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Going big with on-farm research

The plots may be supersized, but the questions that privately owned Agritruth Research looks to answer could have come from any farmer in Western Canada

If you go driving down Highway 110 east of Brandon, Man., you probably won’t notice you’re passing a research farm. There are no chemical or seed company signs dotting the field edge, nor any grids of those tiny, distinct plots that are normally a dead giveaway that agricultural research is underway. There is no small-batch equipment either. The combines here are full-size, and the machines parked onsite wouldn’t be out of place on any farm in Western Canada. The only clue is the sign reading Agritruth Research.

Co-founder Adam Gurr says that’s exactly the point. “There’s definitely a fit for on-farm research within the whole research community,” he says. “I think sometimes there may be somebody who’s grown up and only ever done small-plot research. They can’t necessarily comprehend that there are differences on a field scale, or maybe see some of the benefits of doing some of these things on a field scale.”

In the two years since its launch, Agritruth Research has expanded into increasingly complex questions spurred both by industry and customer feedback, but it began with Gurr’s own need for data. A trained agronomist who has almost completed his master’s degree, Gurr wanted more concrete answers on farm management. What was the best balance between seed cost and yield? Could he save money with a lower seeding rate while maintaining profit? What kind of nutrient application would work best on his specific farm?

The solution, he decided, was to start trials himself.

Alongside his father Barry, and brother-in-law Stephen Vajdik, Gurr began planning multi-year, field-scale studies, using randomized plot plans and replicated experiments to enhance accuracy. Results were run through statistical and economic analysis to determine any meaningful implication for farming.

Stephen Vajdik examines this year’s Agritruth Research wheat trials.
photo: Alexis Stockford

The research caught the eye of other producers and researchers in Manitoba. The three partners were soon fielding requests for their results, eventually leading them to officially found their research company.

“We were doing a lot of on-farm research as it was and we just thought that this would be a way to deliver that data to interested parties and potentially generate some revenue off of it,” Gurr says. “There wasn’t anything really like that out there.”

In 2015, after a long line of test runs and user feedback, the company launched the Agritruth website, including data dating back to 2012, although 2015-16 results come with a $500 price tag for full membership.

Saving on seed

Some of the farm’s first studies, those spurred by Gurr’s curiosity on seeding rates, found more profit with less seed. In 2012, canola seeded at 2.5 pounds per acre yielded 39.4 bushels per acre, only slightly below the 40.1 and 40.6 bushel-per-acre yields at four and 5.5 pounds per acre, respectively. In contrast, cost per acre fell to $27.50 at the lowest seeding rate compared to $44 at four pounds per acre and $60.50 at the highest seeding rate. The yield gap widened in 2013, with crop seeded at 2.5 pounds per acre yielding 59.5 bushels per acre. Fields seeded at four and 5.5 pounds per acre yielded 63.1 bushels per acre and 63.7 bushels per acre, respectively.

A similar 2013 test in soybeans found that 210,000 seeds per acre at planting averaged $22.50 less profit per acre than a crop planted at a 170,000 seeding rate.

However, the trial noted, though, that weeds were harder to control at lower seeding rates.

That same year, Agritruth tested the commonly held concern that high speeds at seeding might have an impact on canola yield. The resulting trials found little difference between seeding at 4.5 and six miles per hour.

Other research has called yield monitor accuracy into question. The company compared 250 loads of canola on both a grain scale and a yield monitor.

“There was no correlation between what we were dumping on the grain cart scale and what we were recording on the yield monitor for canola, so how could you use that to measure results of a research trial? You’re just going to end up making bad decisions,” Gurr says.

More recently, Agritruth has turned its gaze to nitrogen management in both canola and wheat. This year’s plots compare enhanced-efficiency fertilizers to regular side-banded urea, as well as testing split applications and location of fertilizer (e.g. side and top dressed).

“After the first year, it looked like there was maybe potential for split applications and enhanced-efficiency fertilizers in canola, but we didn’t really see a response in wheat,” Gurr says.

The nitrogen trials will return for one more year next season.

By popular demand, the company has also teamed up with Marla Riekman, a land use specialist and soil health expert with Manitoba Agriculture, to put cover crops to the test this year.

