Ep. 20: The Trends & Learnings from 2020 Research Trials with John Fulton
Each year, countless hours go into planning, executing and analyzing field trials. Farmers and researchers are usually trying to solve a problem in order to increase yield, efficiency, or profitability and, on the surface, the questions we’re trying to answer often seem simple. That is, until we start to consider all of the factors that impact growing crops.
In Episode 20 of Precision Points, we discuss the trial work that Dr. John Fulton (Ohio State University) and his colleagues worked on in 2020 and the trends they are seeing in the data.
First, we dove into the data from the trial Alysa Gauci introduced us to in Episode 14, where they are looking at the length of trial strips to determine how long a strip needs to be to get accurate data. They started by creating intentional yield differences through nitrogen management, then ran that trial seven lengths (12.5’, 25’, 50’, 100’, 200’, 400’ and 800’).
“The length of a plot or a strip does matter in terms of getting confidence in the yield monitor data,” John started. “I'll tell you, it really wasn't up until we were roughly in 100-foot areas that we really started to see yield differences occur on the monitor.”
John mentioned that it's important to make sure the distance of the trial is long enough to get sufficient data points. As they continue to analyze and develop the reports from the trial, it’ll be important to keep in mind as we look at future yield data and also as we consider putting out on-farm trials this spring. The trials themselves can be very involved and we would hate to have to toss the data at the end of the year because the length of the plot was too short.
This year, the eFields book also includes data on soil health. One question that John gets a lot is if sampling depth impacts the representation of soil health and fertility. They started looking at that this year with 41 different trials. They also started evaluating what practices benefit soil health in an effort to be able to provide growers with guidance down the road. Alongside that, we discussed their efforts around water quality and sustainability.
Finally we discussed planting populations and row spacing. Although the research was initially on corn, they have started to evaluate soybeans as well. For soybeans they are primarily looking at row spacing by planting date whereas, in corn, they have characterized hybrid structure then evaluated various planting populations.
“I can't put 45,000 seeds in a 30-inch row, just because of the inner competition that occurs there,” John said. “At some point, we're going to have to spread those plants back out. The only way to really do that is to go back to a 20-inch row spacing or 15-inch. Those are kind of what we're attempting to quantify.”
There have been plenty of studies tossed aside because the variables that come with a growing crop offset the accuracy or confidence of that trial. It's important to make sure the data you are using to impact your decisions has been well-vetted and is statistically significant. To learn more about the work Dr. John Fulton and his colleagues are completing, go grab a copy of the eFields book – it has 260 pages of information that could impact your operation this year.
Host: Morgan Seger
Guest: John Fulton
Morgan Seger: (00:22)
Welcome back to Precision Points, an ag tech podcast from precisionagreviews.com. I'm your host Morgan Seger and in each episode, we strive to bring you unbiased ag tech information and ideas. And on today's show, I am joined by my dear friend, John Smith. Now, John is a retired agronomist and plant pathologist by training, but he took a turn towards the end of his career into ag tech and he has a really interesting perspective. So, he spent some time with us today talking about trends that he's expecting in 2021 and also we talk a little bit about row spacing. So where I'm at, we've been getting lots of questions about row spacing and we know that Dr. John Fulton mentioned that he's doing some research on that as well. So it was interesting getting John's take on row spacing and changes in the implications that that may have for your growing crop. So, I hope you enjoy this conversation with John Smith. John, welcome to the show.
Morgan Seger: (01:00) Now, I have an entire page worth of notes from our conversation. I think you're really going to enjoy it, but before we get into it, just a reminder, you can go to digitalag.osu.edu and download this E-fields book to look at all of the trials. It's 260 pages of information. Really, what they've been able to do is not only get to where they're doing multi-year analysis, but give a deeper look into some of these more advanced agronomic tactics. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Dr. John Fulton.
Morgan Seger: (01:31) Welcome back to Precision Points today. I'm joined again by Dr. John Fulton from the Ohio State University. Welcome back, John.
John Fulton: (01:38) It's good to be here and I look forward to our discussions today.
Morgan Seger: (01:43) Yeah. It's been a little bit since we've recorded. We recorded in September. I'm sure you've been pretty busy since then. We were spending a lot of time talking about how research data basically is quantified and how we can do the best steps basically to create our own on-farm data. How did harvest end up for you and what did that research look like?
John Fulton: (02:07) Yeah. 2020 harvest went fairly smooth for us. I would say we got some times where we got a little bit delayed with some weather for the counties that we're working in, but in terms of the harvest, we were very pleased. The yields were a little bit all over the board, and that was probably to be expected because we know some areas of, especially are in a central part of Ohio, was pretty dry and hot there in July and August. We had some stress and both our corn and beans specifically, that maybe we didn't obtain ultimately what we set out on our yield potential.
