On-Farm Research, Page 2
Hosting on-farm experiments often leads to valuable networking among participants. Vermont sheep producers studying the feasibility of finishing lambs on pasture rather than in feedlots gained momentum by interacting with one other, said Kate Duesterberg, who coordinated the SARE-funded project from the University of Vermont’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Producers conceived of the pasture project as one way to cut sheep production costs. They worked with researchers to record weight gains, evaluate forage quality and measure soil fertility.
Results showed a trend of increasing average daily weight gain each year as they perfected their pasture systems, partly achieved through their new network.
“The producers loved being able to get together to talk over the issues of raising a grass-based product and identify the questions they wanted to look at,” Duesterberg said. “It was up to us [researchers] to try to find out ways to systematically test those questions.”
Carrying out experiments on farms benefits scientists, too. Researchers can depend on farmers to bring practicality and problem-solving abilities to the research team.
For years, University of Maryland soil science researcher Ray Weil has worked with Pennsylvania farmer Steve Groff, whose Cedar Summit crop farm is about two hours away. Sampling soil on Groff’s farm is worth the trip, Weil said, because he can measure soil quality changes over time as Groff has honed his practices, such as no-till and growing winter cover crops.
Moreover, Groff has proved a real collaborator who lends a valuable perspective. One year, Weil sampled soil from six of Groff’s no-till fields and recorded his regular set of indicators, from bulk density to organic matter. Groff, however, saw an extra dimension. He re-arranged the data to reflect the number of years since the last tillage.
“Wouldn’t you know, the soil quality variables fell right into place,” Weil said. “The longer the field had been managed without tillage, the lower the bulk density and the greater organic matter and microbial activity. It made for some very nice graphs of a relationship that we would probably never have seen were it not for Steve’s keen observation and participation.”
How to Develop a Sound, Easy-to-Conduct Research Project
Whether you are seeking the best wheat variety for your soils or trying to determine a kill date to optimize nitrogen from a cover crop, on-farm research can be a useful tool for solving problems and answering questions about your production system. Farm-based experiments offer a practical way to test your ideas before you bet the farm on them.
“Farmers are great at coming up with ideas for research,” said Ken Schneider, North Central Region SARE’s program coordinator for field operations, who works closely with producer grant recipients.
“Who better than farmers or ranchers knows what will best suit their needs?”
Mike Roegge of the Western Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Society wanted to know the best time to kill a rye cover crop to improve corn yields. He used on-farm research to find the answer.
“We did this experiment because we heard conflicting reports of corn yield response after rye,” said Roegge. “The difference seemed to have something to do with the amount of time between when the rye is killed and when the corn is planted.”
As he developed his idea, Roegge found it helpful to talk with other farmers and collaborate with researchers at the University of Illinois. They helped him see his idea from a different perspective and boil it down into a viable research objective: to determine the effect of rye cover crop kill date on the yield of the following corn crop.
Great research begins with a great idea. Put your imagination to work as you ponder day-to-day management problems. Your first task is to state a clear objective, which will depend on what you want to gain from your research. It might sound like one of the following:
to determine if a legume cover crop will supply enough nitrogen to meet the needs of subsequent cash crops;
to learn if cattle will gain more on an improved grass mix versus the existing pasture; or
to learn if marketing value-added farm products over the Internet will increase profits.
Be specific about what you will test – such as nitrogen rate, improved grass mix or marketing methods. Also, plan how you will measure those effects – such as yield, weight gain, or profitability.
While your intuition and experience might provide most answers to your questions, good research includes measurements as well as observations. Before setting up your test, consider what questions you want answered. Can you measure them accurately on your farm or ranch?
The type of project – be it crops, livestock or marketing – will dictate project design. Assistance with designing your project is key. Find someone at your county extension office or land grant university with experience in setting up and conducting research on farms who wants to be a collaborator.
If you cannot find an experienced helper, see page 12 for a list of guidebooks and farmer research networks. A mistake at this stage can render your data misleading or unusable.
Whether you are making the transition to another production system, fine-tuning your pest management or fertility programs, or testing a new marketing strategy, conducting research will require time and energy. Choose one or two simple hypotheses from your ideas that will yield the greatest return of practical information.
Page: 1 | 2