Podcast: 13. John Fulton - On-Farm Research Data to Drive Decisions
Throughout the growing season, we got to check in with John Fulton, Ph. D., from The Ohio State University, to learn about the trials he is leading and what his research is working to unearth. As harvest started, we sat down again – this time to discuss yield data and how to analyze on-farm trial results.
“Yield ultimately is our end-of-season report card. It’s what everyone wants to understand and measure…I think there is a lot of opportunity for farmers to learn from this season,” John started.
As our springs and growing seasons continue to be diverse and unique, we will continue to have a lot to learn from our data. John mentioned specifically working to identify yield-limiting factors on a field-by-field basis. From rain-induced wash-outs to weed pressure to a variety of other factors, understanding how all dynamics impact the yield potential of a field can be essential to future management decisions.
Like we have discussed on the podcast before, it is important to make sure we are taking appropriate steps to ensure good data collection. John recommends being consistent with field naming and calibrating the combine. He also recommends taking specific notes in the combine about what you are seeing, so you can reference those after harvest as you start to process yield information.
We spent time talking about how to strip insights from the data we collect each year. Specifically, how do we know when variation is due to the trial we conducted versus Mother Nature versus other inherent variability we naturally run into from farm-to-farm? To John, this starts with “ground truthing” or scouting the field early and often. From there, they use aerial imagery to glean additional insights. Sometimes the aerial images confirm what they thought, but other times it helps them identify issues they didn't know ahead of time.
After tackling yield-limiting areas, John talked about some of the ways growers are going after high yields in those areas that yield higher than we expected. Using data as a starting point to identify those extremely high-yielding areas, he mentioned that some growers he works with are approaching very high populations (40-42K in 30-inch rows) with good success. He is not recommending this for all growers or across an entire field (for reasons we discuss in the episode), sharing that the nitrogen plan needs to be as intensely managed as the populations in extreme situations like these.
Identifying the “best” population has been the topic of many discussions and this, plus the good results he has seen from ultra-high pops, has led them to investigate population and row spacing. He is hoping to share some of this information in the E-Fields Report.
“For a study, we want to make sure it's replicated, [so] we have sound data that can be analyzed and to have that learning experience for growers,” mentioned John. “I want to emphasize that these are on-farm trials…For E-Fields, what we really tend to hone in on are questions that farmers have.”
The E-Fields Report should hopefully document 150-160 studies that are being conducted across the state. From seeding rates and variable rate seeding, to input studies, soil health, and more, they take a wide look at what growers are trying and help analyze what is working. They are hoping to have the data analyzed and processed by the beginning of January 2021.
In our next episode, we will visit with one of the students working on research with John. They will share how trials should be set up to ensure quality and quantifiable data. If you are interested in viewing the E-Fields Report, go to the Digital Ag Website or request a hard copy by emailing email@example.com.
What technology are you using to collect data? Leave a review here.
Host: Morgan Seger
Guest: John Fulton, Ph.D. Professor at The Ohio State University
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 the show today, I am joined, once again, by Dr. John Fulton from The Ohio State University. Now, if you tuned into last season, we had John on twice and he has been a great asset to the Precision Ag Reviews team, as we are working on this project to source unbiased reviews for precision ag tools and services. And last season, we talked about some of the research he had going on in-season, specifically about on-the-go manure sensors.
Now, today, our conversation is going to be a little bit different, as we talk more about what we need to be doing to make sure our on-farm research is good and conclusive. He also gets into some of the projects he was working on around ultra-high populations and row spacing, and some of the information that will be relayed to the public in the E-Fields Report coming in January as they wrap up all of their harvest and analysis of the data. So I hope you enjoy this conversation with Dr. John Fulton.
Welcome back to Precision Points. Today I am joined once again by Dr. John Fulton from The Ohio State University. Welcome back to the show, John.
John Fulton (01:41):
Yeah, thanks, Morgan. It's always a pleasure to be here.
