Try a conservation field trial
Have you been thinking about trying cover crops, but have been hesitant to pull the trigger? How about switching to strip till or no-till? Or trying a little less nitrogen? If you’re thinking these conservation and water improvement practices could work on your farm, but you’d like a little more confidence in how they work operationally and economically, you’re a likely candidate for a conservation field trial.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to run a field trial on your farm. You may be able to test these systems in an on-farm trial teaming up with your seed corn company. Or in Iowa, some 400 on-farm trials are ongoing each year with the Iowa Soybean Association’s On-Farm Network. Other farmers are cooperators in Practical Farmers of Iowa’s on-farm research and demonstration projects. The assistance farmers get varies, but all get sound advice and protocols to follow to ensure the trials will deliver valid results.
• Farmers can learn a lot from on-farm field trials.
• Key to success is to follow protocols and be honest with yourself.
• Data often isn’t usable due to various issues.
Trials help in long run
Iowa Secretary of Agri-culture Bill Northey says on-farm trials that help farmers learn from one another are key to improving production, profitability and sustainability. He thinks the trials can play an important role in helping farmers evaluate their current practices as they work to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads to the Gulf of Mexico.
“You can learn a lot from field trials,” says Joe Goche, Titonka, Iowa, a 10-year veteran of field trials with the On-Farm Network. “The most important thing for success is that you are set up to follow the protocols, and that you’re committed to being honest with yourself. You need to be sure you’re only testing one variable at a time on a piece of ground; people who don’t understand the protocol or don’t pay attention to it won’t get helpful information.”
Match planter, combine
For example, Goche says your planter and your combine need to match. “A 25-foot planter and a 30-foot bean head on the combine don’t work together. You can’t comingle and mix things in like that, or you’ll get bad data and it will get thrown out.”
In fact, the ISA’s On-Farm trials have plots thrown out every year for various reasons. Issues involving the combine monitor or its operator are the most common reasons the trials can’t be successfully completed, followed by data issues and protocols not being followed.
“We have a goal of no more than 20% of the trials to be thrown out each year,” says Anthony Martin, a field research specialist with the On-Farm Network, who provides technical and logistical support to farmers participating in the trials. The ISA also supplies products for testing, and has from $500 to $1,500 invested in each trial.
“Weather is one of the reasons we don’t get trials successfully completed, but sometimes mistakes are made that make the data unusable, too. We’re trying to get with producers just as much as we can, face to face, to give everyone the best chance of succeeding,” Martin says.
Goche had always done a lot of his own testing, but got involved with ISA 10 years ago when he was noticing big differences on his farm between hog manure and commercial fertilizer. He tested that in the On-Farm Network’s nitrogen management trials, and went on to test N stabilizers, nutrient benchmarking, foliar feeding, micronutrient applications, and fungicide and plant populations.
“What I like is the analysis I get from ISA, and the information they give me from other trials similar to mine,” Goche says. “I also like their aerial imagery checks.”
In some cases, ISA staff sees unusual data and investigates more closely for causes. “In one case last year, we saw corn yields varying across all the test strips from 187 bushels per acre to 72 bushels an acre, in shorter strips as the combine went down the row,” says Jensen Connor, a GIS specialist who caught the discrepancies and compared them to aerial imagery and soils.
“We noted the west half of the field had low-organic-matter soils, which yielded an average of 115 bushels lower than the high-organic-matter soils in the east,” Connor says. “Within the low-organic-matter areas, high population rates netted $167.15 compared to $208.70 net per acre in low population areas, a difference of $41.55 per acre. This was calculated based on $4.50 per bushel corn and 80,000-count seed bag at $350 a bag. In this particular case, a high population didn’t pay regardless of high- or low-organic-matter area; it really pointed out how important organic matter is for crop production.”
Learn from their protocols
While you may not choose to work with ISA, PFI or a similar organization, you can still learn from the groups in doing your own field tests. Most states also have recommendations from Extension on how to conduct field trials.
ISA uses strips at a minimum length of a quarter mile, and wide enough for at least one “pure” pass with the combine. They require participating farmers to have GPS and a yield monitor.
Key points the On-Farm Network field trial staff make for successful trials are:
• Make sure you have the time, area and equipment needed to conduct a trial.
• Make a written plan that outlines what will be done.
• Establish at least four side-by-side replications of the current practice or product, and the proposed new practice, product or amount.
• Plan to complete all applications and operations the same day.
• Don’t use headlands or field edges in the trial; test strips or zones are typically in the center of a field.
• Make sure to use only one combine, with a yield monitor that’s calibrated.
• Be sure GPS is working properly.
Betts writes from Johnston.
Reasons 2013 ISA field trials tossed
Source: ISA on-farm network
This article published in the April, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.
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