Every farmer should be doing on-farm research

Allocate acres to help answer questions and solve problems.

Dry bean variety trials
Photo by Jim Isleib, MSU Extension.

Throughout the year, farmers listen to numerous agronomists, researches, economists, retailers, marketers and other farmers talk about the latest research, information and practices that can help their farms become more profitable. New products and practices are introduced in the marketplace every year, including crop protection products, crop nutrition materials, new seed genetics, seed treatments, biologicals, cover crops, application methods, seeding rates, software/hardware and the list can go on and on, each promising to improve your bottom line. They also come with a cost and, in some cases, risk.

When commodity prices are low and input costs steady, how can farmers determine what products might make a difference on their farms? Farmers often cite lack of good, unbiased research and information as one reason to be skeptical of new products or practices. Another reason is lack of local information on how they might work on their farm’s soils, climate, weather, topography and region of the country.

One way to get the questions answered on new products and practices is to conduct some level of on-farm research on your farm. You can gain considerable knowledge on how they might work in your own production systems. Every farmer should have at least one research or demonstration trial going on every year. Consider allocating a small percentage of acres to help answer a question, solve a problem or implement a practice you may be considering.

This can be done at different levels. You can keep it very simple by doing side-by side-strips—one strip with your current practice or product, one strip with the new practice or product. On-farm demonstrations or variety comparisons are another option. These are relatively simple, but just gives observational information, not the solid data needed for proper evaluation.

To get good information to make good management decisions, follow approved research methods. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) technical bulletin, “How to Conduct Research on Your Farm or Ranch,” suggests following a 10-step process that will help you develop a successful on-farm research project:

  1. Identify your research questions and objective.
  2. Develop a research hypothesis.
  3. Decide what you will measure and what data you will collect.
  4. Develop an experimental design.
  5. Choose the location and map out your field plots.
  6. Implement the project.
  7. Make observations and keep records throughout the season.
  8. Collect research data.
  9. Analyze the data.
  10. Interpret the data and draw conclusions.

On-farm research can help answer questions and allow you to assess new products and practices, but it does come with some drawbacks. It takes time and effort to plan and design a good research project at a time of year when time is a premium. Extra costs and plot management are also considerations. Even if the experiment fails, you can usually get some useful information for your efforts.

If on-farm research seems overwhelming, there are a number of resources where farmers can go for help. Extension educators, certified crop advisors, crop consultants and agribusinesses are good places to start. Michigan State University Extension or your state’s land-grant university have resources to guide you. The Soil Health Nexus has developed a toolbox with resources that includes bulletins and links that can be useful.

Making changes to your traditional production practices or adding a new product can be risky. Most farmers have production systems in place that have served them well over the years and even generations. Making good decisions depends on accurate information. On-farm research, on-farm demonstrations or variety comparisons can help farmers gather additional information to assist in the decision-making process.

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