands Directorate, Environment Canada and the Ontario Institute of Pedology coupled with the compatible data from this survey can allow estimation of soil loss at the farm level and the whole study area by employing the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE). It can also be used to estimate the reduction in soil erosion as a result of changed cropping and management practices.

This report contains only the highlights of the extensive data collected through this survey. This data base will enable additional analyses and comparisons to be made and will be used to evaluate several aspects of the SWEEP program.


Evaluation Summary

(From Technology Transfer Report Summaries - A. Hayes, L. Cruickshank, Co-Chairs)

Evaluation Summary (From Technology Transfer Report Summaries- A. Hayes, L. Cruickshank, Co-Chairs)

The object of the survey was to develop a data base to serve as a benchmark to be used in future evaluations of SWEEP.

In 1986, 1,115 on-farm interviews were conducted in the 13 county, SWEEP area. Information relating to crop rotations, type and timing of tillage and planting practices, land management, drainage (natural and installed), and application rates of soil amendments was gathered.

The predominant farm type in the SWEEP area was cash crop followed by dairy and mixed farming. The predominant farm size was 40 to 99 hectares with 100 to 199 hectares being the next most common. The dominant crops were corn and soybeans. In the SWEEP area 15% of those interviewed installed erosion control structures on the farm. Of those the most common was the vegetative buffer strip.

The survey results indicated that the main form of primary tillage was moldboard plough in the fall. Phosphorous fertilizer was applied based on experience. The main reason given for changing the cropping or tillage system was, in descending order: economic, to reduce erosion or a change in crops, enterprise or landbase. Most tillage systems were conventional and were implemented irrespective of slope. Less than 20% practised other forms of erosion control. Of farmers surveyed, 40% used manure, but only 14% reported incorporation within 24 hrs. Some spread during the winter. Most other nutrient management practices were done by experience rather than by advice.


Information could be used for future programming. The researchers could have compared the survey results to the targets for soil conservation in the province to identify areas where programs should be targeted.

An attempt is made to determine if erosion control is taking place where it is most critical. External physiographic data was run through the USLE Model. While this is important for the targeting of future programs or for program evaluation some fundamental assumptions of the Universal Soil Loss Equation were neglected. The estimates for soil loss in this context could be in error by an order of magnitude and should be referenced to only in this light.

A study with this design may unintentionally omit areas where erosion control has been more readily adopted. Extrapolation of the survey results could be limited.

Associated SWEEP/LSP Research:

  • SWEEP Report #6 - A Survey of Crop Residue in Southwestern Ontario 1987

  • SWEEP Report #78 - A Comparison of Cropping, Tillage and Land Management Practices in Southwestern Ontario for 1986 and 1991

Future Research: ( ) indicates reviewers suggestion for priority, A - high, C - low.

None required - a follow up survey was done in 1991.




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Created: 05-28-1996
Last Revised: Thursday, May 19, 2011 12:25:34 PM