John Fulton: (02:50) Maybe rather than 200, we were at 180 or kind of 160 to 180 on some corn plots. We did have some of our research that ran into 250 to 280 range. A lot of that had to do with just the timing of rain and having water there and not being as stressful through those periods, like I mentioned. Then on the soybeans, I'd say we ranged anywhere from about 50 bushels all the way up to we were, in one study, we were just about 81, 82 bushels on the front.
Morgan Seger: (03:25) Those are pretty good numbers. Now, when you say, we didn't hit 200, but we were maybe at 180. Would 200, in that scenario, be the field average, or is that the yield goal?
John Fulton: (03:37) I would say that was probably, in those fields, we were just average in some cases or just below average, depending on the field and location. A lot of those fields as far as corn, we're probably shooting for 210 or 215 kind of average. We hope per se, but at the end of the year, we were probably average to just below average is how I would characterize it on the corn yield.
Morgan Seger: (04:06) Okay. Yeah. That's about what we saw here too. I was actually pretty surprised with some of the soybean yields around us. I don't know if it's just, I wasn't anticipating it, but ours were just maybe a tick over average. We were pretty happy with them.
John Fulton: (04:19) Yeah. I would say in most cases, we had above average soybeans, if you just took all the studies and put them together, but again you're just going to get hit pockets where there are certain stress and we were a little bit lower than average or right at average, if you took a 10-year average for the field.
Morgan Seger: (04:41) Yeah. Well, good. I'm glad to hear that things went smoothly. One thing I've been wondering about is, we spent a while talking about that trial that you had the aerial imagery for. Where you were looking at different trial sizes to help validate how big a plot needs to be to get good data off of it. We also brought Alyssa on to talk through some of that research. Were you guys able to get any quantifiable data off of that field?
John Fulton: (05:05) Yeah. We're still working through all the analysis, but what I would share is that, first and foremost, when we talk about on-farm research, yield monitor data ultimately seems to be the primary data layer to evaluate success or not success. Yield's always the key factor we want to look at. When we think of yield monitoring, the question really comes is, is how small of an area can you use yield monitors to actually get good and confidence in those yield monitor estimates? That's what you're alluding to, and to the analysis to date, just to kind of refresh everyone, we had basically intentional yield differences at different lengths, and those would alternate. We went 12 and a half, 25 foot, 50 foot, a hundred foot, 200 foot, 400 foot, and we had plots 800-foot long.
John Fulton: (06:09) When I say something like 50 foot, basically every 50 foot, there would be what we would characterize as a high yield area. Then the next 50 foot would be low followed by a high followed by a low. There's this alternating high/low at those different lengths I mentioned. The learnings that we have was definitely the length of a plot or a strip does matter in terms of getting confidence and the yield monitor data to be tied to, we'll say a treatment. I'll tell you, it really wasn't up until we were roughly in a hundred foot areas that we really started to see yield differences occur on the monitor. In terms of actually tracking and saying, "Hey, this was high yield and it average, we'll say 180. This was a low yield area and that actually averaged in that length." I think 78 or 80 bushels roughly is what we were running, that it wasn't really up until the two to really the 400 that you could really see those yield differences and make a measurable difference using yield monitor data.
Morgan Seger: (07:21) Interesting. I know we're always trying to get as much done in the shortest amount of space as possible. That'll be important for us to keep in mind as we start looking out to 2021 and planning those terms.
John Fulton: (07:33) That's right. I guess I would just leave everyone with, again, you want enough length to get a sufficient number of data points. When I clipped those data points out of that area, we can say, "Hey, that is 180 bushels and we have confidence that's the actual yield in that length, or that area, we'll say for that particular treatment." If we're trying to do replicated studies to compare nitrogen, seeding rate or whatever it may be out there.
Morgan Seger: (08:07) Yep. Great. Great. Well, thanks for sharing. We'll keep an eye on that. I did get a chance to go to digitalag.osu.edu and check out the 2020 E-fields book. For our listeners, if you want to actually get your hands on some of the data that we're talking about today, just go to digitalag.osu.edu. One thing that I noticed in the book, and I feel like this is going to be kind of a buzzword for 2021, is soil health, and that you guys were working on some of those topics. Can you share what some of that looks like?