Morgan Seger (01:45):
We're grateful that you're taking the time and I know, where we're at, there are combines just now starting to run. And I was wondering, have you guys started harvest yet?
John Fulton (01:55):
We have, but just very limited – taking a little bit of corn and soybeans off. But, to your point, as I've been able to travel to some of our research plots, you're just starting to see some folks taking some of their earlier planted soybeans and just a little bit of corn off.
Morgan Seger (02:15):
Yep. We've seen early beans coming off in our area and maybe one or two guys running corn, but really just, I think getting in there and testing to see where things are at.
John Fulton (02:24):
Morgan Seger (02:26):
We always say at our house that it's like Christmas; you're unwrapping your first present. And I think some people are really anxious to see what's out there this year.
John Fulton (02:35):
Well, I think given that each year is unique – we talk about that in farming all the time, that each year's unique – presents a learning opportunity. To your point, a lot of combines sitting outside shops as you drive down all the country roads. And so people are ready to go. I've seen a lot of grain bins being cleaned out, being prepped. And so I'd say everyone's looking forward to seeing what 2020 harvest looks like.
Morgan Seger (03:07):
Yeah, for sure. I was thinking about this this morning, and I don't want to jinx harvest, but it seems like 2020 growing season has been, in our part of the world, uneventful. Do you have any estimates or expectations for harvest?
John Fulton (03:22):
Traveling around, yield is going to be highly variable from county-to-county, in my view. There's some really good looking crops and then, as you know, some areas just did not get the rainfall, especially in July and part of August. It got really hot, really dry, so some of those crops are suffering. But I can tell you, when you do some of the looking at it, where are other states? I think Ohio is going to sit pretty decent on what we're able to take off this year for corn and soybeans.
Morgan Seger (03:57):
Yep. That's good news for us, but I know there are other parts of the country that were just totally devastated earlier. And I noticed as I traveled north, it looks like things were drying up a little bit more. Here and south of here, it looks like we got more timely rains in August, but we still went through some of that dry patch. So I'm anxious to see. I'm a horrible guess at soybean yield, so that one, I just wait for the combines. So when I think fall, I think football, pumpkins and yield data, like most people. And we painted our pumpkins, sounds like we're getting football back. So when it comes to yield data, can you help me walk through what you guys are doing to collect data, to round out that fall trifecta?
John Fulton (04:38):
Yeah, you bet. To your point, yields ultimately are our in-a-season report card. It's what everyone wants to understand and measure. And like we mentioned earlier, Morgan, that I think there's a lot of opportunity for farmers to learn from the season. We're having a lot of different types of springs these days. When you look back just the last three or four years, getting things planted when they're planted and then how some of these rains have evolved over the growing season. We've had some very unique, in my view, unique growing seasons.
So going back to the yield data, using yield monitors, making sure you're calibrating those, make sure they're set up. Some of the simple suggestions and making sure you're switching field names and collecting information along the way. We're very tuned to using apps for us. I've written about that a little bit recently in High Country Journal and stuff, but we like to not only... It's not only yield, but I think the really critical part is on a field-by-field basis, collecting enough information to understand what was that yield limiting factor and noting that.
That could be washouts from some of the spring rains, depending on when you got planted, to weed pressure. We've had some interesting weed pressure in some areas in my view. And some weeds crop up that I didn't think maybe would be an issue, but they were. But just noting that stuff and having that for what I call after the season, the replay, "Hey, I got this yield, on average for the field, but here's some things that really led to that either being a high performance field, an average field." To note those are very important in my book.
Morgan Seger (06:44):
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Last night, my husband and I were talking about yield data and he was like, "But what are people really doing with it?" And I was like, "I don't know. A lot of it never leaves the combine." But I like the thought of a) having your data move through apps and things so you can see it easier without having to physically move the data so much and put it in and out of different software. But also, if you're going to look for one thing, look for what your yield-limiting factor was. So it's a tangible thing to try to fix for the following year.
