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Trial and no errors

Planning ahead can make on-farm trials run smoothly

A successful on-farm trial doesn’t just appear out of thin air. It takes communication, collaboration and commitment.

Those are the lessons a local farm equipment dealer and global life science giant have learned over the past few years as they’ve teamed up and begun taking research to commercial fields in Manitoba.

Representatives of BASF and Enns Brothers spoke recently at the Manitoba Agronomists Conference (MAC) about how they use technology and some important design criteria to make on-farm trials as easy and valuable as possible for participating producers.

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On-farm trials are critical to BASF, says the company’s technical service specialist, Harold Brown. BASF has been involved in on-farm trials for 20 years and they allow it to prove the agronomic and economic benefits of its new and existing products with western Canadian growers, confirm small-plot findings in performance and yield on a larger scale and determine the products’ geographical fit.

Producers have the opportunity to try new products on their own farms and generate some reliable, local data that they can base their purchasing decisions on.

It takes a season-long commitment from the producers and the researchers to do on-farm trials, and Brown says the BASF team works with producers to establish, design and implement the trials, monitoring and scouting throughout the season and assisting with harvest.

“It all starts with good conversations, and a commitment of an extra bit of time,” says Brown. “Details are crucial, so the co-operator must understand the importance of the trial and that the quality of the data needs to be accurate.”

Plan for success

Having a well-thought-out trial plan, and making sure there is good communication between all the partners is the first crucial step in successful on-farm trials, says Ian Cook, field adviser with Enns Brothers. Speaking at MAC, Cook emphasized that getting good trial data is critical and there are many ways that technology can contribute at all stages of the process to ensure successful outcomes. The first place it comes into play is when selecting a site for the trial.

EC Maps, elevation, normalized yield, satellite imagery, aerial images and zone maps can all help to identify areas of a field where there are consistent soil characteristics or avoid problem areas.

Ian Cook.
photo: Enns Brothers

“It’s not always possible to place trials in an area that is consistent if it’s a large trial, so accounting for variability – such as areas low in fertility – can account for differences in treatments and responses,” says Cook.

When laying out a trial ahead of time it’s important to think about implement widths and how many passes will be made by the seeder, sprayer and combine in the trial areas.

“It’s fairly simple to put on the same guidance lines as the grower is using, by using his heading or AB-line,” says Cook. “It makes it a lot easier for the grower.”

It’s also important to think about landscape features that need to be avoided like sloughs or saline areas and that often involves talking with the producer.

“The interesting thing is we can sometimes find out more about a field as we get into this process than a grower might not have known about especially if it’s a large farm or newer land,” says Cook. “It’s a bit of an added value going through this process, and by adding some of those layers we can all learn a little more about the field as well.”

Application time

This is where technology and precision agriculture practices often shine the brightest.

“I can produce a map or prescription and that makes it very easy for the producer to go out and apply,” says Cook. “The other thing it allows us to do is add levels of complexity. I can stack some trials and do replication and randomization a lot easier than using traditional layouts and flags.”

Cook showed MAC attendees a seeding rate trial on a half section that had three different seeding rates with six replications and a randomized design.

“Trying to fit this trial with flags and a traditional layout would be difficult because of low spots (in the field) but with technology we can leave those areas out of the trial,” says Cook. “With a prescription controlling the rate controller on the air cart, the operator doesn’t have to worry much about seeding the trial.”

Another example of a fungicide trial with six different treatments and multiple application timings looked daunting, but Cook explained that a prescription was written for each treatment to make it easy to apply.

“When it’s time for the co-operator to apply a treatment, that’s all he sees in his display, so he can go in the field, just apply what he sees highlighted and he’s done,” says Cook. “He doesn’t have to worry about, ‘Am I in the right spot?’, he just lines up with those areas in his display. It makes a fairly complex trial easy to implement.”

Scouting and data collection

Producers now use mobile devices like smartphones to navigate plots in season and to make notes and record them directly on the trial layout.

“We want to try and collect as much of the data from each field as possible to try and find areas of error and account for them,” says Cook. “Were there rate issues? Was there overlap? When you are using these precision ag tools it makes it handy to be able to account for a lot of those sorts of errors.”


What are the ingredients of a successful on-farm trial?

The best on-farm trials share some key components that start with planning and follow through to the execution throughout the growing season and beyond.

Protocol

  • A good trial protocol sets out what you will do, what questions you will try to answer, the treatments that will be used and how and when they will be applied.

Site selection

  • Critical to get good results at end of season.

Scouting

  • For pests or other issues that may need to be dealt with.

Results

  • Including any adjustments that are needed to ensure accurate results.

Validation

  • Important at each step of the process.

Trial design and layout

  • Using field-scale equipment gives true-to- real-life results.
  • Replicated treatments enable statistical analysis to determine variability in the trial.
  • Each plot should be the width of a seed drill or sprayer boom and a minimum of 500 feet long as this is the length that yields at the end of the season are determined on.
  • When harvesting, use full swath or header widths to assess yield which provides accurate width to determine yields.

Trial placement

  • Well-drained, uniform soil.
  • Off headlands which can cause issues, for example if there is overlap, compaction, overfertilization or excessive herbicide application from previous years.
  • Field maintained with good agronomic practices for the area such as good rotation, weed control, fertility and herbicide rotation.
  • Ground truth with the grower, who will always have good insight into their land and the best locations for trial sites.

Technology

To aid in site selection and implementation RGB satellite imagery and mapping helps identify:

  • Areas to avoid such as water runs or potholes.
  • Good performing areas and low productivity areas of the field.
  • Locations with low variability in performance.

Scouting, data collection and observations

  • It’s important to be out in the field regularly to identify pests, stressed areas or any other issues and collect observations throughout the season.
  • Technology like NDVI can identify and eliminate from the trial weak or problem areas not accounted for when the trial was established to reduce variability in results.

Harvest

  • Prior to harvest, make sure equipment is lined up and how the trials will be harvested.
  • Have equipment like the weigh wagon or yield monitor calibrated and ready to go.
  • Both producer and research partner need to be there when the producer is ready to go.
  • Data should be reported in a timely manner so producers can see local information to base their decisions on.

Source: Harold Brown/BASF

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