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The value of on-farm research in the decision-making process

The value of on-farm research in the decision-making process

Replication is key when minimizing the margin for error in on-farm research.

Now that what seems like one of the longest, most drawn-out election cycles has finally come to a close, it's a good time to look at things farmers and ranchers can do next year to improve their bottom line. It's something you'll be hearing about much more this winter, no doubt. Winter is a time for decision-making, and that's all the more important when commodity prices are down.

NO CERTAINTIES: As has been pointed out several times by Nebraska Extension educators, when it comes to research, nothing is ever set in stone, and nothing is ever 100% proven. And that applies to on-farm research. The best researchers and farmers can do is make the margin for error a little smaller with each replication.

This leads us to one of the key topics on farmers' radars when it comes to the planning process: on-farm research. As a number of agronomists and Nebraska Extension educators have pointed out to me, data from input suppliers is important, but when possible, it always helps to verify whether that input, or a prescribed seeding rate or nitrogen application rate, worked on your soil, your topography, your climate. That's how you ensure the dollars you're spending have the most promise for a return on investment.

Multiple small trial plots are great for generating data for the masses, and it's a great place to start down the decision-making path. However, it's always important to remember those plots aren't field-scale plots in many cases, and that leaves out certain weather and soil variables you'll run into on your own farm.

Yes, this kind of research is incredibly valuable. But as Nebraska Extension educator Strahinja Stepanovic noted to me this fall, it's important to keep in mind that no matter how many replications are made, "nothing is 100% proven in research." That is, there's always a margin for error. The only thing we can do is make that margin a little smaller with each replication. That's why replication is so important — not to mention testing in strip trials to account for different variables, while also testing on a real-world level.

On that same token, it's important to make sure the things you're monitoring have quantifiable results. As the old adage goes, "You can't manage what you don't measure." And that means monitoring things that are not only anecdotal, but quantifiable — quantifying these factors keeps research objective.

As Jeff Bradshaw, Extension entomologist in the Nebraska Panhandle has pointed out in a Panhandle Perspectives column, "Scientific consensus is never set in stone." The scientific method encourages constant questioning of what might be the scientific consensus, and that scientific consensus can only be reached after a hypothesis is tested and proves its muster through several years of replication.

The best way to understand how an input or prescription will work on your acres is to test it out on your farm — and replicate those trials to mitigate uncertainty. As a wise farmer noted to me earlier this year, the best way to overcome emotion in decision-making is through data collection and analysis.

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