Hosting test plots worth the effort
Comparing apples with apples.
November 23, 2007 By Top Crop Manager
Which variety performs better? How well does a fungicide, herbicide or an insecticide work under field conditions? Every year, companies and researchers have come to depend on the largely volunteer efforts of hundreds of farmers across Canada to set up field scale test plots to answer questions like these. Farmer-run test plots have become an essential part of agricultural research in Canada and provide a large part of the data needed to register a new variety or product. Pioneer Hi-Bred alone had 280 farmer-run test plots in 2005. Even though hosting a test plot takes up valuable time during a producer’s hectic growing season, many think the time and effort are worthwhile.
Mike Heinrich knows all about managing a hectic schedule. Every spring, on top of managing a hundred pair cow-calf herd, he seeds 4000 acres of grain near Davidson, Saskatchewan. Despite his schedule, he has been doing test plots since the early ‘80s. In 2005 he set aside 80 acres to test canola varieties with Pioneer Hi-Bred. Why? His main reason was to see how different varieties will perform on his farm.
“To use an old cliché from sports, statistics are for losers,” Heinrich says. “If you picked the variety of seed that was supposed to yield 112 percent of the checks in the Seed Guide every year, you’ll probably end up costing yourself a lot of money. You can read the Seed Growers Guide and see that year after year this variety out-yielded that variety by two, four or 10 percent, but what does that prove to me? Those numbers are based on a broad range of climatic conditions, so unless I do a test plot myself, how do I know how they will do on my land with my fertility practices? Test strips give me a positive read on what a variety can do in my operation given my land base and my fertility.”
Test plots also allow him to find out how varieties emerge in the spring as well as swath and combine. According to Heinrich, these are all huge factors that come into play when he decides which varieties he will select the following year.
Laura Reiter used to work as a researcher in the agricultural industry before taking over the family farm with her brother, southwest of Radisson, Saskatchewan. She has been doing test plots on their farm for the past five years. “I know how research plots are set up across the province,” she says. “Numbers that come out in the government publications, or that each of the different companies provide, can be averaged across the province or across the zone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how it’s going to work on my acres.”
The time invested in seeding, swathing and harvesting strips pay off, Reiter says, when she sees the final numbers. They give her precise information on how the different varieties performed on her farm, under her specific conditions. “One variety in the Seed Guide might yield 120 percent of the checks but could require a lot of fertilizer to do it,” she says. “How will it do on a year when I can’t afford to pump the nitrogen to it? Perhaps under my conditions a regular open pollinated variety might perform just as well. Test plots let me see which variety handled my conditions best.”
Pioneer has a very extensive testing program and views farmer-run test plots as a good way for growers to try new genetics. Ellis Clayton, a field sales agronomist with Pioneer Hi-Bred in Saskatoon, compares them to test driving a new car. “It gives the grower a chance to try some of our new products on their farms and, from our standpoint, it gives us data to bring credibility to our program.”
Clayton says that many, like Heinrich and Reiter, do them because they want to know their own results. “They go in with no pre-conceived notions as to what the results are going to be,” Clayton says. “Test strips appeal mostly to innovators, those who are interested in trying new genetics. They are usually big farmers but not huge farmers. The biggest farmers don’t want to do them because of the perception that they take a lot of time.”
Heinrich admits that doing side-by-side trials do take some extra time but he has been doing them long enough that he has reduced the time lost at seeding to a minimum. On average it takes him just 10 minutes to clean out his drill and switch varieties. To simplify his workload he usually will just stick to testing varieties that use the same crop production system, in his case Roundup Ready varieties.
“We did do quite a few technology plots in 2005,” Clayton says. “You want to keep the plots as close together as possible to reduce variability, but you have to remember you may get a little spray drift. The key is to make sure that you’re getting the actual results that aren’t influenced by a bit of Roundup, Odyssey or Liberty drift.”
If you want to have good test results, you have to be fair to all the varieties. Reiter starts by selecting a piece of land that is as uniform as possible. “Most people think that Saskatchewan is flat but when you are actually trying to find a place to put a plot you find it really isn’t,” Reiter says. “There’s a lot of variation across the field so we try to pick a spot that’s reasonably representative. If there’s a weak spot, we make sure it goes through all the strips.”
“A good strip trial is one that is set up so that every product has an equal chance at winning,” Clayton says. “You want to compare apples to apples. When you are swathing, cut a full swath from the middle of an entry.
Make sure you use the full swather width for every entry. If you use a full width for one entry and then just eyeball the next, you’re adding a variable to your data. Over a half mile there could be enough difference to make a substantial yield difference.”
Heinrich says field accessibility is another consideration. Do not pick a field that is only accessible by 4×4 on a good day. He finds that this makes it easier to do timely field operations plus it lets him keep an eye on the plots as they grow.
“I’m one of those nerds, or as my friend keeps telling me, I’m a progressive farmer, who likes to know what is going on,” Heinrich says. “I find it’s interesting to look at the side-by-side or the variety trials when I have a leisure moment. That being said though, sometimes looks can be deceiving. I would have picked one hybrid to be the hands down winner when it came to yield but when we brought out the weigh wagon that was definitely not the case. Until you take a test from start to finish, you really can’t compare data.”
According to Heinrich, having a good test plot boils down to just three things. First, start by drawing a target yield using fertilizer recommendations. Next, select evenly contoured ground that will provide a fair and accurate evaluation of seed varieties. Last, do not think of the test plot as just being more work, think of it as a project that is going to help for years to come.