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On-farm research program addresses key questions

Testing new or different products, technologies or practices on a commercial production scale.

February 5, 2024  By Donna Fleury


Harvesting wheat from the N-fixing biological products trials. Photos courtesy of Christiane Catellier, IHARF.

On-farm research programs can be a good way for farmers to test new products or practices and try to find farm-specific answers to important agronomic questions. Researchers, industry and farmers in Saskatchewan are collaborating to implement field-scale trials and collectively share the results and benefits across the network.

“We initiated an on-farm research program in Saskatchewan, working with farmers to conduct specific research projects on their farms to help answer various agronomic questions,” explains Christiane Catellier, research associate with the Indian Head Agricultural Research Foundation (IHARF). “We are collaborating with some of the Saskatchewan crop commissions to work with farmers across different crops and different parts of the province, including SaskBarley, SaskCanola, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG) and Sask Wheat. What we are trying to do with this program is to collect and share the information among all the participating producers. This benefits the collective by having the same trials conducted across many different conditions in many different locations. Farmers are involved and participate directly in the research process, learning about research methods and utilizing technology and equipment to answer questions they care about.”

Catellier emphasizes that the on-farm research program is not trying to replace small-plot research. Rather, it is part of the research chain, helping to answer questions and provide more information closer to the commercialization end of the chain. The on-farm, field-scale research is informed by the earlier results of related small-plot research. The purpose of on-farm research is to test the success or failure of adopting new products, technologies or practices on a commercial production scale. The on-farm research allows farmers to have control over the research topics and helps them find farm-specific answers to agronomic questions.

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Seeding the lentil seeding rate trials.

“I’m supporting the programs by leading the research side of the project, getting the research protocols established and experimental design in place, as well as working with agronomists on implementing the field-scale trials and data collection,” says Catellier. “In 2023, participating farmers could select from four crop research protocols, including foliar-applied N-fixing biological products on wheat or canola, and testing seeding rates on red lentils or barley. Some farmers are also working with other organizations such as SPG on other on-farm research protocols and projects. The objective of the field-scale trials is to determine if farms can see agronomic and economic benefits from the protocols. Farmers who participate get to see what works on their farm using their own equipment and under the environmental conditions of their operation. Economic outcomes are usually the driver of many research questions, however, sometimes the research questions and objectives can be related to other important agronomic issues such as quality, standability, harvestability or logistics. Using on-farm research trials is a good tool to address any number of agronomic questions that arise when it is done effectively.” 

For the on-farm research trials to be relevant, the protocols are based on good experimental design, including replication, randomization and statistical analysis. Using scientifically valid experimental design ensures the effects observed were a result of the treatment and not due to chance or natural variability. Repeating the same trial across many locations in the province and collectively analyzing the data provides a statistical advantage and confidence in the results.

Catellier and the network of agronomists and trial managers worked directly with farmers through every step of the research process. At seeding or product application timing, agronomists helped farmers set the trials up in the field, marking the plots with flags or GPS, and ensuring the experimental design parameters were in place. Participating agronomists and trial managers then completed all the observations and data collection for the farmers throughout the growing season.

Catellier worked with a number of farmers directly and is also responsible for collecting and analyzing all the data across all the trials. The final results will be shared with the participants over the winter. Farmers also now have a network of growers and agronomists interested in field-scale research and sharing on-farm results that benefit everyone.

Setting up the lentil seeding rate experiments.

“For many farmers, I think the on-farm research process was not as hard as they originally thought it would be and hopefully will see that the results will be the big benefit,” says Catellier. “The growing season in 2023 was pretty good in terms of conditions for most areas, with enough time for seeding and harvest operations so no one really got behind. Most growers found that adding the on-farm research trials into their regular operations was fairly easy and didn’t take that much extra time. Once we have analyzed all the data, we can share the final results and comparisons across the province with participants. This information will help farmers make good management decisions relevant to their operation and be more confident in adopting successful outcomes or saving time and money by not adopting a practice that wasn’t successful.”

Catellier is pleased with the first year of the project and is looking forward to working with the participants and the commissions to establish the 2024 on-farm research trial protocols. For the coming year, Catellier also plans to develop more tools to make it easier to translate experimental design and research methods to field-scale applied research projects. This will make it easier for farmers and agronomists to develop trial management skills, implement research methods and realize the benefits and limitations of proper research methods. 

“If farmers are interested to learn more or would like to participate in the 2024 on-farm research program, they can reach out to me directly or the crop commissions,” adds Catellier. “We encourage farmers to provide input and suggestions on what research trials they would be interested in over the next year or two. Over the winter, we will be sharing the results with participants across the province. 

“In 2023, we held a tour in the northwest part of the province and in 2024, we plan to hold a tour of the on-farm research projects in the Indian Head area. This on-farm research program is helping to build a network of farmers and agronomists interested in field-scale research to share knowledge and expertise and find farm-specific answers to relevant agronomic questions. Farmers who participate in the program can have confidence in the research results and will hopefully realize the benefits and value for their time and resources invested.” 

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