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Make Technology Earn Its Keep

Technological capability of new farm equipment is astounding, sure, but for the most part GPS is currently used for straight-as-an-arrow rows and yield monitors are used for record-keeping. One Alberta project is looking for ways to make autosteer and yield mapping do so much more for you.

Ken Coles, general manager of the Southern Applied Research Association (SARA) at Lethbridge, Alta., sees real value in incorporating this technology on farms — particularly to simplify the chore of on-farm trials. He sees the push for introducing variable rate technology (VRT) as somewhat premature — because he sees a lack of evaluation. How do you measure the differences, if any? How do you verify the outcome of a change in land management? Coles feels we’re missing the methodology to answer these questions first.

To develop these methods, SARA and its parent organization, the Agricultural Research Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA), launched last spring a field-scale evaluation of two management practices using GPS and yield mapping to measure differences. The trial is looking at nitrogen application levels on canola and the use of a phosphate-fixing inoculant on pea. While the findings of the study will be interesting, the scope, scale and set up of the actual trial holds just as much value.

“The real value here is that we’re taking out the heavy labour intensive aspect of most field-scale trials. There will be no more flagging plots and hauling out the weigh wagon at harvest. We’re scaling up the scope to really make this applied research,” Coles says. Coles understands that in order for farmers to do their own trials, the set up and data collection has to be easy and not take away valuable time during seeding and harvest.

To develop the methodology, Coles and his associates coordinated two trials at nearly 20 sites.

The first trial measured the effect of the farmer’s intended nitrogen rate on yield, then compared that to yields when nitrogen is applied at 50 per cent and 150 per cent of the farmer’s intended rate. “We did ask farmers to leave a zero-N check strip, however we recognize that they’re running a business and they may not be willing to sacrifice that much yield,” he says.

The second trial evaluated Novozymes’ phosphorus-fixing inoculant on pea. Peas were seeded with either zero phosphorus (P) fertilizer, 10 pounds actual P with seed or 20 pounds actual P with seed. All plots were seeded with both nitrogen-and phosphorus-fixing inoculant. (Editor’s note: This article is about the techniques to make on-farm trials easier. Stay tuned to Grainews for findings from the trials as data is made available.)

MAKE SENSE OF YOUR DATA

Evaluating varying nitrogen rates on canola in your own field

“The goal is to quantify results and get real facts as to what decisions really do to the bottom line.”

— RON LAMB

will mean developing your own yield response curves. You need some basic computer skills for this task. If this isn’t your favourite thing, get your niece, nephew or someone equally well versed in new technology to tackle it.

That’s precisely what Ron Lamb has done. Not that Lamb is technology-averse, he’s just glad his nephew enjoys the data analysis portion of research and evaluation. “The computer work is also done in the off-season or during down time,” he says. It doesn’t take away from the more time-sensitive work, such as seeding or spraying.

Lamb, who farms near Clairesholm, Alta., is not new to on-farm field trials, however he was excited to take part in this precision-focused study because he feels there’s much to be learned from running your own trials. “The goal is to quantify results and get real facts as to what decisions really do to the bottom line,” Lamb says.

As a participant in this trial, Lamb marked off the field in the spring using his GPS system; easy enough considering many farmers have GPS on the tractor. But fewer farmers have GPS on the combine — a must for layering the yield data over top of the field management data. After harvest, Lamb’s nephew Josh Fankhauser sat down and worked to layer the maps together, a task that is made easier with standardized GPS signals and compatible software.

BENEFITS OF WORKING TOGETHER

There are limits, of course, to field trials. Lamb cautions that one year of data isn’t enough to draw conclusions from, which is why a collaborative approach such as this is so valuable. He uses a recent experience on his own farm as an example. “I had sent one of my sons out to put down some Edge to get control of kochia in a field. I didn’t have enough product to do the entire field and I didn’t mark exactly where it was put down,” Lamb says. The next year, Lamb grew peas on that field. It appeared that where Edge had been applied the year before, the peas yielded more. On the surface, you might think cause and effect, but Lamb isn’t so sure.

“The field received hail. That could have played a role. The big thing for me is to replicate. That’s how you determine just what causes the difference,” Lamb says. He did try a replication this year but again received hail, and this time there wasn’t enough crop left to measure. “I’d like at least three to four years of data before I’d really trust what the maps were saying,” he says.

Which is why a large-scale project or farmers working together makes so much sense. In just two years, you may be able to see

real trends or effects because of the replications. The fantastic part about on-farm trials is that the data has the most value to you — they’re on your land, Lamb says. He sees great value in collaborating and sharing data, but he’s also hesitant to hand out his findings to just anyone. His message? Agree to help each other out, but recognize the true value of this type of trial to your own farm and don’t be too eager to hand out your results to just anyone.

MORE TO COME

As public money is spread thin, Coles sees research associations like his doing more and more projects in this large-scale capacity, however SARA and others will likely take on more of a co0ordinator’s role in farm research. “I really feel that this is the way most applied research is going to go,” he says. He could see organizations like SARA offering to gather funding, set up and advise on trials and do the data analysis, acting as a knowledge base for farmers.

Farmers are being challenged to step up and take the ball on answering many agronomic questions, he says. “I could see, going forward, at least half of the applied research we do being of this collaborative, on-farm type,” Coles says.

Lyndsey Smith is a Grainews field editor in

Lumsden, Sask. Email her at

real trends or effects because of the replications. The fantastic part about on-farm trials is that the data has the most value to you — they’re on your land, Lamb says. He sees great value in collaborating and sharing data, but he’s also hesitant to hand out his findings to just anyone. His message? Agree to help each other out, but recognize the true value of this type of trial to your own farm and don’t be too eager to hand out your results to just anyone.

MORE TO COME

As public money is spread thin, Coles sees research associations like his doing more and more projects in this large-scale capacity, however SARA and others will likely take on more of a co0ordinator’s role in farm research. “I really feel that this is the way most applied research is going to go,” he says. He could see organizations like SARA offering to gather funding, set up and advise on trials and do the data analysis, acting as a knowledge base for farmers.

Farmers are being challenged to step up and take the ball on answering many agronomic questions, he says. “I could see, going forward, at least half of the applied research we do being of this collaborative, on-farm type,” Coles says.

Lyndsey Smith is a Grainews field editor in

Lumsden, Sask. Email her at [email protected]

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