On-farm product trials can help growers make smart decisions

Crop farmers are receiving more information about products and crop solutions than ever before – online, in the mail, at the coffee shop. It can be overwhelming and challenging to determine what will work best for an individual’s crop, soil quality, and other operational considerations.

Dr. Ross McKenzie, who was a lead agronomist with Alberta Agriculture & Rural Development for 38 years and is now retired,  has been helping growers see how establishing on-farm trials can help them determine which products work best and live up to their marketing promise. This farmer-run approach to research is becoming more necessary as declining agronomy resources converge with increasingly complex crop issues.

“The first challenge is the number of soil and crop research scientists out there is far less than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” says McKenzie, now principal of McKenzie Agricultural Consulting. “At the same time, there are more product offerings than ever before. There’s a lot of information to sort through, and it varies from independent university research data to testimonial claims.”

McKenzie, who has been an adjunct professor at the University of Lethbridge since 1993 and taught fourth year Soil Management and Irrigation Science classes, has presented at grower events on the subject of designing, managing, and analyzing on-farm trials. The first step is to select a product or practice that would have a responsible chance of working on your specific farm, and then to select fields with uniform soil and topography to conduct the “on-farm”.

“Replication is extremely important in order to make sure the results aren’t a one-time event,” explains McKenzie.

Test strips should be replicated at least four times to take into account field variation, and the same equipment and technology should be employed as much as possible on all treatment strips. Treatments should be long, narrow, run the length of the field and parallel to each other. Keeping good records is also important, tracking rainfall, plant counts, disease pressure, lodging, and harvestability.

With today’s drone technology and satellite imagery, it is possible to view yield impacts from a bird’s eye view. The collective of data, when analyzed, can help the farmer determine the real impact on new productions or treatments on crop yield and ROI.

(This article provides basic information on the potential for on-farm research; for expert advice on establishing strip trials and managing the data and analysis, contact a certified agronomist).