John Fulton: (08:42) Yeah. For 2020, we built some new protocols to where folks go out and do different types of soil health studies within counties. We were trying to do it more broadly, as well as bring that data together from a statewide perspective understanding. As you mentioned, soil health is something that's becoming not only buzz, but really a hot topic within the production systems here in the state of Ohio. I think we know that there's some value of building soil health, but at the same time, there's challenges to conveying where practices or what kind of inputs and things like cover crops and conservation management strategies. How do those really play in and bring value to a farm operation? That's what we jumped into, is trying to explore some baseline questions. I'll tell you a quick highlight. One of the questions that we got frequently last year from a variety of farmers is, is sampling depth important to characterize soil health and fertility type stuff?
John Fulton: (10:00) We jumped right in and we had, I think, 41 trials where we're looking at sampling depth roughly. Anyways, the sampling depth was something of interest as it relates to soil health. Then the other one was really trying to understand how practices impact soil health, as well. Anything from collecting data on no-till or what we'd call a no-till plus, where not only am I no-tilling, but I'm integrating things in like cover crops and strategies to improve soil health. Okay. There's different ways, some different ways of doing that too, all the way down to minimum till to also traditional where we're doing fall tillage or spring tillage followed by kind of a field cultivator pass is like conservation, not conservation, but a typical tillage operation. Anyway, comparing soil health values amongst those different practices, again, trying to characterize soil health, understand soil health, but at the same time, come back and say, "If you're able to do these types of measures, really giving guidance on where value might be for adopting some of these strategies for improving soil health."
Morgan Seger: (11:21) Yeah. Well, I appreciate the kind of well-rounded approach you're taking, because a lot of people are talking about soil health, but a lot of us don't really know where to start. We have an idea that it has to do with tillage and cover crops, but we don't have that answer yet on what's the most effective way to improve. I think this research will be really valuable. Along with soil health, I saw that you're also doing some work with water quality and I'm interested in those topics because sustainability in agriculture has taken forefront of a lot of conversations I've seen, especially online. I think the outcomes that you guys are seeing in your data is definitely going to be able to impact local growers.
John Fulton: (12:04) Water quality is probably the topic in the state of Ohio, as we know it. That stretches primarily a lot of focus into Lake Erie basin, but at the same time you work down to central, especially the western part of the state, where we got a lot of livestock production, there's a lot of scrutiny there by the public as well. We are looking at that. Trying to broaden and give information, again, back to farmers through E-fields studies. That ranges from anything from looking at the way nutrients are managed, including manure and the timing of placement of those. There's several projects reported as of 2020 around that, really the intent there is to reduce loss within a farm. Nitrogen and phosphorous being our primary concerns as it relates to the public.
John Fulton: (13:08) We're not only addressing that, but expanding that and, to your point, sustainability is at the forefront at the same time. In fact, when you look at whether it's through a retailer or companies, you see a lot more sustainability programs out there for farmers to participate in. Some of that may be on marketing of other commodities because they can showcase practices and what they're doing to manage those commodities, to other things requested from those companies in order to say, "Hey, the produce or commodities grown are being done in a sustainable way." We definitely see a lot more sustainability programs though. I want to know that all of them are still a bit different. There's no standard around what sustainability means and how that gets reported for a farmer to participate in his programs. We are trying to be fairly diverse in what we're doing in our E-fields research.
Morgan Seger: (14:23) Yep. Yeah, for sure. I think the sustainability piece is going to be interesting because it's such a long game. Growers can make changes today and not see results, because there are so many things impacting with just Mother Nature in general, and then all of the variables we run into every year. It's going to be hard, I think, to pinpoint the return on these sustainability efforts. I think that's why it's been one of these things that we've been talking about for several years, but kind of slow moving. It'll be interesting to see if we can put some research and data behind some of these tactics to make it a little bit more tangible for growers.
John Fulton: (15:03) Yeah. Yeah. I guess I would note in that too, and we do, or at least we discuss and think about this quite a bit is, sometimes it's just not really making changes. It's having the right records in house to report out as well. It's being able to capture the right data, the right information to participate in those as well.
Morgan Seger: (15:26) Yep. Yeah. I can definitely see that. That's at least a starting point because it's hard to make changes if we don't have records of all the stuff that we need and to see if we need to make those changes. One other thing that I've been wanting to ask you about, you kind of alluded to it on our last episode, was some work you were doing with, I guess I would call maybe ultra high populations?
John Fulton: (15:49) Yes.
Morgan Seger: (15:50) Were you able to get much out of that work this year?