John Fulton (07:18):
That's right. And again, it's about learning and having that documentation verification and having that accessible, to me, post-harvest. A lot of things, at least from our perspective, it goes on during harvest. Even when I go out and with cooperating farmers and riding the combine, there's a lot of things that we view, we see. That includes the operation of combine, specifically the header.
How's the crop being engaged and lost, and trying to understand, "Was that a hybrid variety type influence on that?" To "Hey, we had treatments out there and we didn't expect that out of a treatment." But it's very notable when taking some... We take pictures and at least have that something that we can go back and, for us, to share back with the grower, to remember that. And for us to have as documentation, that there was a really positive or no, not so much of an expected outcome. But having some of those visual images to have and preserve has been very important for us.
Morgan Seger (08:29):
So when you think through the different treatments or hybrids and all of the different factors that go into looking at yield data, how do you separate what's actually causing a specific event or a change in your yield data?
John Fulton (08:45):
So there's a couple things. Number one is just whether as a farmer you're doing this yourself, or you're hiring someone, but the scouting information... Talk a lot about ground truth and so that comes through scouting. We use some imagery. I know a lot of companies today provide imagery, sometimes free if you're using their software platform. We tend to use a combination of imagery, but for us... For example, I was just looking at some imagery yesterday and again, it was all leading to understand and expect variability out in the field.
For us, we look at that imagery and I already, in my mind, I've already got some notes for a few fields to document and say, "I really need to look at this area and that area." I think I understand, but having both myself and the farmer there and the combine and mostly a lot of the growers have a guidance center combine. So it gives you, really, an opportunity to have that discussion while the combines, operating essentially autonomously to some degree in a cab. So we pinpoint some areas pre harvest that we want to really take a dive in and eventually look.
And sometimes it confirms what we already thought. And other times, like I was mentioning, I've a suspicion in a few fields not being there lately, that...we had some water drainage issues that we just didn't probably know about. And secondly, that some of the weed pressure that cropped up mid-, late-season – especially in soybeans – that may impact some of those areas and why we're seeing some differences in imagery.
Morgan Seger (10:26):
Gotcha. And maybe, if the growers listening weren't looking at the imagery throughout the growing season to proactively identify those spots, can they retroactively do that while they're sitting in the combine?
John Fulton (10:42):
They could. On some of these platforms, like I said, if they have accounts. There's a few platforms that serve up some of the remote sensing imagery, it just comes with your account. Now others will charge you for that. For us, there is that ability to, at times, to go back and look at some of the satellite imagery that... And it takes a few weeks to get access to it, but you could. Personally, what I would do for growers is really just sit down and document from the cab what they're seeing out of the combine and noting what areas those are and what they see as that yield-limiting factor for that area, or in other cases, we're going to have some really good corn in some fields that we already know about.
And we just want to confirm a few things on practices. We know some things we did differently in those areas, and we just want to make sure, as we go across, we're going to be looking at the yield monitor and saying, "That thing, we were pushing to have 280 bushel, for example, and we reached that goal or maybe exceeded that in a few areas, and we want to make sure we confirm those practices." And that's before we get out of the cab. We're doing that before we get out of the cab and create a yield map necessarily.
Morgan Seger (12:05):
Gotcha. So I think, as you talked about identifying the yield limiting areas, that's the low hanging fruit because those are usually a bit more obvious. What about those areas that surprise us? You're saying we were going for 250 or 280 and it went 290 or 300. How do we address those areas as we look to managing them down the road?
John Fulton (12:28):
A couple of things. When we look at corn, for example, a couple of inputs that I really hone in on is number one, what was our seeding rate, our planted population? And, at times, we will go back out after harvest and do a quick harvest stand count to make sure that we had planned for, let's say 36,000 in that area. We can confirm 34,500 to 35,000 actually. Was it there at harvest? But I look at seeding, rain, and I look at what our nitrogen plan was and how that was executed on those areas for the growers that we work with.
