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Turning on-farm experience into science

Collaborative models are helping farmers reduce risk and researchers more quickly establish best management practices tailored to local conditions

Combining scientific discipline with farmers’ knack for figuring things out on the fly could vastly reduce the risks associated with adopting new crops or production practices on the farm, an industry extension worker says.

Daryl Domitruk, director of research and production for the Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers (MPSG), says marrying the two approaches can also increase the pace at which new crops take hold in the province.

Domitruk told the recent Manitoba Agronomists’ Conference soybeans are a prime example of the steep learning curve farmers face.

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“The spike in soybean acres that we’ve had since the 2009-10 season brings us up to a respectable 25 per cent of our annual crop acres in annual legumes,” he said. “But less is known in Manitoba soils and in Manitoba environments about the dynamics and how annual legumes are affected and affect different crops in the rotation.”

For example, soybeans are basically grown in a two-crop rotation with corn in every other production region. Here on the Prairies they’re being rotated with everything from sunflower to potatoes to wheat and barley and flax, Domitruk said.

“We don’t know much about how soybeans and dry edible beans and peas interact with these crops,” he said.

Breeders have been working overtime to deliver varieties with the maturity and yield that are more likely to be successful in Manitoba’s cool, short northern climate.

Agronomists and researchers are developing agronomic recommendations, and input companies are evolving crop input products for the potential pest control and nutrient needs of the Manitoba environment.

But what’s lacking is more localized knowledge and experience at the field level to help recommend management strategies for growers that are relevant and adapted to their specific situations.

All this uncertainty translates into production risks for growers who are increasingly adding these crops – for very good reasons – to their rotations.

That’s where adaptive management comes in.


As opposed to the educated guesswork of the traditional approach, adaptive learning is a systemic approach that helps to more quickly hone and refine crop management strategies.

At its best, it incorporates the knowledge and intuition of the participating farmers with the efforts of technical researchers making for better, faster and more carefully targeted advances, Domitruk said.

“Adaptive management is a process to deal with these uncertainties,” says Domitruk. “It’s a systematic assessment of options that are verified at a field scale, so it’s participatory learning. The farmer is the participant and adds the farm and market realities to the crop research results.”

MPSG uses the principles of adaptive management to develop and fund on-farm pulse and soybean research through its On-Farm Network, partnering with growers to refine management strategies for everything from nutrients to pest control based on local information and scientific data from ongoing on-farm tests.

“Participatory learning opportunities are available for the farmer who is in the sprayer or the combine working with us in these on-farm tests when we can readily and accurately measure phenomena in the fields,” said Domitruk.

“We are looking at small-plot research to establish the principles, applying them to a region and saying what are the actual recommendations for that region, and using these tools to optimize regional practices. A fuller telling of the story of what’s going on in the field is what adaptive management is really about.”

Domitruk agrees that for annual legumes to thrive in Manitoba over the long term there is a need for a continuous pipeline of improved varieties and ongoing small-plot agronomic research, but he also firmly believes there is a need to field-truth this locally for effective farm recommendations.

“Let’s look for principles and translate them into recommendations,” he said.

He pointed to AAFC researcher Ramona Mohr, who has been working with MPSG to determine the optimum seeding rate for soybeans. Her work in small plots suggests a target of about 160,000 plants per acre.

“That small-plot research is developing a principle but there will be treatment by environment interactions and economics that will introduce uncertainty into how much that actual recommendation is adopted,” Domitruk said. “We think adaptive management can help and that’s why farmers are participating in our On-Farm Network because there’s uncertainty and they’re wondering, is this going to make me money?”

Getting involved

On-farm research is scientific research that is conducted on real, working farms. It involves farmers in the scientific method, in collaboration with research specialists.

The scientific method is used to ensure that results are true and reliable. For example, all treatments are replicated at least three times across the field.

Side-by-side comparisons may be misleading due to differences in environment (landscape, soil type, moisture, fertility etc.) so it’s important to make sure that an observed difference is consistent.

MPSG’s on-farm, replicated strip trials are set up to account for variation in the field. Yield monitors and weigh wagons at the end of each strip verify actual yields, and a report is produced for the farmer.

“We have all the data, the characterization of the field showing some of the inherent variabilities the farmer’s got to deal with and then the treatments and the results and we statistically analyze these,” Domitruk said. “We have the opportunity in these trials to understand variability and possibly adjust the recommendation accordingly.”

As an example, the On-Farm Network did a number of simple seed treatment trials comparing treated and untreated seed. Only four out of 28 trials saw a significant yield increase. The next step is to do a combined analysis which looks not just at the statistics, but a range of other factors such as producer experiences with seed treatments, small-plot data about risk assessments for seed treatments, and regulatory and market uncertainty.

Reports of all the MPSG on-farm research trials, covering a number of topics including seed treatments, fungicides, inoculants, seeding rates and plant populations, are published on the MPSG website.

Interest in participating in the On-Farm Network is growing. “Momentum is growing behind this approach to optimizing regionally based recommendations, and I invite growers to contact MPSG if they are interested in participating,” said Domitruk. “We look to do research to support adaptive management; both small-plot research to establish principles and on-farm research to translate those principles into optimized crop recommendations for regions.”

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