Linking agronomics and economics
By Donna Fleury
Agronomics is considered a cornerstone of best production practices, but having good agronomic research information and economics together is the best strategy. Dr. Ross McKenzie, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development agronomy research scientist (retired) at Lethbridge, Alta., says it is important to link agronomics and economics in order to provide better information to farmers.
“When we know the agronomic benefit of practice or input, then we can determine if it is economical,” explains McKenzie. “Without agronomic knowledge, you can’t do the economics to determine the financial benefits of an agronomic practice. For example, some of our good agronomy research around seeding rates and seeding dates has helped us understand the impacts. By increasing seeding rates, we found there was an increase in yield for four wheat types; malt, feed and barley silage; canola and flax, but only to a certain point and it was different for each individual crop. The same for delayed seeding, the timing affects different crops differently.”
The results of a previous four-year study for irrigated crops in southern Alberta confirmed that seeding earlier was a benefit, but researchers were surprised by how great a benefit. The results clearly showed that seeding date significantly affected the yield of all cereal and oilseed crops. Although seeding in April usually didn’t show much variation, the yield potential significantly declined for every day after May 1 that seeding was delayed. Therefore, if farmers are seeding after May 1, then they may want to seed canola first, followed by wheat and barley then flax, to maximize the benefits of seeding early. McKenzie emphasizes that although this research has provided very good information for irrigated crops in southern Alberta, there is limited recent research information for the various agro-ecological areas across Alberta or the prairies for both dryland and irrigated crops.
“We know that early seeding is often better, be we don’t know by how much or how it impacts different crops across the various agro-ecological areas,” he notes. “We have anecdotal information from crop insurance that shows that earlier seeding is better. However, their information covers several different varieties of wheat and canola, and a number of different farmer management practices that may be better than or not as good as, on average. Therefore, to really understand the impact of early seeding, research needs to be done uniformly with the same varieties, the same seeder type under the same conditions all at the same time in order to be able to compare apples to apples. We can’t determine the economics of an agronomic practice if we don’t have sound agronomic research information.”
Agronomics + economics = optimum crop production
There are a number of different groups across Alberta and the prairies doing research, but McKenzie believes there is a need to co-ordinate and integrate agronomic research in the key agro-ecological areas in a much more organized approach. Farmers need to know which soil management practices, crop rotations, crop varieties and crop inputs are best for optimum crop yield for different crops across the various agro-ecological areas of the prairies.
“There is a need for the various research partners across Alberta to establish agronomy research centres to conduct applied and adaptive agronomic research,” says McKenzie. “Research agronomists, economists and farmers need technically advanced, unbiased crop production information. We also need highly skilled technical people and highly trained researchers, such as those who have master’s or PhD level research training, grew up on Canadian farms and understand western Canadian agricultural soil and crop conditions. Research agronomists and ag economists must work collectively to provide consistent, best management recommendations for Alberta farmers.”
McKenzie is concerned there are some people who want to be researchers, but are not educated and trained to conduct proper soil and crop field research. Their results, particularly from non-replicated field trials, provide mostly meaningless results, but the information is sometimes used to make “questionable” recommendations to farmers.
McKenzie cautions that not all research is equal and recommendations from questionable research are not always consistent or accurate. Farmers should carefully asses the information they are getting, determine if the sources are credible, and if the proper checks and balances have been put in place for a research project, before making an investment. Talk to the people doing the research, he says, to try to glean the essence of the results and how applicable they are. He believes there definitely is a place for both academic research and farm-scale applied research, but in order for the results to be meaningful the project must have followed proper research protocols including replications. An excellent understanding of soil variability is also a given.
“If farmers are interested in a new product or technology, give it a try but don’t spend a lot of money until you are sure it provides an economic return,” says McKenzie. “First look at the agronomy research and then trial it on a smaller scale in controlled test strips on your farm. To get meaningful results and account for field variability, you need to replicate the test strips.”
For example, select three strips in a field as control, then use the new product or technology on three strips in adjacent, different parts of the field. Harvest each strip separately, record the yields and compare the results. If each strip of the new treatment/technology provides an increase of a few bushels, then there might be an economic return. However, if one strip of the new treatment yields higher and two yield slightly lower, then it likely tells you there isn’t enough difference to be economical.
“By jointly linking both disciplines of agronomics and economics, research agronomists and ag economists can provide technically advanced, unbiased crop production economic and extension information to farmers,” says McKenzie. “With a co-ordinated and integrated agronomic research effort across the uniquely different agro-ecological areas of Alberta and the prairies, then you can do the economics to extend reliable and consistent crop production recommendations for farmers.”