New trial analysis techniques and a desire by farmers to find out what works best in their farm situation are leading to an increasing number of farmer trials
Almost all farms do trials, for example, doing something different in one field from another, or between one tramline and another, however, in the absence of suitable analytical methods these results and the conclusions drawn from them can be unreliable.
But ADAS is developing new spatial and statistical approaches to help farmers to draw robust conclusions from these types of data – a science of field-scale cropping it has named ‘agronomics’.
ADAS head of crop performance, Professor Roger Sylvester-Bradley, says he is enthused by the interest shown in farmer trials. “There is a close connection between what they are doing and YEN [yield enhancement network] and agronomics.
“YEN encourages people to come up with ideas on how they can increase yield and compare the idea with what they normally do which leads naturally to wanting to do trials.”
The recently completed AHDB LearN project involved ADAS, NIAB, Agrii and CF working with 18 farms using simple tramline comparisons to assess the main causes of variability in N requirements aimed at making their N use more efficient.
“We have also just got a grant from EIP Agri – European money administered through Defra to encourage farm productivity – specifically for doing trials and hope to have done 48 trials by the end of 2019 involving farmers in YEN.
“At the moment we have a group of farmers who want to test amino acids as sprays and application of spring potash. There are also some wanting to look at fungicides and nutrients that will prolong flag leaf life.
“It helps to have a group of farmers. If you have six trials rather than one and they’ve all gone one way you can be more confident in the results than if you just have one trial. Very often the effects are quite small in the comparisons people are making so you need that extra level of confidence in the results.”
ADAS is about to publish a 20-page guide for farmers on how to do farmer trials, according to Prof Sylvester Bradley. “It is not straightforward. There is a process you need to go through – a lot do trials casually or even by mistake, such as a spray miss.
“To get a result that is useful you need to go through the whole process. Not only that you’ve posed a sensible question which will give you an answer that will be useful next year but also the need to look at fields hard. Look at Google maps to check which direction the normal yield variation goes in. If you are doing a trial, you need to put the strips with the different treatments across rather than along the natural line of variation.”
Harvesting method also requires thought, he adds. “If you’re doing controlled traffic that’s brilliant but if you have a header size that doesn’t match a half or a third of the spray width, harvesting is not that easy. There is no standard answer, but ADAS is gaining experience and can help.”
Currently, average yields need to be entered and processed through the appropriate software which requires considerable intervention by ADAS, says Prof Sylvester-Bradley. “At the moment, even if the farmer and adviser do all the work, getting the data from the combine to ADAS is no mean feat and it still costs a few hundred pounds for ADAS to do the analysis so the question has to be a question that is valuable to the farmer.
“My dream is it will become easier and easier for farmers to do these tests. Combine manufacturers will realise that they can help and will develop machinery and software that can be used to do comparisons with improved yield monitoring equipment.
“The farmer will just press a button for the fertiliser spreader, sprayer or drill giving information on 2-3 tramlines that have been treated differently and this will be recorded by the harvester automatically. Data will be able to be put through software, giving average yields and an estimate of background ‘noise’ – hence confidence in the result – without too much intervention.”
He expects such developments to happen in the next five years.
Farmer trials also have the potential to change the relationship between farmers and suppliers/advisers, says Prof Sylvester-Bradley. “If farmers and advisers can press a button to check advice on spray or fertiliser applications, or any claims being put to them by suppliers, the flow of knowledge between the farmer, adviser, supplier and scientist is reversed – putting the farmer in control, because he has the best evidence.”
So what of traditional plot-style randomised trials? “Agronomics won’t ever replace randomised trials. We will want to compare 40-50 wheat varieties for the Recommended List, for example, which we can only do with small plot trials but then we also really want to know which varieties are best suited to light or heavy land. For varieties with good seed supplies, we could drill strips on-farm to find out.”
GPS allows information on the latitude and longitude (position) of a measurement or trial area to be recorded with a time attached to it.
Prof Sylvester-Bradley says: “In the past, the relative position of a trial plot was lost and not included in the analysis so if you saw that there was a trend across the trial, that all became part of the unaccounted variation or error.
“In a situation where every bit of information has a position and time attached to it we are moving to a completely new world where the time and position of everything can be interrelated – a dramatic difference from the past, where that information was lost, to a future where it will become part of explaining everything.”
Other projects underway to help farmers conduct trials on their own farms include Innovative Farmers and the BASF Real Results Circle.
Innovative Farmers (IF) is a not for profit membership network, for farmers and growers who are running on farm trials, on their own terms.
It facilitates field labs – practical, hands-on trials open to everyone.
A group of farmers or growers come together around an idea. Sometimes they are an existing discussion or buying group, or at other times IF helps bring people together who care about the same topic.
IF helps them organise a ’kick-off’ meeting. This can be on farm or in the pub, with discussion centring on what the farmers would like to trial.
IF matches them with an appropriate researcher from the UK’s leading agricultural research institutions.
The researcher helps farmers to plan their trial and they decide together what data to record. As the trial develops farmers meet up, see how things are progressing and adapt if necessary.
At the end of the trial the researcher helps analyse findings. They are published online and in the press. Farmers can then use them to inform business decisions, or to plan another field lab.
Current IF arable trials underway include In-field variation within no-till systems; Alternative methods for terminating cover crops; Inter-cropping in arable systems; and Understanding soil analyses.
BASF’s Real Results Circle programme saw 50 farmers selected to take part in farmer trials in 2017 testing its Adexar (Xemium + epoxiconazole) and Librax (fluxapyroxad + metconazole) products against their choice of SDHI on their farm in order to discover the best wheat fungicide at T1 and T2. The agronomics approach was used.
Yield Enhancement Network
BASF Real Results Circle