For Bennie Dunhin, agronomy manager at Cavalier Agrow in northwestern Saskatchewan, the question isn’t whether or not a product works.
“There’s no new product on the market that doesn’t work somewhere in the world. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a product,” says Dunhin, named Outstanding Young Agrologist by the Saskatchewan Institute of Agrologists this year.
“It will work somewhere. We need to figure out where.”
Figuring out whether a product will work for their farmers is at the heart of Cavalier Agrow’s on-farm research program. Since 2012, Cavalier Agrow has done 514 trials.
Cavalier Agrow divides product trials into focus and experimental products.
Experimental products include products that aren’t yet widely available, but that Cavalier Agrow wants to examine. It also includes products that haven’t been tested in Cavalier Agrow’s area.
“One thing, for instance, is plant hormones. Everybody wants to sell us plant hormones right now,” says Dunhin. Dunhin adds they don’t know which plant hormone products will work in their soils.
Experimental product trials have one to three replications per year. If the product doesn’t work, Cavalier can cut its losses before investing too many resources in the trial. If it shows promise, it moves into the focus product trials.
Each year Cavalier Agrow trials three focus products. Each of those products is trialed at 12 locations or more. Sometimes a trial is also replicated at the same location. Dunhin says they try to organize 14 to 16 replications, as they promise the manufacturer 12 sets of data.
Products that perform in the focus trials are given Cavalier’s AgProve trademarked label, Dunhin says, which shows the product has been tested to their standards.
Dunhin says they’ve trialed products that don’t cut it, even at the focus stage. Manufacturers can’t argue with it, he says, because Cavalier Agrow has the data to back it.
Dunhin says they start setting up trials in January. Cavalier Agrow approaches manufacturers to see what new products are out there, and what might make a difference to farmers in their area. Most of the trials are in place by mid-February to March, he adds, as that’s when growers start thinking about the growing season.
Cavalier Agrow has a grower base willing to do trials every year. Dunhin says they approach those farmers to see if they’re interested in a particular trial. He adds farmers are willing to participate in trials every year once they see the value of local trials.
A trial protocol outlines the expectations of growers, suppliers, and Cavalier Agrow staff. It includes how much product is needed for the trial and the cost. Growers need to buy the product used in the trial, Dunhin says. That helps keep everyone accountable, he explains. Cavalier Agrow will credit it back to them after the trial is finished.
The protocol also includes the layout of the trial, what’s going to be measured, and when Cavalier Agrow is going to be taking any measurements. Details on seeding, spraying, or applying other products are also included in the protocol.
Soil information and topography comes into play when they’re picking a site for the plot. Generally, they want an even slope, so they don’t have water sitting on the treatment. They might intentionally pick an area with nutrient deficiencies, Dunhin says, depending on the product they’re testing. Otherwise, they try to pick an even area.
If the field is part of Cavalier’s variable rate program (dubbed iFARM), agronomists will already have the soil information they need. Agronomists take eight core samples per foot for the iFARM program. But if they don’t have the information, they’ll do a composite sample of the small area they’re using for the trial, Dunhin says.
Dunhin said they aim to make plots at least 1,200 feet long, and use GPS to measure accurately. That plot length is also part of the United Suppliers Total Acre Standard Protocol, which Dunhin helped develop.
Cavalier Agrow tries to replicate trials twice within a field, but it’s not always possible. Dunhin says they replicate the trials at many different locations.
Agronomists complete scouting reports on the trial through the growing season. Dunhin says sometimes there’s more to a product’s value than a yield boost. For example, something that pushes maturity has value.
Dunhin says they prompt growers as harvest approaches, so Cavalier Agrow can get the weigh wagons to the site when it’s time to combine. They ask farmers to make sure combines are as empty as possible. Five pounds of seed can make a difference in yield with smaller plots, he explains.
1. Dunhin says on-farm trials need to meet a set of standards, and it’s important that participating growers understand those standards. He suggests writing them down in a way that makes sense.
2. Yield monitors aren’t a good choice for trials. Dunhin recommends a weigh wagon or a grain cart with a scale.
3. Replication is vital. Dunhin recommended replicating the trial in two or three fields, or within the same field. Otherwise it’s hard to know whether differences between the treatment and check are due to the product or the soil. He also recommends farmers keep in mind that a product’s total value might go beyond yield.
4. Dunhin emphasizes the importance of trust. He recommends farmers stay away from fly-by-night companies. Farmers need to work with agronomists and retailers that they trust as well. Will your agronomist tell you to try something she doesn’t sell if it looks plausible? Will your retailer tell a supplier if a product doesn’t work?
5. Dunhin also recommends partnering with an agronomist who has the “deep knowledge” of whatever the trial focuses on, whether it’s fungicide, nutrition, or another topic.
6. Producers concerned about being taken in by bad research can ask their agronomists to attend grower meetings with them, Dunhin says. Or they can ask their agronomists to look at the research later.