Search carefully for agronomic information

Choosing an agronomist should be difficult.

If it isn’t, then perhaps producers aren’t asking the questions they should.

Ross McKenzie of Alberta Agriculture says the need for good advice has been an issue for generations of farmers, but the information supply has never been as tight.

He said over the past decade provincial governments have been reducing the number of frontline agronomists that are available to work with producers.

That shortage, combined with recent advancements in technology and a return to profitability in grain production, has resulted in a rise in farmers seeking advice on how to invest in their fields.

Ken Coles of the Southern Alberta Research Association in Lethbridge said producer demands for more agronomic information and his group’s ability to deliver it has resulted in some of SARA’s success.

He said producers are looking at their crop inputs as investments that pay dividends with increased yields.

“Good advice can be valuable, but it needs to be the right advice,” he told producers attending the Southern Alberta Conservation Association meeting in Medicine Hat in early December.

Brent Vankoughnet, who farms near Carman, Man., and advises producers on business operations, said farmers need to think about where their agronomy information comes from.

“The coffee shop? The retailer? We need information from reliable sources. Agronomists, better farm publications, other producers who have tried something in my area. How about several sources?” he said.

“Some people don’t want to know if the agronomist was right about the yield from that 110 pounds of N (nitrogen) he recommended for the canola crop and they didn’t put down. If that is what the neighbours are doing to get those big crops, well, they don’t want to know that either.

“If you had to report to a board of directors or partners about your decisions on the farm, if we were accountable to someone other than ourselves, we would be getting the best information we could and making use of it.”

McKenzie said the quality of the information that producers use is critical to the outcome.

“You want evidence and science based knowledge that you can use on your farm. It needs to be proven.”

He cited as an example the modified Kelowna system that is used to accurately analyze soil tests and make recommendations for Alberta soil and environmental conditions is based on research from more than 400 Alberta sites.

Seven soil testing methods were used until the system was proven most accurate for Alberta.

“That is what we call sound science, the best quality of information,” he said. “To get good information, it needs to be unbiased, so always consider the source of the research. Why do they do it and what do they have to gain?”

McKenzie said conjecture-based information is a second type of information to consider when making agronomy decisions.

“Inter-row seeding falls into this area,” he said. “We really don’t have enough research yet to say, ‘yes, this works.’ At this point it only makes sense that it would. You might not want to go out and spend $25,000 on a new Deere RTK just to try it. Or some of you might.”

McKenzie said controlled traffic farming strategies that keep all field traffic on repeatable tracks is another example of conjecture based information.

“It works in Australia where they have much older soils and very different conditions. It might work, but without any research to back it up here, it might be an expensive experiment for farmers,” he said.

“There are better ways to invest that money on most farms, on science proven inputs and (strategies).”

Variable rate inputs for prairie farms is an area that McKenzie said still falls into the conjecture zone of agronomic science. Research is ongoing and not yet complete, but the idea might have merit.

“Always ask yourself, was it tested in my region, in my dirt, in my environment? If not, why not?” he said.

McKenzie said pseudo science is the last place producers should go when looking for information that they can apply to their operations.

He said these are claims that haven’t been proven to work by researchers at major western Canadian universities or government agriculture departments, such as seed treatments that apply tiny amounts of micronutrients, the creation of special soil environments or the recycling of tractor exhaust.

He said information about these products often contains references to studies performed at foreign institutions or by contracted testing firms.

“Always consider the source of the information and whether you can identify on your farm the problem they are offering to solve.”

He said if the information makes claims that are backed up by farmer testimonials and little science, producers should get local, expert opinions and call the farmers providing the endorsement before buying into the concept.

McKenzie said choosing an agronomist should be based on a desire to have high quality, science-based information on which to base decisions and solve known problems on the farm.

“Ask yourself, am I satisfied with my yields … have I done what I know I should be doing for my crops?”

He said farmers who answer no to those types of questions should consider the services of an agrologist.

“It should be a serious consideration, like buying a new air seeder or sprayer. You are making an investment in them and you should be able to expect it to pay your dividends, not just their fees.”

Hiring an agronomist can be a time management issue for producers who are unable to pay detailed attention to all the land they have, or where farmers choose to reduce their workloads.

McKenzie said that once the decision to hire an adviser is made, compile a list of up to four local agrologists.

Each should have regional experience, training or years of practice in Western Canada. Preferably their academic experience was accumulated at a prairie college or university and the candidate has a specialization in soils, plant science or agronomy.

A professional designation such as P. Ag. or CCA, while not a guarantee of quality, is an indication of professional qualifications and experience.

The candidates should be referred by other farmers, industry representative local retailers and researchers.

Interviews should be held with each candidate to decide who will be the best fit on the producer’s farm.

“If they don’t have time for an interview, you don’t have time to hire them, no matter how well recommended they are,” said McKenzie.

Questions for the candidates should deal with the crops grown on the farm, the type of machinery used, the services that are required, such as soil sampling or crop scouting, and known technical issues that could indicate their depth of local farming knowledge.

Discussions should all lead to a point where fees and services are spelled out in a contract so that both parties are clear on who pays for what, when and how much it will cost and if additional services and time are available and at what price.

McKenzie said good information will come at a cost and that price should be reflected in increased margins and time savings.

“It’s about genuine science, local information and experience.”

AGRONOMY SERVICES THAT MIGHT BE REQUIRED: