Trial By Farm

The benefits of on-farm research multiply when growers collaborate on trials and then pool their results.

By Debbie Clayton & Marilyn Cummins | Photos By © / NolanBerg11 and Darren Goebel

With all the new technology, genetics, farm equipment, crop-protection products and agronomic methods available today, which should you choose? How do you know what will work best on your farm before you make an investment or change up your agronomic practices?

These days, more growers than ever look for answers by conducting research on their own farms, aided now by precision technology, says Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension corn specialist. He and his colleagues manage field-scale nitrogen and seeding-rate corn yield trials as part of Purdue Collaborative On-Farm Research.

“Today’s GPS-enabled farming technologies greatly simplify the logistics of conducting on-farm trials,” Nielsen says. “With variable-rate controls, we can do the layout of strips for a population trial on the computer, convert it to a prescription and give it to the farmer to upload. Then, all he does is plant, since the logistical headache of different rates is taken care of in the background.

“As a researcher, that’s been the beauty of the technology. It’s allowed me to reach out to farmers and offer them usually a very painless way to get involved with this.”

On-Farm Research Benefits

Nielsen says both growers and professional researchers benefit from conducting field-scale, on-farm research, especially with common protocols. “I’ve always felt that the power of on-farm research is that ability to get a lot of people doing the same kind of trial over a number of years, so that you can build a large enough database to actually draw some inferences from,” he says. “When we’re doing this kind of agronomic work, we try to do these trials under as many different weather conditions as we can, because that’s often what really determines the consistency or reliability of crop response to treatments.”

For their part, participating farmers not only benefit from having early access to the results and applying trials to their own acreage, but they also better understand the research process and can feel “they’re contributing to the greater good,” Nielsen says. “You’re part of a team of people trying to figure out a question for your region or state.” Most of all, he’s had grower-cooperators tell him over the years that they’ve become more discerning thinkers and consumers of information. “I think they simply become better farmers, because they learn to think a little more critically.”

Join A Network

Several states offer on-farm research programs that assist growers and aggregate results, such as the Missouri Strip Trial Program and the University of Nebraska’s On-Farm Research Network. Last year, Ohio State University also launched its eFields program to advance production agriculture through field-scale research on farms.

“Through eFields, we hope to provide a mineable database that will help propel research and answer questions that matter to farmers,” says Elizabeth Hawkins, OSU assistant professor and Extension field specialist in agronomic systems. “But we also plan to dig into issues that are very impactful—like how do we improve fertilizer efficiency and reduce water-quality impact, which are huge concerns in Ohio.”

OSU analyzes and shares the on-farm research results as quickly as possible. About two months after harvest, findings from 39 on-farm trials on 3,000 acres in 13 counties were published in the 100-page 2017 eFields Report online ( and in printed form.

University-led on-farm trials aren’t the only way farmers collaborate on research. More and more producer organizations and cooperatives work with their farmer members to coordinate on-farm research and then analyze and publish aggregated results, as do some seed companies with their customers.

Within the Iowa Soybean Association’s On-Farm Network, growers can sign up for trial projects ranging from the value of tillage in soybean production to a soybean seeding-rate study. Starting about 10 years ago, the National Corn Growers Association set up the farmer-led Soil Health Partnership (SHP) across 12 Corn Belt states. With its partners and scientific advisers, the SHP provides research protocols and connects a network of demonstration farms to measure and advance progressive farming practices.

New Institute Tests Farming Practices, Showcases Technology

As a major expansion of the AGCO® on-farm Crop Tour™ plot program, Precision Planting® LLC is blazing trails in equipment and agronomic research with its new Precision Technology Institute (PTI) in Pontiac, Illinois.

The vision of Jason Webster, commercial agronomist with Precision Planting, the PTI research farm sits on 200 acres northeast of Peoria. A testing ground for equipment, technology and agronomics, PTI runs trials on concepts such as down force, fertility, multi-genetic planting, high-speed planting and singulation in more than 50 active test plots.

The central Illinois location, right off Interstate Highway 55, makes PTI easily accessible to farmers across the Corn Belt. In 2018, weekly farmer tours were scheduled from late June through early September. In addition, the mobile PTI semitrailer classroom delivered agronomic education both at the institute’s permanent site and at events throughout the Midwest.

“I’ve done my own on-farm research for 20 years, trying to challenge the status quo,” says Webster, whose family farm is located near PTI. “We often get stuck in a rut doing things the way we’ve always done them. On-farm research is all about finding better ways to farm, better ways to increase yields and better ways to make money.”

Test-Drive Equipment In The PTI “Sandbox”

Frustrated as a farmer at not being able to “test-drive” equipment like planters and other pull-type tools, Webster conceived the idea of the Ride ’N’ Drive area, a 40-acre plot at the PTI farm that will be kept unplanted. “Farmers can try out White Planters,™ Sunflower® tillage equipment and Challenger® and Fendt® tractors on a large-scale basis,” he adds, recreating planting time all season long. “Here they can touch it, feel it, drive it and experience it before they buy it.”

High-speed planting is one of the principal trials at PTI. “We’ve always been told to drive slowly to plant,” says Webster. “But with new technology, such as Precision Planting SpeedTube,® you can go faster and get more done in a day. The beauty of PTI is that growers can simulate planting at high speeds in the Sandbox, then go out to the fields to see the results. This year they saw firsthand how it affects singulation, spacing and stands.”

On-farm research can be challenging, notes Bryce Baker, integrated marketing manager for Precision Planting. “Planting right, harvesting on time and getting accurate yield data can be very tricky,” says Baker, who is intricately involved with the PTI trials. “We’re able to plant more than 100-foot strips in a field at PTI. Here, we have dedicated employees who make sure crops get planted correctly, care for them throughout the season and harvest properly. We’re able to keep accuracy levels very high.”

“It’s important to note that our trials are not just about increasing yields,” says Webster. “Yes, we need to improve yields, but we also need to increase profitability. Every trial has a side-by-side control plot for comparison. We show yield results, as well as dollar return or loss.”

When it comes to why AGCO and Precision Planting invest in robust and very public test-plot programs, Webster says: “We can show equipment all day long, but if we don’t teach the agronomics along with it, we’re not truly helping our customers.”

Results from 2018 PTI trials are available on the PTI website ( this fall. Most trials will continue next year and beyond to show consistent data replication.