On-farm research: Making it pay can be a tricky proposition

Plot2Farm project aims to show that a formal research protocol, and agronomic support, delivers results

Farmers are no strangers to on-farm research, but a new program aims to make these field-scale trials easier — and more profitable.

“I think it boils down to dollars and cents,” said Gordon Ellis, a farmer from the Olds area who participated in the Plot2Farm program this year.

“Everybody farms to make a living and generate a profit. Doing it on a field scale under your own management with your own equipment will give you different results than the small-plot research that’s been previously done.”

The Plot2Farm program, launched last year by Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley, helps growers conduct on-farm research with a formal research protocol in place and support from an agronomist — two things often missing from in-field trials farmers typically run.

Jeremy Boychyn.
photo: Supplied

“The classic go-to comparison that you see in the majority of fields is to split the field in half and see which half of the field does better,” said Jeremy Boychyn, the commissions’ agronomy research extension specialist.

“Well, there’s variability across the field that’s going to play a role. Making sure protocols are in place can eliminate the amount of variability in the field and ensure the data coming in is strong.

“It’s important to make sure that the trial is set up in a way that the data that’s coming off is sound.”

But most on-farm trials don’t follow a protocol — essentially, a document outlining the purpose of the research and the methodology for conducting it. That can be a problem when it comes time to use the results, said Boychyn.

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“Having a strong protocol in place provides the backbone to make sure that the decisions that producers are making after the trial are based on sound results,” he said.

With the Plot2Farm program — which builds on similar programs from Alberta Pulse Growers and the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association (now part of the Manitoba Crop Alliance) — producers can work with the experts to develop on-farm research protocols that both “align with questions that they’re looking to answer” and their management.

Agronomic support

That’s part of the reason Devin Hartzler decided to participate in the program.

“I like knowing what works on my own farm,” said the Carstairs-area farmer. “There’s lots of other trial data from other places, but it doesn’t seem like we get a lot west of (Highway No. 2), which is a lot different from a lot of other places.

“For us, plot data from even 10 or 15 minutes east of the No. 2 is way different, so I’ve always liked doing my own trials whenever I get a chance.”

In addition to the research protocols, the cereal commissions provide agronomic support, and for Hartzler, who trialled three different seeding rates for feed barley, the data itself was less valuable than the support he received throughout the process.

“There’s always a benefit to having an agronomist in your field every week or two,” he said. “The more eyes on your crop, the better.”

The project itself didn’t work out as expected because of some environmental factors, he added, but the process worked well, in part because of that agronomic support.

“When you have someone else come to take data, it’s easier to make sure you take it to completion,” said Hartzler. “I’ve done lots of minor trials on my own before where I plant stuff and then don’t find the time to collect all the info. Having Jeremy there to work with me on it, we were able to gather all the info, and I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.”

Ellis agreed.

“It was definitely helpful to have someone there like Jeremy,” said Ellis, who compared two different varieties of wheat. “Life’s busy on the farm, and we don’t always have time to do those kinds of things. Having his knowledge there made it a lot easier, and in the end, we got some pretty good results out of doing the trial.”

And getting good, usable data does take time, Boychyn added.

“These protocols are complex and they take a bit of time to execute, and they require data collection,” he said. “Having that agronomist on farm to help with that really helps make sure we’re headed toward a successful result. We set them up for the best potential for success.”

Return on investment

But the bottom line of the project is to improve the ones on farms.

“These on-farm trials can help decisions in the future,” said Boychyn. “They’re making so many agronomic decisions on their farm year by year, and these decisions come with a huge cost to implement them on farm.

“Having a producer test some of these things with their management, with their varieties, in their environment helps add to the strength of the data that comes from small-plot research.

“It really helps the farmer realize how it may impact their farm specifically.”

With costs continuing to march upwards, getting more bang for the input buck will be more important than ever.

“To have my own results from my own land is, in my opinion, extremely valuable to help me make decisions for my farm,” Hartzler said.

“Any chance you have to learn what works on your own farm is a great benefit.”

And in Ellis’s case, the benefit of his variety trial was “quite dramatic” — a 20-plus-bushel-an acre difference between the two CPS varieties he compared.

“Twenty bushels an acre is substantial to give up or to gain just by changing your variety,” he said. “In the end, it all boils down to your dollars per acre, and we ended up with the results we were looking for.”

For more on the program, go to www.albertawheat.com (use the search link in the upper right corner and enter ‘plot2farm’) or email Boychyn at [email protected].

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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