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Putting the farm “on trial”

Farmers are always experimenting. Here are Sarah Weigum’s thoughts about different ways of doing research

Last summer I travelled to Indian Head, Sask. where I had the pleasure of visiting the Bell Farm historical site. The Bell Farm is probably Canada’s first mega-farm, topping out at 53,000 acres in the late 1800s. In 1887, a portion of this farm was sold to create the Dominion Experimental Farm, now known as the Indian Head Research Farm.

Over a century later, formal research is migrating back to Prairie farms. While farmers have never quit experimenting — leaving a fungicide check strip, planting different varieties side-by-side, swathing part of a field and leaving the other to straight-cut — some farmers are starting to work closely with industry companies or agronomists to do complex and well-managed trials that include multiple varieties or treatments. If you have had any inclination to run a trial on your own farm, read on for some thoughts on the matter.

The Farmer

Neil Bertsch has worked with Bayer CropSciences since 2009 doing canola variety trials as well as fungicide trials on his farm near Drumheller, Alta. For the canola trials he supplies the fertilizer and fungicide when required. Bayer supplies the seed and applies herbicide since the plots use three different chemistry groups.

The plots on Bertsch’s land have included between eight and 13 varieties of canola and require about 30 to 40 acres in the centre of a field. Bertsch seeds each variety twice, making a drill width’s pass for at least 1,000 feet to do a plot.

“Most plots take us three to four hours to do,” said Bertsch. Loading the seed tank that often takes time but Bertsch said Bayer sends two staff members to the field at seeding time to make the process as smooth as possible. Another challenge posed by seeding plots is the extra travel in the field with the tractor and drill which causes compaction.

When the crop is mature, Bayer makes sure a uniform area of each plot is swathed and brings the weigh-wagon to measure the yield. From his view in the tractor cab, Bertsch is impressed by the work put into the trials.

“Every plot is treated extremely fair and every effort is made to make them the same,” said Bertsch. Fairness means fungicide must always be sprayed perpendicular to the plots to ensure the same amount of wheel tracks throughout. Or, in the case of fungicide trials, even the plots that aren’t sprayed get driven though to mimic the damage. It’s also important to find a field without a lot of variation in soil type or low spots that might drown out.

While doing trials has required a time commitment from Bertsch, he sees the benefits of having research on his front step.

“You get to see what works in your area,” said Bertsch. Along with yield data, he also observes how the crop performs throughout the year and how easy it is to harvest. He has the added perk of seeing new varieties before they are commercially available.

Bertsch encourages producers considering an on-farm trial to ask the company lots of questions, but in the end, his advice is: “Don’t be scared to try a trial.”

The Agronomist

Kelly Boles is my agronomist at Three Hills, Alta. and he started working with clients to do field-scale trial five years ago. Some projects originate when crop protection and seed companies approach him looking for co-operating growers. Others, like recent high-yield wheat and barley trials begin as collaborative efforts with his crop consultant colleagues. And sometimes a trial is born out of producers’ desire to determine where the next dollar is best spent.

“The sales push coming from the crop enhancement industry is a barrage,” said Boles. “Farmers have to filter through it and we’re helping them do that.”

The 2013 high yield cereal trials compared fungicide, plant growth regulators, different seeding densities, different fertility levels, different methods of applying fertilizer and a combination of these treatments. Boles supported participating farmers by advising when to apply products, researching the compatibility of co-applied products, and analyzing the return on investment.

On-farm trials give producers local, quantified data to help them negotiate the many product claims in the marketplace. They also help producers understand the actual time commitment of these management practices. Having an agronomist on the team provides an independent, third-party verification of the yield data, explained Boles. Through Boles’ consulting work, the trials benefit other farmers in the region, as the results enable him to better advise other clients.

The Government Funder

High-yield trials take a lot of time and product. Fortunately for the farmer doing the trial, there’s some relief from high-end input costs. For Boles’ clients and other farmers participating in the high yield trials around Alberta in 2013 up to $110 per acre for 80 acres was available through the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund (ACIDF) to pay for extra inputs. Along with five wheat and barley yield trials, ACIDF also funded five controlled traffic farming trials around Alberta.

According to Alan Hall, project hunter with ACIDF, the organization began funding on-farm research trials around 2010. New areas in agriculture needed research, but cash and time-strapped government research stations lacked the resources to delve deeper into the issues.

“There is kind of a crunch right now for agronomy research with slow cutbacks from governments,” said Hall. Enter field-scale trials, which are cheaper to fund than the small plots and reduce the workload on scientists and their teams. Another benefit, Hall explained, is that more growers are likely to adopt a management practice if they see it succeed in a field as opposed to a small-scale trial.

Farm-based trials require some compromise as the protocols have to be manageable for producers and their equipment, said Hall. The number of treatments that can be tested in a growing season are more limited in the field than at the research station. In the future, Hall thinks small plot trials and field trials will compliment to each other, as each level of research studies the variables they can best measure.

The Company Rep

Brian de Kock, market development specialist with Dow AgroSciences, knows a thing or two about on-farm trials. He helps co-ordinate up to 60 grower strip trials each summer with Dow’s hybrid canola varieties going head-to-head with top competitor varieties.

“If you do a small plot you can have extreme variation in yield and maturity,” said de Kock, explaining why Dow started doing field-scale trials in 2009. “Our experience is that doing small scale trials don’t align with grower experience.” On-farm trials give companies like Dow more credibility by providing more accurate marketing claims. As de Kock explained, the results from individual trials and provincial aggregates have aligned closely with the data collected from other farmers growing Dow hybrids.

Dow publishes the results of individual trials online, giving farmers who don’t do their own trials the opportunity to compare how varieties performed on their neighbour’s field.

De Kock looks for experienced trial growers, as well as farmer with commitment to following protocols. It helps when the farmer works with family as opposed to a lot of hired help because it allows all stakeholders to be involved early in the process. He also looks for “someone who wants to learn more and see the data for their own benefit on their own farm.” Typically, he stays away from “mega-farmers” — those with over 20,000 acres.

“There’s a risk that the trial might not get completed because they have so much on their plate,” said de Kock. Along with being in the field for seeding and harvest, Dow staff scout the trials throughout the growing season and make recommendations on fungicide and insecticide applications as well as swath timing. They can also revise the plot measurements if, for example, part of the field is drowned out.

So there you have it, four people involved in agriculture, four experiences with field trials. If you’re not ready to take the plunge yourself, at least take the time to find someone in your community who’s doing practical research and ask him or her some good questions.

About the author

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Sarah Weigum grows pedigreed seed and writes at Three Hills, Alta.

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