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Research where it counts

Small-scale research helps these farmers win on the issues that matter most to their operations

How do you know your key crop production decisions are the right ones? You make these decisions every season — what varieties to plant, where to plant them, how to rotate them, what crop protection products to use and what sort of fertility package to apply.

They determine your farm’s productivity and profitability and over time will make the difference between success and failure. But too often, these decisions are basically a shot in the dark, having to be based more on instincts, guesstimates and watching your neighbour, when what you are really looking for is solid data.

In 1995, Carman, Man. farmer Brent VanKoughnet helped start Agri Skills, a consulting, training and field research company. Eventually, he bought the company and embedded it in his home farm operation.

As a result, he now uses precision agriculture tools and concepts to compare everything from new varieties to the efficacy of fungicides — comparisons that are meaningful to farm management decisions. The data he collects is useful in two ways. First, it increases the productivity and efficiency of VanKoughnet’s operation. Then, it also helps other growers, because VanKoughnet negotiates contracts with organizations such as grower groups to generate data of value to them.

VanKoughnet believes farmers often assume they are making the right farm management decisions, without having the data to back it up.

“If I put 120 pounds of nitrogen on a field and don’t compare that to 100 pounds or 150 pounds, how do I know that was the right choice at the end of the season? I think in some of the places where we’re spending a lot of money we’re making some fairly large assumptions that we’re doing it in the most profitable way,” says VanKoughnet.

There’s an obvious solution to this problem, according to VanKoughnet, and it requires growers to ask just one question: “If there’s some uncertainty when I’m making assumptions about input choices or variety choices, how can I use my own farm to give me evidence that one strategy worked better than another?”

Other growers across Canada are asking the same question. Franck Groeneweg, owner of Edgeley, Sask.-based Green Atlantic Farms, has conducted similar on-farm research trials for years, and has found that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

Man standing in front to crop.

“If we hadn’t tried it, we would have been skeptical that we could make it work,” Franck Groeneweg.

Groeneweg says that there is lots of research to consider, but if he feels he doesn’t have the right information about whether or not to implement something on the farm, he’ll give it a try on a small-scale basis.

Over the last several years, Groeneweg has grown faba beans over several acres, testing out the limitations of the crop and its marketing opportunities. He’s also done on-farm variety trials to determine if a promising new product fits their operation.

“This year we had a canola side-by-side trial with Bayer’s variety L140P, and it gave us the opportunity to assess (the variety),” Groeneweg says. “We do the majority of our acres in straight cuts, and by working with Bayer we have one year of information to see if that variety is a fit for our farm, with the equipment we use.”

Based on the results of the side-by-side trial, Groeneweg says that despite the price increase for this variety, it’s a good fit. “If we hadn’t tried it we would have been skeptical that we could make it work,” he says.

While one of the weak points of doing on-farm research trials like these is that it takes time away from everything else, Groeneweg says it’s worth it, not only because the results arrive more quickly than they would from a research station, but because the answers are anchored in his farm’s specific characteristics. “The added benefit of results that are pertinent to my farm gives me enough to take the plunge. But research is not always to figure out winners, it’s also to figure out losers,” Groeneweg says.

That clarity is worth something, because it can’t always be found in scientific research. One of the strengths — and weaknesses — of the scientific method is that researchers are frequently very reluctant to make definitive statements, favouring disclaimers and calls for more research.

Says Groeneweg: “Scientists will not say outright, ‘This was a loser of a trial.’ They’ll try to find a way to make it positive when they could serve farmers by saying, ‘This didn’t work. Absolutely do not do this on your farm.’ But that could save farmers a lot of money.”

From the Grainews website: Crop rotations and soil science

Unconventional trials

Colin Rosengren, of Midale, Sask., is one of “Three Farmers,” a small group of Saskatchewan growers who are “passionate about growing natural and healthy food and dedicated to providing that personal connection between consumers and producers.” On Rosengren Farms’ 5,000 acres, he experiments with intercropping using variable-rate technology across every field.

The basis of Three Farmers’ business is marketing camelina as a culinary oil, but Rosengren says they are expanding into other products.

Man standing beside farm implement.

“If you observe the fields for yourself, you’ll get a better understanding through detailed site-specific observation,” Colin Rosengren.

Rosengren Farms, he says, always has research trials underway. Most recently, they’ve experimented with intercropping with camelina and lentils, which has been successful. Camelina is disease-susceptible, which has a negative impact on yield. “By growing it with lentils, the mixture resulted in better disease control and improved yields,” says Rosengren.

Additionally, camelina can be difficult to harvest when grown on its own, because the pods break in half and the seeds are difficult to clean out. Harvested with lentils, the lentils themselves naturally clean the camelina pods out as the seeds are sifted together.

The other “two farmers” grew camelina on its own this year, but Rosengren grew all of his in an intercropped system. “I did all of mine intercropped, with the exception of some monoculture checks for comparison, so I took a bit of a risk,” Rosengren says. “But with our experience intercropping over the last eight to 10 years I was confident it wouldn’t be a disaster — and it worked out better than we’d hoped.”

The key to on-farm research for Rosengren is that farmers are more successful when they are more invested in observing the conditions of each field. The first step for farmers hoping to begin their own on-farm research, he says, is to “make sure you get out of your truck and get off the approach and spend more time in the field making these observations.

“The yield monitor of trucks to the elevator is pretty crude, and awfully tough to prove,” Rosengren says. “But if you observe the fields for yourself, you’ll get a better understanding through detailed site specific observation.”

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