On-farm research puts the power of research directly in your hands, so you don’t have to rely on small-plot trials from another region to tell you what works — or doesn’t work

Farmers use on-farm research to help fine-tune their input decisions and management practices. Often available research and information for new products or practices are developed in small plot trials or under different geographic and field conditions than exist on individual operations.

“It’s a good idea use on-farm research to try something new on your own farm under your own management system to verify that it works for you, before changing over the whole farm.” says Roger Andreiuk, agronomist with Alberta Reduced Tillage Linkages (RTL) in Leduc. “Many new products or practices are demonstrated on single strips or split fields compared without statistical analysis. Although these demonstrations can serve as an important first look, it is simply not possible to make reliable comparisons of yield or other data on a farm system without a scientific approach.”

Gordon Tuck farms 2,400 acres near Vegreville and has been doing on-farm research for the past several years, working with partners such as RTL. He sees a number of perks to carrying out his own on-farm research. “Much of the current agricultural research in Alberta is carried out along the Highway 2 corridor, which doesn’t reflect what happens on my northeast farm under my farm conditions and machinery,” says Tuck. “I use on-farm research so I can test new and developing technologies and products on my farm, on my soil and landscapes and under my management and input level.”

For Tuck, conducting his own on-farm research makes the information very relevant and meaningful to his operation. “This information gives me the confidence to make future decisions,” explains Tuck. “It’s also important to maintain some independence by not having to rely totally on information from someone else or from some enterprise with a vested interest in the product.”

7 steps to success

Tuck and Andreiuk agree that when properly planned and resourced there are few pitfalls to on-farm research. It does require a commitment to the project as well as plenty of planning and coordination among partners in order to complete the trial and make the process enjoyable and as hassle free as possible. They recommend seven steps to successful on-farm research:

1. Find partners

2. Set research objectives

3. Select treatments and checks

4. Select field site

5. Design and layout plots, including checks

6. Keep records and collect data

7. Evaluate, analyze and interpret data

Collaborating partners should be involved from the very beginning of the project and throughout every step. “Having partners is really important, such as RTL agronomists, consulting agronomists, agro suppliers, product suppliers and research scientists,” says Tuck. Andreiuk adds, “Partners lend synergy and interest to the project, and having more people involved with monitoring and data gathering throughout the project can add value to the final observations and outcomes.”

Equipment such as parallel tracking and yield monitors make on-farm research easier to manage, including the replication and randomization of plots. Replication and randomization are important to ensure that any one treatment is not biased or favoured in any way, Andreiuk says. Replication gives you more power to separate treatment effects and gives a

“It’s important to maintain some independence by not having to rely totally on information from someone else or from some enterprise with a vested interest in the product.”

—Gordon Tuck

measure of variability in the field to help to determine if the difference that occurs is statistically significant or valid. Once you can confirm the statistical significance, then you can apply economics to see if the variety or product you are testing really does pay.

“With the guidance system on the tractor, we can mark out the distances and easily go in and seed a set of plots,” says Tuck. For example, we can seed three replicates of five different products in about two hours, which is much faster than hand staking. “Yield monitors are also very helpful, and gives us the consistency in measuring we need. Although some people argue they aren’t as accurate as they should be, they still give a relevant comparison of differences between strips harvested.”

Well planned, on-farm research can help make comparisons with confidence and a high degree of precision. “The added benefit of carrying out research on a farmer’s own land and within their farming system is very important and increases the farmer’s confidence in any decision made,” says Andreiuk. “This puts the power of research in the farmer’s hands.”

THE LANDSCAPE SYSTEMS RESEARCH NETWORK

Alberta Pulse Growers launched the Landscape Systems Research Network in 2007 to create a network of producers along with the agricultural and scientific communities. The network does field tests for products and practices. Through this network, producers receive assistance in developing meaningful and scientifically valid information useful to their production systems.

Tuck and Andreiuk collaborated on a pilot on-farm research project to test the network concept. “The project objective was to evaluate the effect of phosphorus fertilizer application on nitrogen fixation by field pea,” explains Andreiuk. “A scientific protocol was developed and implemented by a team of research scientists, agronomists and producers.” The project included a replicated, field scale randomized block design experiment, using parallel tracking for seeding the various plots and treatments, and yield monitors at harvest. During the project, regular observations and several assessments were recorded.

“We continued the project in 2008, seeding canola and comparing various fertilizer combinations,” explains Tuck. “By using GPS and the tractor guidance system, it was simple to go back and seed the same strips again. General observations indicate the project was very successful, but we don’t have the results finalized yet.”

“Overall, the pilot project did demonstrate that field scale on-farm research can indeed be carried out with confidence in the protocol and the results,” explains Andreiuk. “We believe that the development of an on-farm research network would allow for repeated testing of concepts over space and time (multiple sites, multiple years). This would speed up the testing of new technologies or practices and subsequent decision-making and adoption rates.”

Donna Fleury writes from Millarville, Alta. This article was prepared in co-operation with Reduced Tillage Linkages. For more information visit the web site at www.reducedtillage.ca

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