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SWEEP Report #50

Evaluation of O.B.A.T.A. Approach to Low Input Farming

L. Leskiw, A. Laycock, Can-Ag Enterprises, Guelph, Ontario

Executive Summary

Evaluation Summary (Tech. Transfer Report Summaries)

View / Download Final Report  [937 KB pdf]

Associated SWEEP/LSP Research


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Completed: May, 1992

Key Words:

low input farming, kelp, molasses, O.B.A.T.A., aeration tillage, Aerway, erosion control, cover crops, fertilizer, no-till, corn, soybeans, winter wheat, yield, subsoiling, crop rotation, mulch tillage, soil compaction, residue cover, microbial biomass

Executive Summary

Many farmers are seeking alternatives that lessen their dependence on off-farm inputs (especially fertilizers and pesticides) that build soil quality, and that create a healthier environment. This report presents a three year evaluation of the excellent accomplishments of a small group of innovative farmers known as the Ontario Biological Aeration Tillage Association (O.B.A.T.A.). Their quest is to adapt low input farming methods on their farms and to extend promising alternatives to their communities.

The basic components of the O.B.A.T.A. approach are mechanical, biological and reduced chemical inputs. Important subcomponents of each of these are summarized as follows. Mechanical tillage implements; a subsoiler used for pre-emergence or post-emergence soil aeration; and other farming implements for spraying, seeding, tillage, etc. The biological component entails kelp, sugar (e.g. molasses) and fertilizer; cover crops; crop rotation; and reduced tillage. Reduced rates of herbicides and fertilizers are applied.

The purpose of this project was to evaluate these production practices; the next step is to use the favourable recommendations for extension purposes. The evaluation examines systems approaches to farming. A standard approach, the farmers' routine practice, is compared to the O.B.A.T.A. approach. These both vary considerably from farm to farm in terms of crops grown, availability of manure, and rotation of principal crops. One farmer adopted O.B.A.T.A. methods throughout his farm, so on his land different O.B.A.T.A. practices (comparison of cover crops, different fertilizer applications, tillage practices and manure applications) were examined.

The study was conducted on seven farms distributed across Oxford, Elgin, Haldimand-Norfolk and Waterloo Counties, spanning variable soil and climatic conditions. There were three complete years of results for two fields and several treatments within each field on Mint Klynstra, Jim House and Arpad Pasztor's farms. Various O.B.A.T.A. treatments were tested on John Van Dorp's farm. Joe Gerber, Dave McIntosh and Dean Glenney were unable to participate during the entire period for various personal reasons.

The significant results of the monitoring program are summarized as follows:


  • Soil fertility monitoring (P, K, Mg, Ca, pH and organic matter) revealed a lack of significant differences between the standard and O.B.A.T.A. management treatments. Comparisons were made for each year and between years for each treatment.

  • There were no significant differences in soil compaction as measured by vertical penetrometer and bulk density. Pocket penetrometer readings indicate greater compaction in the standard versus O.B.A.T.A. management plots, below the topsoil.

  • Most of the O.B.A.T.A. farmers kept a fair amount of crop residue cover on both their standard and O.B.A.T.A. fields (over 50% on average). Two farmers used aeration tillage in the fall regularly, and another was a no-till farmer.

  • Microbial biomass measurements taken in 1991 were similar to baseline measurements obtained in 1989. Fields with the greatest biomass carbon counts have a history of intensive soil management (i.e. use of manures, cover crops, and kelp and sugar additions etc.). Over the three year period no significant increases in microbial measurements were detected in the O.B.A.T.A. plots when compared with the standard plots.


  • Winter wheat trials were only possible in 1989. Yields were greater on O.B.A.T.A. management plots compared with yields obtained from standard management plots. This may have been a positive response to foliar spraying as this was the only O.B.A.T.A. practice implemented on these fields at that time.

  • No measurable differences in soybean yields on O.B.A.T.A. treatment plots in 1989, 1990 and 1991 could be discerned from those yields obtained from standard management plots.

  • Corn yields on O.B.A.T.A. treated plots were greater (6%) than standard management plots, based on examination of three fields in 1991. During the first two years O.B.A.T.A. plot yields were slightly lower than those on standard treatments.

