Read the current Progressive Forage digital edition
advertisement

The do’s and don’ts of setting up farm trials

Contributed by Brent Jones Published on 06 August 2020

Cover crop consultant David Kleinschmidt discusses key factors producers need to consider before setting up a trial and what data to collect.

Throughout his career, Kleinschmidt has helped countless agricultural producers in his position with Understanding Ag. The consultancy group specializes in helping all sectors of agriculture adopt regenerative practices throughout Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

Cover crops are integral to Kleinschmidt's work of improving soil health and growing conditions for a more holistic and profitable approach to farming. One recent example that comes to mind is helping a corn producer reduce input costs by $45 per acre while only giving up a 5 bushel per acre yield. When pinning the reduction of the input costs against the yield, the profit margin on the new approach was significantly greater than chasing after yield. And, this was without configuring the production benefits the improved soil status would have long term.

Farm trials are an integral part of Kleinschmidt’s work to identify what species work in specific environments and what unique benefits they provide. To conduct a successful farm trial:

1. Identify your goals – Before any trial work begins, Kleinschmidt says it is essential that all members of the business sit down and decide what goals they are trying to achieve with cover crops and specific practices. Having everyone on the same page as to what the priorities are can be the difference between a successful trial and a failure. Once everyone has similar priorities, trials need to be set up to specifically meet those goals.

2. Identify testing areas – Farm trials need to be done on land that is representative of the entire farm, so it is applicable large scale. Kleinschmidt says this should be 10% of the entire farm’s acreage, conducted on average land. He has seen producers take poor land out of production to use for trials, which automatically sets them up for failure. If possible, the land should be split in the same field for improved visual comparisons and more equality in growing conditions.

3. Keep an eye on multiple data points – While producers need to be collecting data based on their goals, they also need to be keeping an eye on what else is happening in the plot. If they’ve set the trial up for grazing, for example, they need to make note of how this impacts any other challenges the farm may have, such as water holding capacity’s impact on erosion. Comparing the different interactions will help determine if the trialed practice is going to benefit the system or elevate smaller issues.

4. Soil test and then test again – Aside from the standard suite of performance data producers should be collecting – such as maturity dates, yield and required inputs – Kleinschmidt is a staunch proponent of soil testing at multiple points throughout the trials. Prior to starting the trial, samples are sent to the lab for a Haney Test to assess total organic carbon, microbial biomass and mineralizable nitrogen. He also sends samples in for a PLFA (phospholipid fatty acids) test to determine proportions of microbial types. All these factors are representative of the soil’s overall health.

Mid-season, a 3-by-3-foot square of biomass is removed and sent to the lab to understand the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and to look at the nutrient uptake each species is bringing to the table.

Later in the season, and 30 days after termination, the same 3-by-3-foot square from the previously sampled ground is removed to compare results. At each of these steps, another Haney Test and PLFA are conducted to see how the different plots impacted soil microbes and nutrient uptake.

5. Keep an eye on variables – While variables are unavoidable, data makes them easier to weigh. When starting a trial, record data on the previous crop, including yield, inputs and when they were applied and any known soil health and moisture measurements.

To accurately determine how a plot is performing, Kleinschmidt advises trials be repeated for at least three years in the same fields. Within all the data collected, weather events should be tracked to pinpoint how they impacted each crop.

6. If necessary, continue trials before scaling it into practice – Three years of collecting data will give hard evidence if a practice is working or not, but sometimes only one or two are needed. If a trial goes well and a producer is confident it will integrate well broad-scale, Kleinschmidt says to go ahead and start implementing it into production. On the flip side, if things haven’t gone exactly as hoped, but it is showing potential, tweak the trial as necessary and continue collecting data on it.

7. A “failed” trial doesn’t mean it was a failure – It’s important to realize that cover crops are not the silver bullet to everything, and just because a practice worked for someone else doesn’t mean that it will necessarily work for you in the same way. And, when it comes to a trial “failure,” Kleinschmidt stresses that context is everything.

First off, if trialing a practice that someone else had good results with, or even a neighbor is seeing success with, it is important to understand what that person did and how it fits into his or her operation. Trying what others have is a good way to learn about new applications, but it must be adjusted to fit your unique environment, goals and business needs.

Secondly, go back through the data to understand why it failed. Should you have gone with a different variety? Were there significant weather events that stressed the crops out? Before scrapping it altogether, go back through the data and identify where adjustments can be made, and then try again.

Getting trial ideas

Without a doubt, dedicating resources to cover crop trials is an effective way to integrate new applications into your business and optimize achievable benefits.

Recently, Go Seed launched the Cover Crop Information Map to centralize hundreds of pieces of industry research and farm trial data into one location. Here, users can access raw data on more than 26 different topics of research in a specific geographical location. As Kleinschmidt mentioned in his last point, this raw data can give producers more context to the research, allowing them to adapt practices to their own unique challenges, thus allowing them to reach their own goals more effectively.  end mark

This article orginally appeared in Cover Crop Corner, August 2020.

PHOTO: The first priority to setting up a successful cover crop trial is for all members of the business to agree on what goals they are trying to achieve and specific practices they are willing to implement, says cover crop consultant David Kleinschmidt. Photo provided by David Kleinschmidt.

Brent Jones is the sales and Iowa research farm manager for Go Seed.

LATEST BLOG

LATEST NEWS