DO try this at home!
I have tremendous respect for our universities, Extension, NCRC and other public servants. Many of these folks work tirelessly to help farmers and the industry. Working in the seed industry for over 25 years, I have had the fortune to learn and work with many such folks when it comes to evaluating forage grasses and legumes. We utilize data from their work extensively.
However, their contribution has limitations – limitations that seem to be increasing, not decreasing. Shrinking budgets are killing many research programs.
While I want to support those programs as much as possible, I also want to invite you to become your own researcher and start a life-long practice of conducting on-farm trials. My hope is that this article will both inspire you and give you some guidance in this practice.
On-Farm Trials – What Are They?
Simply put, on-farm trials are intentionally planted plots of different plants or practices that you establish and manage on your own farm for the purpose of helping you make better decisions about new products and/or practices. While my examples and focus are comparing forage species and varieties, you can apply these same principles to fertilization and chemical use, as well as general management practices. On-farm trials can be as simple or as complex as you choose. The object of your trials will be to help you answer questions with minimal risk. Questions like:
"Is there something I can plant to give me better yields than what I am getting?"
"I hear a lot of talk about this new variety of clover. I wonder if it will survive on my farm?"
"How well do those new tall fescues do through summer?"
"All this talk about soil health. Should I be doing something different?"
"What would happen if I planted two weeks earlier, or even three?"
"If I use legumes instead of nitrogen, would I get the same yield?"
My First On-Farm Trial
With this in mind, let’s consider some real, practical and inexpensive ways to become our own evaluators. A couple of decades ago, I had a small hobby farm. One fall, I wanted to learn more about the differences and benefits of annual and perennial tetraploid ryegrasses. In this trial, I divided an acre into six strips and overseeded (Diagram 1). I planted each variety and a combination of the two separately, as well as a strip left untouched.
Cost? Three bags of seed and a couple hours on a Saturday.
Benefit? First, I added grass seeds that improved my pasture stand. This was of utmost, nonresearch importance, because my two young daughters had almost persuaded me to buy a horse and you know what they do to pastures!
Second, I was able to learn important answers (or at least partial answers) to questions like:
How much faster will annuals grow than perennials?
Will the combination of the two be better than either individually?
Will the animals prefer one over the other?
Does overseeding pay for itself or should I have done nothing at all?
Look at that last point again. It is a very important question. ALWAYS, if possible, keep some of your old pasture around to compare with the new. By evaluating the old against the new, you will be able to determine a great deal more than if you completely revamp the old.
Third, I committed myself mentally to checking my pasture frequently. Over and over again, I hear profitable farmers reminding one another to get out and walk their fields.
Well, in addition to the great direct value of seeing how your pastures are performing, I have discovered there are also what I call hidden benefits. For instance, one memory that sticks in my mind to this day happened when I went out one afternoon to examine my plots. While staring at my grass, one of my momma goats stole my attention. Soon, I found myself on all fours watching her vigorously graze on spring grass. Know what I discovered? I discovered she can really chomp up a storm! Of course, while I was down on all fours, her 10-day old kid kept trying to jump on my back! But then came another distraction and the greatest discovery of the day! I found a new place to hang a tree swing for my girls.
Back to my trials ... my curiosity on clovers and legumes gave me the incentive to add a twist to the test plots. You see, I wanted to evaluate particular varieties of ladino and red clover as well as birdsfoot trefoil. So around the first of March, I took the same area and cross-seeded as shown in Diagram 2, with a grand finale of a diagonal strip of fertilizer to cross all plots.
Cost? Oh, a few more small bags of seed.
Benefits? Same as the aforementioned with additional answers to these questions:
Which will come up fastest?
Will the mixtures be complementary?
Nitrogen benefit difference?
On-Farm Trial Fundamentals
I hope this example has whetted your appetite for on-farm trials. With that in mind, let’s go over some fundamentals.
