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On-farm scientific research saves Westman producers big bucks

What started off as a way to answer questions on one farm has evolved 
into a research business other farmers can access

Adam Gurr says he and his partners have discovered a way to save more than a million dollars over their farming career, and they’re sharing it with others.

Gurr, who farms 4,800 acres near Rapid City and Brandon with his father Barry and brother-in-law Stephen Vajdic, isn’t peddling a miracle product. Their money-saving discovery is cutting the amount of canola seed planted without hurting yield. And it’s just one of many agronomic insights they’ve unearthed through scientifically conducted farm-scale research available now through their company Agritruth.

Three years of testing three seeding rates, and planting canola no earlier than mid-May using terrain-following openers with no till resulted in very little (zero to 15 per cent) plant mortality. More viable plants means seeding rates can be safely reduced, cutting seed costs.

“For canola with a 1,000-kernel weight of five grams we will seed at 3-1/2 to four pounds (an acre) and save between $10 and $21 an acre,” Gurr told an Agvise Laboratories’ meeting here March 18. “If canola seed had a four-gram, 1,000-kernel weight we’ll seed at 2.8 to 3.2 pounds, saving $18 to $30 an acre. Annual farm savings are in the neighbourhood of $30,000 to $40,000 and for the rest of my 22 years of farming compounded it works out to a million and a half (dollars). And it didn’t cost a lot to set that trial up either.”

The recommended canola seeding rate is much higher at five pounds an acre. The goal is to get 14 to 26 plants per square foot for a final plant stand of seven to 14.

“It assumes a mortality rate of 50 per cent, which is the safe thing to do,” Gurr said.

“With seeding rates I think there is an opportunity to narrow the ranges in all crops and refine those recommendations specific to certain systems,” Gurr said later in an interview. “Industry recommendations have to be very safe. They’ve got to work everywhere.”

Unexpected results

Some of their research results have been surprising. One trial comparing a 60- and 130-pound rates of nitrogen found no difference in wheat yields.

“This was in a high-yield environment with 90-bushel (an acre) red spring wheat,” he said. “We saw differences in protein, which of course affected the economics of it, but it was not what I would’ve expected.”

On-farm spring wheat variety trials have also shown different results than small-plot experiments, Gurr said. Harvest wheat is rated very poor for fusarium head blight, but on their farm they’ve found when sprayed with a fungicide, Harvest produces higher-quality wheat than varieties rated moderately resistant to fusarium.

The potential cost of picking the wrong varieties was part of the motivation to do their own research, Gurr said. So was a lack of independent, scientific data on new products. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) used to require companies to prove their new fertilizers and soil amendments worked, but since 2013 they only have to prove they’re safe.

Need to be more vigilant

University of Manitoba soil scientist and professor, Don Flaten likes what Gurr is doing. With the changes at CFIA it’s easier than ever for the unscrupulous to scam farmers with snake oil, he said at the same meeting. The provincial government and university don’t have the resources to test new products so farmers need to be more vigilant.

“With the right sort of testing I think farmers are capable now, especially with all their GPS equipment, to do very good on-farm tests on their own.”

On-farm research requires planning ahead, but modern technology, including GPS systems, makes it relatively simple, said Gurr, who has a diploma and degree in agriculture from the University of Manitoba and is currently working on a master’s degree through Iowa State University.

“You need to set priorities for trials, have a backup plan in place and consider logistics,” he said. “You want to make it as simple as possible for everyone.

“You have to be passionate about it too, to do it on this scale. You have to love agronomy, you have to love what you’re doing or otherwise you won’t follow through.”

And the research has to be scientific — a point Gurr repeatedly stressed. To get accurate data, trials must be replicated to remove the effects of natural variability.

“I would even suggest that you not bother with yield trials if you’re not planning to replicate because non-replicated strip trials can be very dangerous,” Gurr said. “They’re good for demonstration purposes but not to gather yield data from.”

Trials should be done in randomized blocks to protect against bias and gradient differences in fields, he said.

Yields need to be measured using weigh wagons or scale-equipped grain carts because combine monitors are inaccurate, Gurr said.

“Statistically analyze your data,” he added. “This is done to sort out what responses are real and what are not. It’s easy to perform statistical analysis on replicated strip trials.”

Trials should also be repeated over several years to get results under varying conditions.

Although their on-farm research began as a way to answer important questions for themselves and has paid for itself, Gurr and his partners suspected other farmers and agronomists would be interested in their results. That’s why they recently launched Agritruth. A free membership provides access to older research results and participation in forums and votes on what research Agritruth should do. A $300-a-year membership gives members access to Agritruth’s latest data.

“It’s entirely independent,” Gurr said. “We fund it. We do contract work but it’s separate. It’s field scale and done with equipment farmers use so they can relate to what we are doing. It’s current and responsive. We can decide on the day of (seeding) to make a change. We don’t have to get approval from anybody.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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