At this time of year, the popular press is loaded with promotional information in the form of advertising and news articles, touting the benefits of all kinds of crop yield boosting products. These may include: soil conditioners; nonconventional or speciality fertilizers; wetting agents and surfactants; biological inoculants and activators; and plant stimulants and growth regulators. Some are excellent new products worth trying. But, the promotion and claims of some of these products I find horrifying. A good example was an article in the Dec 6, 2016 issue of Grainews! I will let you figure out which article it was.
Some agronomic products are excellent with well-documented research to support their recommendations. But, some products or practices are little more than scams. Well-spoken sales people, with very rehearsed pitches, can be very convincing. I’m sure you have heard the old phase “there is a sucker born every minute!” incorrectly attributed to P.T. Barnum. The challenge for farmers is not to be scammed by slick sales people.
In the past few years, we’ve heard about “Canola 100,” “Wheat 150” and “Barley 180.” I have no problem with farmers doing their very best to achieve optimum crop yields. But, some of the products and practices that are being promoted or used to chase these top yields are just silly. I encourage farmers to strive for optimal economic yield. Striving for maximum yield is not always economical.
When a number of products are used on the same field area and a slight yield increase is observed, you really don’t know which product or treatment might have been beneficial. I call this “by guess and by golly” research. By golly, you got a yield increase but you can only guess which treatment was beneficial.
For some farmers, trying multiple treatments to chase maximum yield goals with unproven products can be very costly, with no financial benefit. If you are going to try new, unproven products, please leave controls strips and replicate the treatments in the same field, so you can hopefully determine if there was a real benefit or not.
Many farmers strive to be innovative and want to be leading edge. I greatly admire early adopters of new, proven technology. But, you don’t want to be a guinea pig, trying unproven technology on your farm. That can be very costly, when it does not work.
I put agronomic products and their claims into three different agronomic categories:
- Science-based agronomy;
- Conjecture-based agronomy; and,
- Pseudo-based agronomy.
1. Science-Based Agronomy
In my opinion, all products promoted to famers should be scientifically proven.
Unfortunately, this often is not the case. And it seems to be getting worse each year. Genuine science-based agronomic information must come from rigorous, sound scientific research. Experimental testing with careful measurements and observations must be conducted to show when, where, why and how a new product will improve crop yield. Testing must be conducted in uniquely different regions to represent the various soil and climatic areas of the prairies. This is important to understand when the product will or will not work in the agro-ecological region that you farm.
Ideally, the products or practices used on your farm should be based on genuine scientific research for the region you farm. When this information is not available, you don’t know if or when if a product might improve crop yield.
2. Conjecture-Based Agronomy
Conjecture-based recommendations are made based on what is thought or believed to be correct by the promoter. But the product or practice has not been scientifically tested or proved to be correct in Western Canada! Promoters tend to use farmer testimonials and convincing literature to support claims.
A good example is the many speciality micronutrient products that are available and promoted to farmers across Western Canada. We know a micronutrient fertilizer may be beneficial to increase yield, when that micronutrient is deficient in a soil. Most of these speciality micronutrient products have convincing claims. But, most have not been tested scientifically in Western Canada to actually show if or when they might work to increase crop yield. To complicate things, changes are constantly being made to product names, product forms and recommendations on methods of application of the products.
3. Pseudo-Based Agronomy
Pseudo-based agronomic recommendations are usually based on a wee bit of scientific logic, but products have not been scientifically proven and likely won’t be. Slick promotional materials are often used. Products or technologies ride on the coat tails of good science and often attempt to link up with good agronomic science. The claims made are often just too good to be true.
An example from a few years ago was injecting tractor exhaust into soil to eliminate the need for fertilizers. Using basic scientific knowledge and common sense it would be nearly impossible to have any soil or crop benefit. But, people bought into it at considerable expense and tried it for a two or three of years. Most gave up, after watching their crop yields decline.
There are many yield boosting products that fall into the pseudo category. Some might call them snake oil products. Sadly, there are far too much pseudo agronomy products promoted to prairie farmers.
My advice is to use common sense and critical thinking. When considering use of a new product, ask questions about the Information or advice you receive. Has reputable research be conducted on soil types, crops and environmental conditions that are representative of your region?
If NO, either don’t use it or try in it in small replicated field strips with adjacent control strips!
If YES, ask for research reports, not just promotional information. Do a literature review on the Internet to see what information you can find. Get the names of the researchers that led the studies. Call them to get first hand comments to find out if and when the technology will work. Most agronomy researchers I know are more than happy to explain their results to farmers.
I usually advise not to use a product unless the company can provide unbiased research, from a reputable western Canadian scientist to show when the product will work.
In summary, take news articles, promotional material and testimonials with caution.
Find out as much about the testing of the product or practice as you can — does it measure up to the claims? Call your provincial soil or crop specialist for their unbiased comments and advice. Always use common sense and critical thinking before using a new product!