Because we're always trying new things. We're trying to think about placement. We think about rate. Those options to improve efficiencies, improve uptake by the plants. But when I think about those two things... I'll tell you, in a couple of cases, growers – and I'm not advocating or recommending for all – but we're pushing 40,000, 42,000 seeds potentially in some of these areas because there's a real yield potential. It's really good soil. It tends to not be droughty when we get into some of these dry periods that we've been living through in July and early August. So it can get through some of those periods. And so if you... You talked about it earlier, you hit some of those rains just right, boy that can really make you some yield.
And I know that's a high seeding rate, but you're pushing out 280 to 310 on a yield and some of that really can pay for itself. And we also, like I said, look at the nitrogen plan and what we need to be doing to be not only efficient, but make this yield when we plant some of those higher or we adjust some of those higher populations. So that's one example in corn where we've done adjustments on and increasing the seeding rate and we'll play a little bit with the nitrogen plan to make sure that that is meeting the yield potential or yield goal we've set for those areas.
Morgan Seger (14:33):
Okay. Sure. And is that in 30 inch rows that you're pushing the pops that high?
John Fulton (14:37):
Currently it is.
Morgan Seger (14:39):
John Fulton (14:39):
Currently is but, I'll tell you, we are in a current research mode of really looking at 15s, 20s and 30-inch. And, to your point, when you start pushing population, we'll just use 40 [thousand] as our seeded population a day or planted population of corn, that you're pushing plants together pretty tight. And for me, and this is John Fulton's opinion, that to me is where 20-inch rows can start to really make sense for someone here in Ohio, where we can get those seeds. We can get those plants back, separated out at a more manageable distance, so they're not competing. But when you get down to that five-ish inch between plants, the competition is really there. Nominally, depending on the research that you see, you want to be up there between six to seven inches between plants. So, that gets you back down in those lower mid thirties.
Morgan Seger (15:39):
Yeah, I know. We worked with a lot of growers that were changing their row spacing a couple of years ago, but I haven't heard as much talk about it lately. But I was polling some of the growers in our area on what they'd be interested in hearing on the podcast and row spacing and population was one of those things.
John Fulton (15:57):
Let us get our plots harvested and we can loop back. But do we consistently see a response, let's say, at 20-inch rows? My view and what we've preliminary starting to see, it's when you start pushing those higher populations, those 40-ish, give or take, and corn where 20-inch has more potential than maybe we've thought about in the past here in Ohio.
Morgan Seger (16:26):
Gotcha. Yeah. Well, I'm excited to see what you guys come up with. I know every year you guys put together a very comprehensive, large book of your data. Do you mind sharing what goes into that?
John Fulton (16:39):
You bet, yeah. Our E-Fields Report is one of our primary, I guess, outreach and Extension publications. Fact, we're hard at it today. We're covering a little over 30 counties this year. Again, we're just getting to harvest and there's a lot of things that can happen in terms of getting things reported. Maybe some things we don't expect and we don't get a report. But our E-Fields Report is going to probably document hopefully over 150 to 160 individual studies that we're doing on farms across the state of Ohio.
Morgan, I think we're at...I'm going to say Sam Custer is the Darke County Ohio State educator. He does a great job over there. And I'd say, he's going to have 10 plus studies just coming out of Darke County, ranging from seeding to some input studies to soil health, is a new area that we dove into. And we've got some folks that we've collected some data off of farms across Darke County to look at soil health under different management practices.
But that is really... We cover corn and soybeans very heavily. We talk about population as one of the more favorite studies that a lot of growers want to look at. We're working now into variable rate seeding in corn and soybeans, and we've taken a lot of those past studies and now work with growers and evaluating does variable rate work in some of the fields where variability is fairly high? So we're starting to be able to report on that as well. And so we're going to have a pretty diverse set of studies to report on this year.