Provincial land use specialist Marla Riekman (r) takes a soil sample, part of new cover crop testing at Agritruth’s home site east of Brandon, Man.
photo: Alexis Stockford

Other recent Agritruth trials include pod shatter variety trials in can­ola, early-maturing soybeans, Canada Northern Hard Red wheat and wheat fungicides.

Putting Ag products under the microscope

Products such as Proline, PollinAID, and Agrotain have increasingly found themselves put to the test as Agritruth expands further into product testing.

“There are a lot of products that get brought out to market and it’s hard to test them all,” Vajdik says.

Looser regulations have also contributed to that shift, both Gurr and Vajdik say.

As of April 26, 2013, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency backed down on monitoring fertilizer quality, so it would no longer verify product performance. Instead, the agency announced, products would be assessed only on safety.

The result, Gurr and Vajdik note, is that while many effective products are released every year, ineffective ones may also find their way onto the shelves.

Agritruth’s product testing has earned them a role as third-party research and companies have tapped the company to test their products independently. Contract research makes up an increasing part of Agritruth’s research and owners have indicated they would like to expand contract research even more.

“I think we’re able to fit a certain market where industry is looking to have questions answered, but there might not be funding,” Vajdik says. “Because we’re private, we’re able to fund our own research and answer questions that might be financially unanswerable for other people.”

A second voice for on-farm research

Lori-Ann Kaminski, research manager with the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association, describes Agritruth’s work as “amazing.”

“It’s a very, very strong program,” she says. “He has a particular approach because of the equipment he has that maybe doesn’t apply to other farmers, but other farmers can do it with their equipment.”

All of Agritruth’s trials use RTK-guided equipment and Gurr has spoken positively on the potential of controlled-traffic agriculture.

Kaminski is no stranger to on-farm field-scale research.

The Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association has invested in a list of on-farm projects in recent years, often paired with smaller plot-based studies.

One such study targets fusarium risk. The $10,000 project will re-evaluate Manitoba’s fusarium risk model in both wheat and barley and hopes to hone in on ideal fungicide application timing.

The association completed another on-farm project last year, testing nitrogen management in high-yielding and high-protein wheat. The almost $78,000 project tested three nitrogen management systems on 30 farms.

“Plot scale is great for those kind of detailed questions where you need to control the statistics quite a bit, or you have a number of interactions that you’re trying to understand and so you need a lot of replicates,” Kaminski says. “On-farm, or field-scale, is better for questions where it’s either an either/or kind of a question or a new practice versus what you’re normally doing.”

On-farm research also uses a farm’s own equipment, allowing more farm-specific study, she says.

“It’s not one is better than the other, but one is better at a different kind of question,” she says. “On-farm research done well has so much strength in statistics in comparison to a small plot where one small anomaly can throw your statistics off.”

Gurr has also noted the lack of volatility in his studies. The mathematically larger sample evens out outliers while also emphasizing any differences that occur throughout the test area.

“I think some of the researchers that we’ve worked with have been astounded at how consistently low our variability is,” he says. “If there is a treatment effect, we have a high probability of picking it up on a field scale. Sometimes, what might happen on a small plot is that small plot research trials are conducted and there’s too much variability within that that trial.”

Do-it-yourself research

A full Agritruth membership will allow farmers to do their own on-farm research later this year, Gurr says. The company is preparing an updated website, including an interactive on-farm research tool.

The tool will allow members to customize crop type, number of replicates, analyze results, explore economic benefits and costs and provide a randomized plot plan.

“That’s definitely something where we thought maybe there was a need for a tool like that because the average farmer or even agronomist… really doesn’t understand why you need to replicate or why you have randomized plot plans and why you statistically analyze,” Gurr says.

Kaminski warns, however, that overambitious producers may unintentionally overcomplicate trials, making it harder to get accurate results, or overload themselves with complicated measurements come harvest when time is at a premium.

“Make it simple,” she advises. “That’s not a comment on anybody’s skill, but it’s a comment on how to get the strongest statistics you can get and how to be very certain of your results. Don’t confound your question with a lot of different possibilities.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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