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Add science to on-farm trials

Seed company's split-planter program is helping attach scientific answers to precision farming yield data.

Leave it to a farmer's ingenuity to make something better. Especially when it's coupled with the efforts of like-minded peers and a company researcher who thrives on their success.

What began as a simple hybrid yield comparison project using GPS, a Monsanto seed group program is helping some Iowa farmers add more science and value to on-farm trials. And in a few cases, some early results even disprove conventional agronomic thinking.

Under this program, which began last year with more than 600 trials, farmers with a GPS-linked yield monitor conduct side-by-side comparisons of corn hybrids or soybean varieties to help choose the best seed for their farms. Participating farmers, who put out as little as 10 acres of an Asgrow or Dekalb product to qualify, also are using the program to test various management factors such as fertilizer rates and application timing, plant populations, planter speed, and insect and/or disease resistance.

After harvest, data are analyzed for free using a proprietary, patent-pending methodology. The resulting report provides a grain yield map showing how yield varied across the field; a yield difference map showing which hybrid won the trial in each portion of the field; a yield advantage graph comparing hybrids on high- and low-yielding parts of the field; and a pie chart showing the percentage by which each hybrid won. And participants conducting tests of management practices receive reports showing how yield was affected by the practice studied.

Leading this unique split-planter program for Monsanto's seed group is former USDA researcher Dr. Tracy Blackmer, whose fresh, challenging and unconventional thinking is being welcomed by precision-minded farmers seeking answers.

G by E This program differs from other split-planter programs in its unique approach to analyzing data, according to Blackmer. "We make side-by-side comparisons every 20 ft. across the field. Other programs make comparisons over larger areas that may not be true side-by-side comparisons, which can decrease sensitivity," he says. "We generate many more data points with more accurate comparisons, which allows us to detect differences masked by other approaches. Our program permits a true quantitative comparison."

Genetics by environment, or G by E, is one of Blackmer's rallying cries. Factors such as soil type, organic matter, soil pH and tillage can have a differential effect on the way genetics perform. He claims that by identifying environmental influences on genetics, we can improve average yields.

He explains, "Growers shouldn't be surprised that different hybrids or varieties can be a top performer in one part of a field and not in another. This proves there is environmental interaction going on."

Neighbors working together Iowa farmers Mark Crawford, Independence, and Dennis Lindsay, Masonville, formed the Precision Agriculture Interest Group in 1998 to begin solving some production mysteries. The more than 20 farmers in this cutting-edge group all want to learn how precision farming techniques can help and have joined together to conduct similar research on their respective farms to find answers faster.

Both Crawford and Lindsay, precision technology practitioners for more than seven years, turned to Monsanto's Blackmer for assistance in properly designing on-farm trials so that they follow scientific standards.

"Tracy helped us set up the trials as research plots, stirred our thinking on research possibilities and then helped us keep our research focused on simplicity when we were making it too technical," Lindsay says. "And he was a big help when it came to explaining the data, while allowing us to draw our own conclusions."

Value of resources Both farmers agree that company tech representatives are important resources, largely because of the fast pace of technological change. "There is no doubt that tech reps have the latest information," Lindsay says. "And I take their recommendations very seriously. Still, when it comes to management decisions on agronomic practices, I run those recommendations by the extension service. The university is a key part of our management team, and that has never changed."

Last year, the group knocked around many research ideas before settling on three topics: soybean populations, corn nitrogen use and the impact of planter speed on yield.

For the nitrogen study, the farmers compared their normal rate of fall-applied anhydrous versus the normal rate plus 50 lbs. Considering the warm winter and warm wet spring they had, the growers figured they would find leaching. "We were surprised that leaching didn't occur because the yields didn't vary much," Lindsay says. "What was even more interesting, based on the unique scatter graphs that Tracy showed us, was that some fields showed that the best yield response from increased N occurred in the lower-yielding areas of the field, which goes against conventional thinking."

He says that neither the soybean population trial nor the planting speed trial produced any real yield differences.

Not black and white "One thing I sensed was that there was disappointment among the group that we didn't get any black-and-white answers; the trends were more gray," Crawford confessed. "But that was the real lesson. It was one year's results.

"The joining of the minds in this group really helped all of us gain knowledge. That was the real benefit. We plan to meet soon to develop this year's research trials," he says.

"In a given year, these tests can show simple relationships. Obviously, the weather factor is still too strong to reach conclusive answers in a single year," Blackmer says. "But if tests are repeated over, say, three to five years and are conducted scientifically by a group of farmers over hundreds of variable acres, they could develop better answers than any university."

For more information, contact your local Monsanto representative, call 800/768-6387.

"I think on-farm research using precision agriculture instruments is where agronomic research is headed," says Dr. Jim Schepers, USDA soil scientist at the University of Nebraska. "We will be able to look at more variables and take a more integrated look at agricultural systems. This hasn't been possible in the past.

"Traditional small plot studies are a long way from a farmer's reality. In a farmer's field, we have a lot of things changing as you go across the field. Now we have a way of looking at the impact of slopes, low spots, variable soil pH and other factors."

Conducting scientifically valid on-farm research isn't a given, though, even with precision farming tools. Valid plot design and data analysis remain critical. Increasingly, university researchers, extension agronomists, agricultural retailers, consultants and allied industry personnel will be called upon to conduct solid research.

"Farmers are telling us, help me do this on my farm," Schepers says. "This is going to force academic researchers out of the controlled setting of small-plot research and into working directly with farmers. The potential gain in our knowledge of systems interactions is immense."

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