3 Ways to Harvest the Value of On-Farm Research
3 Ways to Harvest the Value of On-Farm Research
Test plots can effectively evaluate if an innovation fits your operation with the proper patience, partnership, and purpose.
While working on his family’s farm in Mississippi, Chad Swindoll remembers ag companies visiting the operation, looking to field test different products, chemicals, or seed varieties.
But the opportunities didn’t always include the support to implement, manage and analyze the trials, which made it difficult for the farm to quantify any reliable return.
“We were farmers, not researchers,” says Swindoll. “We’d keep up as best we could, but our time was limited, and we didn’t have the resources or the expertise.”
The experiences proved educational for Swindoll, 34, who spent time as a territory manager and precision agronomist after two years on the farm before starting J19 Agriculture LLC in 2016. The independent consulting firm provides a variety of precision ag-focused services, including farm data analysis, aerial imagery, and on-farm research.
As companies rapidly engineer and bring to market advancements in ag equipment, nutrient efficiency, and seed technology, on-farm research can be a mutually beneficial proving ground - if done well, according to Swindoll. “The best investment a farmer can make is in learning about how to improve the management decisions they are making on their operation,” he says.
Partnering extensively with farmers to scale, execute and evaluate field trials, Swindoll offers three tips for investing your time and money in on-farm research and avoiding the pitfalls that come from poor planning and unrealistic expectations.
1. Understand the Why to Determine your How. Ambition is an asset in on-farm
research, but only if it comes with a plan. Swindoll works with farmers who struggled to balance expectations with execution because they didn’t have defined objectives or goals with a trial.
Before evaluating a new chemical application or planting a new seed variety, farmers should ask themselves why they are testing a particular product and determine how they will measure the results.
“What is it going to take for me to change what I’m doing? It needs to make a measurable difference or economic impact on my operation,” Swindoll says. “Think about that question beforehand instead at the end of the season when you get your results. Because if you have no intention of making a change, regardless of the results, you probably shouldn’t even move forward with the research.”
While yield is often the benchmark of whether on-farm trials are successful or not, there are other data points to consider that provide a holistic picture of success or failure. For example, in a fertility trial involving the application of a new calcium product on high-magnesium soils, if there are parts of the plot that are not saturated with magnesium, yield response may be minimal, says Swindoll. The key is identifying limiting factors.
“Not all things work all the time in all places,” he says. “In any trial, if you get to the end of the year and wonder why three plot replications lost 20 bushels and one gained 20 but only have an as-planted map and yield data, it’s going to be tough to piece that answer together.
“We’ve got the ability to collect more data than ever, so let’s take advantage of tools like soil sampling, tissue sampling, aerial imagery, and remote sensing to get the most information we can.”
But Swindoll also cautions against letting research data drive every decision to change management practice. One observation he’s made, especially collaborating with younger farmers, is the temptation to rely too heavily on the numbers as an alternative to getting a visual validation in the field.
There is balance, Swindoll says, and the results need to “pass the sniff test,” but farmers also remain open-minded. “Just because something isn’t what we’d expect doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” he says. “You still need to get out and validate the data because there’s a lot you can learn from seeing your own shadow in the field.”
2. Don’t Second Guess the Benefit of a Third Party. While some farmers have
the expertise and capacity to conduct their own on-farm research, the majority have neither the time nor the support. For these reasons, Swindoll says it’s often wise to work with a third party, ideally an independent one, to coordinate on-farm research.
“Management is the ‘X’ factor, so you need to have someone take ownership of the trial and execute the plan,” he says. “It’s worth partnering with someone who is going to objectively and thoroughly take your through that entire process.”
Just because a farmer agrees to collaborate with a company to evaluate a new product doesn’t necessarily mean they have to rely on that company to collect and analyze the data, says Swindoll. It may not be in the best interests of the farmer, or even the company.
“There are going to be companies that offer performance-based pricing for products, where it might sell a type of fungicide, and if it doesn’t have a positive ROI, the farmer doesn’t owe anything,” he says. “The company selling the product has every interest to make sure it works, while the farmer might want the data to say otherwise, so he or she doesn’t have to pay.”
3. Size Matters, and so does Context. Participating in any scale of on-farm
research can provide benefits, but Swindoll prefers to conduct trials on 40-to-250-acre plots to feel confident enough in the results. He’ll replicate trials over the course of several years to validate or invalidate the value of a particular product on a customer’s farm and says context is key.
“Context is the most critical piece in my mind for understanding any research outcome,” Swindoll says. “Land grant trials can provide value, but they tend to be smaller in scale and typically have a control they use for comparison. I understand the statistical value of doing that, but in the real world, a farmer wouldn’t necessarily set aside control acres where they didn’t apply fertilizer.”
Swindoll compares results of on-farm trials with what he terms “grower
standards” or the typical practices that a farmer applies in their field to determine if a change is worthwhile. The customized approach provides more actionable results, he says, because there is real vs. theoretical context.
“You take every effort to minimize error. We don’t know if a product will win or lose, but my promise to farmers is that they will know why the product won or lost,” Swindoll says. “In the end, everything we find has to have some type of economic impact through savings or production.”
But it’s important not to overestimate the economic impact of research results. So Swindoll prefers a conservative approach when working through results with farmers.
“You don’t want to jump to conclusions with either positive or negative results,” he says. “Just because an application worked on one field doesn’t mean it’s going to work on every acre.”
An example he offers is a farmer who tested a new foliar product on half of a soybean field for a year. At harvest, the sprayed side shows a 3-bushel increase at harvest, so the farmer penciled out the application cost at $3 per acre vs. a $45 per acre return with soybeans at $15 per bushel. While it may seem like an easy economic decision to expand the application, Swindoll says there is a risk in relying on such a small sample size.
“I’ll advise farmers to run the same trial at least one more year, then take a strategic look at expanding it on other acres where it makes sense,” he says. “The goal of replication is to eliminate the chance. As soon as you make a change across your entire farm, you’ve lost the ability to test anymore.”