Morgan Seger (18:24):
Gotcha. And as a grower, we appreciate that you guys are doing this because it makes it easy to just take a quick look at a topic that you are maybe having some questions about. But as we think of wrapping up harvest, how long does it usually take from when you harvest the plots to actually analyzing, processing and publishing this book?
John Fulton (18:47):
I can tell you in a tentative date, we will have the hard copy and electronic version published somewhere around January 8th of 2021. That is our date for having that available to everyone, including the hard copy, as I mentioned. In terms of getting data and getting it analyzed statistically so we can give statistical verification or verify that there wasn't treatment differences, that's normally, on average, probably three weeks to almost four months. Meaning we've got to get, not only the data, we've got to get it parsed into the treatments. We've got to get it loaded into Flare to do the analysis. And then we put the two-page, essentially each study gets roughly two pages devoted to it and then get that back out to the growers on January 8th.
Morgan Seger (19:40):
Gotcha. It's actually a pretty quick turnaround, if you look at how many different trials and stuff you're working through. And it's still giving time to look at the data and make changes or plans for the following season, but I can only imagine the statistics that go into verifying the data and making sure there's an actual change, since there are so many variables when you're dealing with Mother Nature.
John Fulton (20:03):
Yeah. And that's really our emphasis. For a study, we want to make sure it's replicated. We have sound data, and then that can be analyzed to have that learning experience for growers. I want to emphasize, these are on-farm trials, where they're a faculty to field specialists and our Extension system, which covers the state or a local educator – Sam Custer would be an example of a local one that really facilitates working with growers and trying to set up different tests. And I want to emphasize that for each field, what we really, really tend to hone in on are questions that farmers have.
So you mentioned row spacing as being one of those things that people are, I guess, interested and questioning and want more data. Again, we're starting down that avenue of being able to have results and being able to start to answer and at least give some information, some data back to growers to evaluate because you get to change row spacing, and it's just not a planter. That's a header potentially. And adjustments to some things, type of machinery, and if it's corn, it's a pretty significant investment. So I can understand wanting to ask questions, having good data before row spacing for a specific crop.
Morgan Seger (21:31):
Yep. That's what I was thinking too. Some of these trials are an easy change that growers can make as they're going through the fields in the spring. But when you're thinking of changing over your entire fleet of equipment, you definitely want to have good data going into those types of decisions.
John Fulton (21:47):
It's a commitment; it's a capital commitment and it's a risk. I understand that. That's an investment risk and our goal is to provide information and hopefully in some cases, even locally produced data for your Darke County farmers, farmers (where I live), to any county, but having some data locally, I think helps verify what may work or not work locally.
Morgan Seger (22:14):
Gotcha. Yep. And growers can go to digitalag.osu.edu to see the past editions of E-Fields? And I'm assuming that's where they'll go to see the 2020 data, as well.
John Fulton (22:27):
That's correct. So our first publication or report was in 2007. So, up to this point, all three reports are available in electronic version, but I will also state that if there's someone out there that would like a hard copy version of a report, they can get ahold of me or they can send an email to digitalag.osu.edu and say, "Hey could you send me a report?" And make sure they leave their name and address. And we're happy to send that out and get them in their hands too.
Morgan Seger (23:01):
Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that. And I appreciate you taking the time to join us on the show again. It's always fun catching up.
John Fulton (23:01):
Thanks, Morgan. Always a pleasure to be here.
Morgan Seger (23:11):
Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Precision Points. Like John said, all of the research that they are working on will be relayed to growers via the E-Fields Report. And you can get that at digitalag.osu.edu, and you can email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a hard copy. Don't forget to hit the subscribe button, so you don't miss an episode of Precision Points. If you like what you're hearing, please leave a rating and review. That information helps other growers find our information so we can continue to build out our network of grower-sourced reviews. Let's grow together.
Host: Morgan Seger
Morgan Seger grew up on a small farm in Northwest Ohio then studied agriculture at The Ohio State University. She spent ten 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: Dr. 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.