Proper methods vital to field research

On-farm research trials are considered one of the best ways to test new products and ideas, but they must be done right

To keep up with the massive efficiency gains in Canadian crop production over the last few decades, modern growers often experiment with new growing techniques, products and varieties.

Adam Gurr of Agritruth Research near Brandon said growers who want to set up trials should take the time to ensure they are using proper experiment techniques.

Gurr has conducted on-farm research trials since he started farming 20 years ago.

“If you’re just splitting the field in half, because of natural variability in the land you’re always going to have one side of the field yielding more than the other. That’s where you can come to the wrong conclusion based on that reality,” Gurr said.

“There is a reason why scientists randomize, replicate, and specifically analyze with multiple sites over multiple seasons so that they subject these things to as many conditions as possible. And these are potentially big money decisions being made for your farm, so why not evaluate them properly.”

Gurr started conducting on-farm research trials because it’s one of the best ways to test new products and ideas.

He learned over the years how to implement a rigorous design in his research program, and in 2015 Agritruth Research opened its doors as a farm-based business.

“The data we generate on our farm, we deliver through our web platform so anyone can have access to it on there. They pay a subscription fee to access that data, and we do contract research as well for different companies in the industry,” Gurr said.

Agritruth has performed trials of varieties, seeding rates, seed treatments, non-traditional products such as primers and foliar fertilizers, as well as trials on nitrogen management in canola and wheat.

“We’re just looking at different ways to manage nitrogen compared to our standard of all the urea up front in a side band at seeding. We’ve looked at things like advanced efficiency fertilizer, split applications of nitrogen with top and side dressed,” Gurr said.

He said the company plans to examine alternative cropping systems such as cover crops and intercropping.

Gurr said his research has shown that the use of fungicides in wheat is a no-brainer because some of the largest responses he’s seen were with these products.

“We are far past using an untreated section in a wheat fungicide trial. We’re more interested in testing competitive products to see if there is one that is potentially better than another,” he said.

However, Gurr has not observed impressive responses to many of the non-traditional cropping products.

“With some of those things like micronutrients and foliar fertilizers and stuff like that, there is a lot of products like that out there but we just haven’t found a fit for them in our system,” Gurr said.

He also advised growers to search through crop research already available. Data may already exist that answers many of their questions and it could save them from having to run their own trials.

“But if you’re unable to find data for the support questions you have or maybe it’s really old data and you want something a little more current, then that’s probably where you should be focusing your energy,” Gurr said.

If growers want to kick their on-farm experiments up a notch to get more reliable results, there are three research fundamentals that can be used to produce scientifically sound data, according to Nicole Philp of the Canola Council of Canada.

“One of them is keeping it simple. Another is replicating your treatment so that at the end of the day, we can apply some stats to it and we can get results that are meaningful and not just due to field conditions that could affect the outcome,” Philp said.

“And we want to randomize it as well for the same reason, so that we are looking at our treatments across different areas of the field to see what impact they might have.”

She said it’s also a good idea to replicate trials over more than one growing season so that more growing conditions are included.

Philp heads up the Canola Council of Canada’s Ultimate Canola Challenge, which is entering its fourth year of using data from grower-run, on-farm trials.

Through the canola challenge, the council has developed trial protocols for almost anything a grower might want to test.

“This year, we’ve switched things around and we are focused on seeding speed. It’s fairly simple to do. It’s not a whole lot of work in terms of getting in and out of the seat or anything. You just go a little bit faster and you go a little bit slower,” Philp said.

There is a foliar protocol developed for testing boron but it can be used to test any foliar product, including fungicides.

Over the past two years, the challenge has focused on seed-placed nitrogen and growers can adapt that protocol to other seed-placed fertilizer products.

The protocols are available on the canola council website, and they come with a data collection sheet that helps growers think about what they want to record throughout the season.

Growers can use the data they gain from following the ultimate challenge protocols to better understand the return on investment of specific products or growing techniques, but if they closely follow the trial protocols, their data can be used in larger analysis.

“For the seeding speed, for example, if we can get 20 locations, the farmer participating gets very specific results to their specific fields with their specific equipment. But if we take that information and combine it with 20 different scenarios, there might be some learning that we can share with the industry as well. That is why we like to have a co-ordinated approach,” Philp said.

She said the canola council is building a database of the trials and will make them available through its canola research hub.

The ultimate challenge has attracted 16 participants each year, on average. This year, 20 growers are lined up for the seeding speed trials.

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