  • The use of cover crops and aeration tillage (Aer-way) systems were highly effective in reducing water runoff, soil, sediment and phosphorus losses.


  • There are risks in changing farming practices. While farmers are motivated by environmental and health concerns, an economic incentive is also an excellent motivator. Observations, consideration of inputs and returns have been evaluated in year three and the results show O.B.A.T.A. practices are comparable or superior to conventional practices in terms of economics.


  • Soil micro-faunal populations within plots with added kelp and sugar versus standard management plots indicated no significant differences in a one year study.

  • The use of kelp, molasses and other sugars, and 71 B fertilizer solution as a seed and foliar treatment in an aeration tillage system does not significantly affect growth or yield of soybeans, based on a two year micro-plot study. Nevertheless, positive responses to these additives were evident on some field scale treatments.

This on-farm research has proven to be very effective in testing and demonstrating alternative production practices. Considerable effort is required in the initial year of such an undertaking to establish good communication and understanding between researchers and farmers. Subsequently, attention is needed to continue consistency and integrity of practices and statistical design. It would be desirable to have at least ten participants to improve the statistical component.

Longer term research is essential for studies of this nature. Both the farmers and researchers agree that the third year is really the first year of reliable data, considering the adjustment period needed for transition in soils, weed control and experience of the co-operator.

An extension component should be added to projects of this type. In the final year of study, Can-Ag Enterprises received funding from SWEEP and Aer-way to produce a video that could be appropriate for extension use.


Evaluation Summary

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

The goal of this project was to evaluate the Ontario Biological Aeration Tillage Association (O.B.A.T.A.) approach to low input farming methods on their farms. The O.B.A.T.A. approach includes the use of: a subsoiler for pre-emergence or post-emergence soil aeration; kelp, sugar (molasses) and fertilizer along with cover crops; crop rotation and reduced tillage. Rates of herbicides and fertilizers are reduced in the O.B.A.T.A. approach.

The study includes a literature review of several cover crops, allelopathy, biological soil life, seaweed: plant growth, soil erosion, nitrate leaching and tillage and conventional versus organic farming. Seven farms in Oxford, Elgin, Haldimand-Norfolk and Waterloo counties were involved in the three year study. All sites were monitored for soil characteristics, field operations, economics and crop yields.

The results are as follows:

  1. No significant differences were found to exist between standard and O.B.A.T.A. management treatments in terms of levels of P, K, Mg, Ca, or pH in the three years.

  2. No significant differences in percent organic matter.

  3. No measurable differences between treatments for compaction at any soil depth.

  4. No visible trends in microbial biomass development could be observed.

  5. Corn, soybean and winter wheat yields were not significantly different from standard yields.

  6. The use of cover crops and aeration tillage systems were effective in reducing water run-off, soil or sediment and phosphorus losses.


The data in this report must be interpreted very carefully as the author's biases show where he speaks favourably of O.B.A.T.A. when the result may not necessarily support the conclusions. The author mentioned that the microbial biomass measurement was not as useful as he had hoped. The potential for cover crops to aid in weed control is mentioned several times but the report makes no mention of weed control after cover crops. Herbicide rates used were the same for both treatments. Only one of the participants used the complete O.B.A.T.A. system.

There is some question about how the economics were derived. Gross returns are stated for the final year of corn only. Two passes of aeration tillage and one with a subsoiler likely will not cost much less than the moldboard plow and two cultivations. The cost of the residue spray, foliar spray, seed treatment and cover crop seed plus the cost of application would appear to more than offset any fertilizer savings. It would appear that conservation tillage can provide many of the same benefits as the O.B.A.T.A. system with fewer passes over the field.

Associated SWEEP/LSP Research:

  • SWEEP Report #26 - The Use of Kelp and Molasses in an Aeration Tillage System

  • SWEEP Report #66 - Volume V. Economic Assessment of the Technology Evaluation and Development (TED) Program

  • LSP 7011 - Crop Rotation Effects on Crop Yields and Soil Properties in Southwestern Ontario

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

None required.




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Created: 05-28-1996
Last Revised: Thursday, May 19, 2011 03:39:46 PM