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Three Reasons To Run On-Farm Field Trials

Why do we do things the way we do them? The answer often seems to be “Because we have always done it that way.” The same question can and should be asked about many of our current production practices. When I ask farmers why they do things the way they do I often get the reply that is how all their neighbours do it and the yields are as good so it must be right. Farming can be risky business and making big changes can seem daunting or even unnecessary if you think you’re doing the absolute best you can.

Farmers looking to grow and expand their acreage these days are finding it tough. Good land is selling at a premium. If expansion is not an option then farmers should be looking at how they can increase margins on their current acreage.

As farmers (and consultants) we should always be asking ourselves three basic questions. How good are we? How good can we be? and, How do we get better? In other words, how well are you doing compared to similar farms, how much room is there for improvement and what tools can you use to either cut costs or bump yields?

HOW GOOD ARE WE?

Before we can start to improve our production practices we must first determine a baseline. To determine how good we are we need to start with good record keeping. We need to keep accurate detailed records about crop inputs, dates, field activities, weather, yield, grade, etc. The more detailed and specific, the better. You start with a plan and at the end of the season see how you fared. Did you fall short, meet or exceed your targets and why?

HOW GOOD CAN WE BE?

Once we have established our performance level we can start to compare against others. This can be done at a simple level by comparing notes on yield and general production practices at the coffee shop. At a higher level there are groups or services that allow for more specific agronomic and economic comparisons through benchmarking with similar farmers at both local and regional levels. It’s here that we can get some real answers by comparing things such as yield in relation to seeding dates, available moisture, nutrient availability, soil types, etc. By comparing yourselves against others you can see if you are at the top of the game or what you can maybe do to improve.

HOW DO WE GET BETTER?

With the availability and increasing affordability of new technology it’s never been easier for farmers to conduct their own on-farm field trials to determine what works best on their farm, in their soils, under local environmental conditions and with their own equipment.

I would argue that yield mapping is one tool that, if used properly, could give you the largest return on investment in your operation. Most late model combines come with yield monitors and are only one step away from mapping. In most cases its just a matter of adding a GPS signal to tie a location to the yield and moisture data. Older combines can be retrofitted with yield mapping units for roughly $5,000 to $10,000. Granted, there is a little extra technical knowledge required to operate these units but the benefits are more than worth it.

It is always interesting to see the yield go up and down on the monitor as you drive across the field during harvest. It is not until you start mapping the data that you realize these swings are often happening in the same areas of the field, year over year. It’s much easier to discuss variability within a field if a farmer has a yield monitor and even easier if they are mapping it. If the yield variability is significant enough, then you can start to fine tune your inputs across the field according to yield potential. But that’s another story in itself. The point I am trying to make is that it’s impossible to fine tune inputs without first measuring and mapping variability within your fields.

TIPS FOR ON-FARM TESTING

When conducting on-farm tests we start by determining what specific thing it is we wish to measure. We must then eliminate as many of the variables as possible that could influence our final numbers. Such variables include different soil texture, field position, moisture availability, previous field history, etc.

Many coffee shop comparisons made with the neighbors are against other fields with different histories. Research has shown that in these cases, there is a less than 50 per cent likelihood that the results are true (due to your different treatments).

Side-by-side comparisons in the same field have been shown to increase accuracy to 60 to 65 per cent, and of course the more replicates the better the data. Four to five replications can get your accuracy up into the 90 to 95 per cent range.

In order to maximize your yield potential and profitability, it is important to first know where you stand and then start looking for areas to improve and gain efficiencies. If you are aggressive on fertility and are already getting top yields, perhaps there are areas where expenses can be reduced. Farmers enlisting third-party agronomy services that involve crop planning, record-keeping and crop monitoring should be getting most of these benefits in measuring performance and comparing against others. Larger organizations will be able to benchmark your fields against both local data and across a wider geography.

If you are considering on-farm testing and want to better you chances of getting good results I recommend talking with your local agronomist as well as government and university extension people to help you in designing the plots and removing as many variables as possible. There is a big time commitment that comes with on-farm testing in an already-short season. But if you consider the difference it can make to your bottom line, it’s a commitment you can’t afford to ignore.

BrunelSabourinisalocationagronomist withCargillAgHorizonsandbasedoutof Morris,Man.Contacthim204-746-4743or [email protected]

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Get the most out of measuring

HERE ARE A FEW TIPS FOR USING YIELD MAPPING TO MEASURE ON FARM TRIALS. ACCURACY AND CONSISTENCY ARE KEY TO MAKING THE NUMBERS MEANINGFUL. 1) IT IS RECOMMENDED THAT YIELD MONITOR CALIBRATIONS BE DONE AT LEAST ONCE A YEAR FOR EACH CROP. YES, IF YOU ARE DOING FIELD TRIALS, ACCURACY IS IMPORTANT BUT WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT ARE THE DIFFERENCES IN YIELD, PLUS OR MINUS THE AVERAGE. 2) THE STRAIGHTER THE SWATHS THE MORE ACCURATE THE DATA. REGARDLESS OF WHETHER YOU SWATH AHEAD OF THE COMBINE, IT IS CRUCIAL THAT YOU GET FULL CONSISTENT WIDTHS COMING INTO THE COMBINE. 3) IT IS RECOMMENDED THAT STRIP TRIALS ALL BE CUT AND HARVESTED IN THE SAME DIRECTION. IF YOU ARE HAVING MORE TROUBLE CUTTING AND FEEDING IN ONE DIRECTION THAN THE OTHER THEN IT CAN AFFECT YOUR FINAL RESULTS. 4) OTHER METHODS OF MEASURING ON-FARM TRIALS INCLUDE WEIGH WAGONS AS WELL AS SCALED CARTS AND TRUCKS. IF THESE ARE USED, TRY NOT TO MOVE THEM IN THE FIELD BETWEEN TREATMENTS BECAUSE MOVEMENT CAN AFFECT THE WEIGHT BALANCE ON THE SCALES AND SKEW THE RESULTS.

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Soybean variety adds $50/ac. to cash flow

Here’s one example of why running a field trial linking a yield monitor to a map pays

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This is a yield map of a 320 acre soybean field seeded on the mile (north-south). Two varieties were seeded split east and west. Historically, this field has been divided as north and south quarters, never east and west. Harvest started on the east side in a north-south direction.

About 120 acres into the field our header broke and we switched to a different one. The new header was not adjusted the same so we switched to cutting on the diagonal as shown in the map. You can see a distinct line between the two varieties at the quarter mile. If we compare the yields between the 40 acres on either side of the line that were harvested on the diagonal there is a five bushel per acre yield difference which is tough to see in the hopper of the combine. At today’s prices it is at least a $50 per acre advantage attributed to variety choice alone.

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