John Fulton: (15:53) We did, and just for everyone, we're real interested and corn's been our initial focus, but we've just started some soybeans, but the idea was looking at planting date by row spacing by population. We've kind of characterized corn hybrids into two buckets, basically taller plants per se, and then shorter plants. Those are all combinations that we've been looking at the last two years. To your point, yeah, we're pushing the 50,000 plus type scenarios, but in that, also looking at the row spacing and varieties and such like that, to be able to explore that a little bit more in detail. Our results, through the pandemic, we didn't quite capture all of our NCs and data. We were able to take everything to yield as far as the plots. We ran some of the analysis. There are definitely some trends coming out of the data that suggests that there's some yield by row spacing by hybrid interactions there, that I think we would probably expect in the grand scheme of things when you think about it. We're starting to get some data and they really quantify some of that as well.
Morgan Seger: (17:27) Yeah. Well, I'm excited to see it. That's one question that I get a lot. Especially when I'm asking growers, what do you want to hear on the podcast and what do you want to see on precisionagreviews.com? A lot of it is row spacing and population. I'm excited to see how some of that materializes for you.
John Fulton: (17:45) Yeah. I think it would be natural to think that as you think through, if I'm going to take corn populations and truly, if our intent in the future... There's a lot of more research that's going on around the US that tends to be...it’ll be interesting where we had in the future, but no crystal ball today. Just the premise that if we're going to put more plants and that's going to be really the ability to put more ears and make sure those ears are sized to push yields, I think at some point we all believe that well, I can't put 45,000 seeds in a 30-inch row, because just the inner competition that occurs there. At some point, we're going to have to spread those plants back out. The only way to really do that is to go back to a 20-inch row spacing or 15-inch. Those are kind of what we're attempting to quantify.
Morgan Seger: (18:51) Gotcha. Now, I kind of just, as I was taking notes, put down planting date by population, by row spacing by plant characteristic, but when you're pushing plants up to 50,000, what does that fertility look like? Is it the same across the board? Are you accommodating for those higher populations?
John Fulton: (19:09) Yeah. That's a great question. Right now, we are managing such that fertility is not a treatment per se. We're just making sure there's sufficient fertility out there to grow... Essentially we're talking 300-plus bushel corn, and we've been able to do that for a couple of years now.
Morgan Seger: (19:30) That's impressive.
John Fulton: (19:34) I think that's a really important point and one that, especially on the nitrogen side, what is going to be our strategy to be efficient, but yet feed the crop what it needs to make the yield potential for the growing season?
Morgan Seger: (19:49) Yeah. For sure. Well, I'm so grateful for the work you guys are doing, because it keeps my wheels turning and gets me thinking about things we can be trying on our own farm and things that we can be sharing and working on together. I definitely appreciate that. If again, like I said, if anyone's interested in seeing E-field's book, it's digitalag.osu.edu, and I think I saw 39 counties, 218 sites, and the book is 260 pages long. It is just chocked full of value.
John Fulton: (20:21) Yeah. I guess I'd put a plug in, if someone wants a hard copy of that, we have hard copies and reach out to the Digital Ag team. It's all embedded on the website in an electronic book, but send us a note and we'll ship you out a hard copy.
Morgan Seger: (20:38) Awesome. Awesome. I appreciate that. I appreciate your time today. For our listeners, before we started recording, we did talk about what next episode is going to look like. We're going to dive in a little bit deeper into precision seeding. Here, before planting time, we are excited to be able to bring that to you as well.
Morgan Seger: (20:56) As you heard there in the end of our episode, we did have a little teaser for our next interview that we'll get to do with John, where we're going to dive deep into precision seeding. He plans on spending a lot of time talking about his research he's done with smart farmers. In the E-fields book, there's also pieces on the high-speed planting and hydraulic downforce trials that they were looking at this year, if you're interested in kind of reading ahead before next episode. As always, we are so grateful that you tuned in to another episode. If you like what you're hearing, please leave us a rating and review. It helps other growers find our information so we can grow together. You can also check out precisionagreviews.com to see grower-sourced reviews on precision technology, equipment and services that have been used from growers, giving their real feedback on their experiences with those tools. Until next time, this has been Precision Points. Let's grow together.
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Host: Morgan Seger
Morgan Seger grew up on a small farm in northwest Ohio before studying agriculture at The Ohio State University. She spent 10 years working with ag retail, specifically in ag tech, before coming to PrecisionAgReviews.com to host Precision Points Podcast. She lives and farms in western Ohio, with her husband Ben and their four children. Morgan has her own blog called Heart and Soil where she talks about her experience farming, gardening, and raising her family.
Guest: John Fulton
John is a Professor in the Food, Agriculture and Biological Engineering Department at the Ohio State University. His research and extension focuses on precision agriculture, machinery automation and use of spatial data to improve crop production and the farm business.