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Trials offer critical, site-specific results

September 20, 2021  By Sponsored by Proven Seed

In the farm world, a huge amount of data backs every commercial seed variety and product, while research trials continually churn out data on a wide range of agronomic questions.

Trials provide important insight to aid with decision making and can be conducted on small and large scales – both providing important benefits and critical results.

On-farm trials
Megan Bourns is the On-Farm Network agronomist with Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers (MPSG). Launched in 2014, the On-Farm Network facilitates research testing new products and practices for soybean and pulses on a network of farms across the province.

“The trials we run look at production questions – [for example], what soybean seeding rates, or row spacing, should I be using? We usually have about 15 to 16 trial types every season with between 50 and 70 growers per year,” Bourns says. “It’s a by-farmers, for-farmers program.”

The program relies on standardized protocols, treatment programs and trial layouts, Bourns adds. But they seek to answer questions posed by the farmers themselves.

“The trial ideas come from direct questions from farmers, or from agronomists. It’s really farmer-led from the start,” she adds. “[When you’re] answering each specific farmer’s questions, there needs to be some flexibility, whether you’re looking at seeding rates, row spacing or another production question. There’s flexibility even though there are standardized protocols.”

The On-Farm Network team has conversations with farmers about the treatments they’re interested in testing, and then develop a protocol for them, including a treatment layout and plan, and outline the types of data they’ll collect. They then work with farmers on the ground to make sure seeding goes according to plan and the trials are established correctly, she says.

Farmers are busy, and on-farm trials represent a significant amount of time and energy, Bourns notes, so it’s critical that the end result is data they can use. To that end, they always use statistically sound practices in their programs.

“The biggest thing is randomization and replication,” she says. “Our team does all the data collection and monitoring through the season and we’re there at harvest. We compile that strip by strip trial information and yield results and we put it together in a short report that’s available to the farmer and on our website.”

It’s research, she says, that answers questions farmers are asking about production in their particular growing region. “That’s where the value comes in,” she says.

Proven Seed trials
The value of on-farm research relies on farmers’ trust in the process. Building trust with farmers is a key part of the rationale behind Nutrien Ag Solutions’ Proven Performance Trials, Western Canada’s largest retail seed variety comparison program, says Cynthia Deitz, senior manager, seed communications – North America, with Nutrien Ag Solutions.

Deitz says the credibility of the data is critical to making informed decisions about seed hybrids and their fit on Western Canadian farms.

Along with Nutrien’s breeding program trials, which encompass thousands of plots, Nutrien Ag Solutions runs three types of trials; the simplest of which comprises side-by-side trials that run on-farm in collaboration with Nutrien Ag Solutions retails on areas ranging from 10 acres to whole fields. These trials typically evaluate cereal and soybean seed varieties, Deitz says.

Running on a slightly smaller scale are the company’s field performance checks, which also run on-farm. These trials usually involve around 10 acres per canola hybrid or soybean variety of soybeans, testing five to eight hybrids. For corn, trials are typically under 12 acres.

The smallest trials are the company’s replicated local performance checks. These research and development trials compare the performance of many of the seed varieties that will be sold in Nutrien Ag Solutions retail locations in a given year, and any varieties that are expected to be launched in the near future.

“If it’s new on our shelves and we’re planning on selling it next year, we try to put it in our local performance check trials. We want to ensure our staff have the best agronomic and yield information available to help farmers make informed decisions. Most data is kept internal for training and advancement purposes unless our partners give permission for its use externally.”

This year, Deitz says the company ran around 290 trial sites across all three trial levels including the research and development trials; about 260 of these were on-farm.

The good, the bad and the pest damage
Deitz co-ordinates the company’s farmer-run trials, which start with the farmer and the Nutrien Ag Solutions crop advisors deciding on a protocol that fits their operation, “so that they’re comparing apples to apples,” she says. For the side-by-side trials, farmers generally choose check varieties and Nutrien Ag Solutions provides seed for the other side.

After the seed goes out to the farmer, the advisor will help the farmer map out field variability, choose the best locations for trials, calibrate equipment and ultimately go out with supplies, flags and stakes to help the farmer seed through the strips.

Deitz says farmers’ trust in the process is critical to the trials’ success, which is why Nutrien Ag Solutions takes steps to make sure its data is clean. Data will show products that are available in Nutrien Ag Solutions’ sheds. Every brand has wins and losses under a fair protocol. Difficult growing years, like 2021 has been in many areas, tend to create challenges when it comes to consistency and success of the trials.

“In the field-scale trials, it’s the farmers’ labour. In the side-by-side trials, it’s one farmer wanting to see [what] works on his [or her] farm. We want to be sure our customers are comfortable with the data. If they see you hiding data or pulling it without their input, or they haven’t made the same observations, they won’t trust the data,” she says.

If some trial fields see heavy pest damage, crop advisors will speak with the farmer to assess whether the data from that zone is “fair” or will skew overall results.

Deitz points to one example: “Cutworms tend to pick an area to lay eggs, a spot where there’s green matter – you’ll see cutworms in patches. If that’s sitting in one specific hybrid, that hybrid is at a disadvantage versus the others,” she notes.

Another example: flea beetles overwinter in trash, so if a farmer has more trash on headlands or field margins, and if the beetles migrate into the plot from the edges, the hybrids on the outside will be at a disadvantage. In a weather or wind event, wind will cause some shattering, or a particularly hard rain will pound the seed in. If the damage is equivalent across the plot and all are in agreement, then the data could be considered credible.

“There are a lot of variables, just as with every farmer. We try to minimize the variables as much as possible and we use statistical methods to eliminate highly variable information. We work with the farmer to understand their situation, and we talk with them about whether it was a fair trial. If the producer believes there was some bias, and it might not be a fair trial, we’ll talk with them about whether or not we publish it,” Deitz says.

Even if the data isn’t published, the company takes farmers’ observations seriously, and will use that information to better inform growers via its agronomic services.

“We’ll say, this trial was lost to hail in August – but the farmer believes the experimental one was performing better,” Deitz says. 

Whether gleaned close to home in on-farm trials, or conducted on a larger scale, trials and data provide invaluable data to a farm’s operation.

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