1. Every year. The success of conducting your own trial will come over time. After your first year, you will be full of should-, could- and might-have conclusions. You will also probably have more questions than answers. But one of the most compelling reasons to conduct trials every year has to do with the term "validation." One dot on a page doesn’t make a line; and while you can draw a line between two dots, it takes three to make a trend. It’s the same with one year’s results – it’s just one year’s results. Repetition is necessary for validation. So start with a basic trial. The next year, if you want to confirm your results, plant them again. By doing so, you will learn a bit more about how temperature, moisture and seasonal patterns affect what you are evaluating. You will also be able to see if certain characteristics hold true from year to year.
The other reason is that it puts you in the mode of doing your own evaluation. It becomes a habit. You’ve allocated space on your farm and included it as part of the cost of doing business. This mindset and commitment puts you at the head of the line to be able to look at many other new varieties and practices.
2. Try again. This is similar to point #1, but a bit different. If something succeeds or if it fails, specifically repeat that planting, taking note of anything that may have been a factor that needs adjustment or could have contributed to its performance. Many times, we reach the wrong conclusions based on insufficient information. We see this as it relates to winter hardiness quite a bit, as one year’s winter weather can vary significantly to the next.
3. Multiple replications and locations. In the example, you will notice I had multiple replications of each entry. This is an important part of trialing. It helps take away some of the chances that one plot had more success or failure due to where it was situated in the plot. Maybe that plot received more or less water, or maybe there were residual chemical issues on that spot.
Furthermore, as you venture out into this new world of on-farm testing, you will likely want to look for multiple locations on your land where you can duplicate your trials ... high ground, low ground, dry area, wet areas, traffic, no traffic, high fertility, low fertility, etc. You might find, before doing your own testing, you made some conclusions about a certain species or variety based on a particular microclimate that doesn’t fully represent the potential of other parts of your farm. Share the journey with your neighbors. After your first trial or two, invite some fellow farmers to collaborate together.
4. Documentation. Make a map of what you planted. Include the date, pH, seeding rate, fertility and other information that will be important once the details fade from your memory. For me, that can be the next day! Then, over the course of time, take notes and photographs, especially as it relates to important times and events. With today’s smartphones, photos are already stamped with the time. I like to carry a small memo book around and note what I have taken photos of, and then edit the photo file names from my notes. You can also make photocopies of your map and scribble notes on the front or back of it. You won’t regret spending the time not only taking the notes but actually the time that you stop and make the observations for the notes. Mark the edges of each plot or strip containing a different treatment or crop with flags or stakes, along with measuring and recording the width of each.
5. Compare to the known. It is very likely you have certain varieties/species you’ve used for a number of years on your farm. You know how they perform. They are what we call a known variable or a check variety. You’ll want to plant this check variety as part of your trials. In a perennial application where most of your farm is already in the check variety, it is best to plant the check anew in the trial area. This way you will be able to evaluate their establishment rates side by side, how they go through the first summer and winter, take the first grazing/cutting, etc.
6. Maximize your trial space. On-farm trials can be as simple as planting one or two separate strips down the side of a field, or broadcasting a few square areas in multiple locations. They can also be maximized without much difficulty. In the example used, I started out with only three variables. Then by cross-seeding I ended up with a whole host of different plots. In that trial, I was able to see how each of the grasses performed compared to one another, how the legumes compared to one another, and how the combinations compared to each other.
In this article, we didn’t address the methodology for collecting and analyzing your results. For starters, your first on-farm trial may be no more than an observation trial. From there, you may find the need to learn how to submit forage samples and accurately determine yield. Those are topics for another day. In the meantime, don’t delay in starting your new journey. Pick a spot. Choose some questions you want to find answers to, and go for it! Also, see if anyone wants to join you. Ask your local seed dealer if they’d be willing to help you. Maybe your Extension office wants a place for a field day next year. Regardless, I hope you join me in this very fun and profitable way to learn.