Precision ag technology is spurring a dramatic change in agricultural research. It’s replacing the time-consuming test plot techniques of the past — the marking flags, tape measures, weigh wagons, and grad students — with today’s automated computer files, variable-rate controllers, and yield monitors. These new tools are empowering growers to easily and economically generate the data that makes on-farm research a scientific reality.

“This new approach is a real game-changer,” says David Bullock, agricultural economist at the University of Illinois. “The future could see farmers conducting experiments on their fields as routinely as they now take soil samples. The result will be man- agement recommendations based on field data, rather than a ‘ruleof- thumb’ recommendation.”

Bullock is the leader of the Data-Intensive Farm Management Project (DIFM), a nine-state effort to scale-up and streamline on-farm research both across the country and around the world. Farmers participating in the project provide the DIFM team a shapefile of the field’s boundary, the field’s traffic pattern (A-B line), and a past file from the yield monitor.

“We determine the precision ag equipment the farmer has available and the research he’d like to do and then have our computer program design the experiment. The prescription file is then sent back to the farmer, or perhaps loaded directly into his controller, and he plants the field without interruption. After harvest, he provides data from the yield monitor for us to analyze and prepare a report,” adds Bullock.

Checkerboard plots. Bullock explains that this approach allows the design of very intensive experiments — typically resembling the checkerboard pattern of the soybean seeding rate study shown below. “Plots are generally 270 feet long with the width depending on the size of the farmer’s planter. With a 60-foot planter, plots could be about one-third acre in size, so we could put nearly 300 randomized and replicated plots on a 100-acre field. The resulting data allows for a more accurate management decision compared to results from a strip trial done in a neighboring county or state.”

The DIFM program (supported by the USDA-NIFA Agricultural and Food Research Initiative) was used to automatically design, install, and analyze hundreds of randomized and replicated seeding rate comparisons made on this 150-acre soybean field. Growers can participate in the program by contacting David Bullock at dsbulloc@illinois.edu.

Last year nearly 100 farmers from eight states and four countries participated in the DIFM project. Aurora, Nebraska, farmers Phil and John Christenson worked with University of Nebraska ag engineer Joe Luck to compare nitrogen rates in one of their irrigated cornfields. “We applied 33 pounds of nitrogen across the entire field, as part of our pre-plant and starter phosphate programs, and then tested four rates of additional nitrogen (0, 110, 150, 190, and 220 lbs/acre) applied as pre-plant NH3,” explains Phil. “The applications were made on 86 plots across the 65-acre field, without us having to get out of the tractor or combine cab,” adds John. “The results were analyzed at various corn and nitrogen prices. At $3.23 per bushel of corn and $.35 per pound of nitrogen, our optimum N rate was 177 pounds per acre at a resulting yield of 283 bushels per acre.”

The research showed the Christensons needed .625 pounds of nitrogen per bushel in addition to a soybean credit—a far cry from the ‘rule of thumb’ of 1.2 pounds per bushel that many growers have traditionally used. Bullock traced the origin of that ‘1.2o rule back to the 1960s and found it was based on a limited number of trials whose results were extrapolated to locations far outside the study area. “That happened because back then field research was costly and time-consuming, but that’s not the case with today’s precision ag technology. Studies are now easy to do, and they can make farmers more efficient while also protecting the environment.”

Low risk learning. The new era of on-farm research is already underway for customers of Premier Crop Systems (www.premiercrop.com). Mark Stelford, general manager of the Des Moines, Iowa, based precision ag data processing company, says they helped farmers and agronomists install and analyze the data from more than 3,000 on-farm trials last season.

“There’s a lot of interest from growers wanting to use precision agronomy to make better management decisions,” says Stelford. “Many have precision ag equipment, young farmers joining the operation know how to use it, and there’s more pressure to improve returns. So, the time is right to embrace on-farm trials in a much larger way.”

Premier Crop uses trademarked Learning Blocks (3 to 10-acre plots) to compare rates of seed, fertilizer, and other inputs within management zones. “Growers are often hesitant to do larger plots because of the risk of delays and reduced yields. We help by gearing technology to do all the work—they don’t even need to slow down planting or harvesting,” says Stelford.

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