By Matt Reese
It doesn’t take a scientist to understand the challenges of agricultural crop research. Different soil types, constantly changing weather patterns, different plant hybrids and varieties, and human/equipment error are just a handful of the vast number of variables in agricultural research that can make it difficult to find real, reliable answers to important crop production questions.
Replicated trials on small plots help account for the variability, but every farmer knows there is nothing more relevant than research conducted at the field scale on their farms, in their management systems, with their weather, and their soil types. Researchers know the value of these on-farm research efforts as well, and they are looking to do more in Ohio.
Paul Ralston in Hardin County has conducted his own research on his farm for several years to hone his production practices and was quick to start working with Ohio State University Extension researchers when he had the opportunity to participate in the eFields program.
“It has been pretty simple. It was research we were going to do anyway. We got some help from the good folks at Ohio State who helped implement it and keep track of all the records and such. It also gets it out to other people so they can find value and use the research too. It legitimizes the data that I produce on my farm,” Ralston said. “But just because it works on my farm doesn’t mean that it is going to work on everyone’s farm.”
The eFields program uses modern technology and information to conduct on-farm studies to help farmers and their advisors understand how new practices and techniques can improve farm profitability. Current projects are focused on precision nutrient management strategies and technologies to improve efficiency of fertilizer placement, enable on-farm evaluation, automate machine functionality, enhance placement of pesticides and seed, and to develop analytical tools for digital agriculture. OSU Extension has been ramping up these efforts and all of those on-farm projects are published in the annual eFields Report.
“Everyone needs to look at eFields as a guideline to start some research on your own personal farm and expand it from there. It provides help, equipment and expertise from others so you can find value not only on your farm but others can find value for their farms too,” Ralston said. “We’ve done a soybean population study and also a corn nitrogen timing study. The soybean population study was something that I had a challenge with. We have some very high organic matter soils that we have a hard time getting an average soybean yield on. We wanted to figure out where we could pick up some dollars there. We found that lowering our population and cutting back on seed is actually picking up bushels. Rather than getting vegetative growth we are getting more bean production. And as far as the nitrogen timing, that is something we were doing anyways.”
Looking forward, Ralston is considering other on-farm research projects.
“I’ve been really interested in sidedressing livestock manure. I don’t personally have any livestock, but I have neighbors always looking to manage their manure and apply it in the best way possible. With all of the regulations we see coming, making sure we are doing the right thing is really important,” Ralston said. “Finding good research and sticking with it is what we like to see. We are going to continue with these kinds of studies.”
Sam Custer is an Ohio State University Extension educator in Darke County and said each year of on-farm trials offers valuable insight because of the wide number of variables in the research from farm to farm and year to year.
“Agronomically, the first thing you have to look at is your soil pH and your nutrient levels. If you want to try this out, let me help you put together a randomized plot,” Custer said. “So many times we do side-by-sides and we don’t pick up the variance in our fields. Let’s put together a randomized plot. Let me help you do the research on some of these practices so you can prove it to yourself.”
Research on topics including disease treatment efficacy and seeding rates are valuable to look at each year in farm fields to watch for trends.
“We have been doing corn seeding rate trials in Darke County for years now. Over that period of time, 33,000 is probably the sweet spot for our county. In 2018 we had very good corn yields across the county. Economically, 30,000 came out as the sweet spot on three different corn seeding rate trials. It is the size of the check you take to the bank that I think is the most important,” Custer said. “We saw frogeye leaf spot pop up in Darke County the week of July 4. A lot of our farmers don’t realize that one lesion in 25 feet of row in our soybeans can affect yield. We found that early and sprayed it and got a great economic return on that application. Even on the soybeans that are resistant, the economic response to them was even higher than those that were not resistant. Across the state, south of U.S. Route 36 was that cutoff of where it paid for itself. North of 36, if you sprayed fields that didn’t have frogeye, don’t expect a return.
“We are seeing seeding rates for soybeans coming down. In 2018 there was no significant difference in seeding rates from 80,000 up to 240,000. Remember the year we had though, almost every soybean germinated and had a viable plant at harvest. We don’t always have that. A lot of times we get an 80% germination rate so I’m not ready to tell anyone to go to 80,000. Around 130,000 seems to be the sweet spot in Darke County, but in the future we are going to start looking at some lower rates to see how low we can go.”
And while, eFields on-farm research can be very valuable in making farm decisions, the specifics need to be carefully considered as well.
“With nitrogen rates, for example, it was interesting in 2018. With the ample rain we got in most of the state, we thought that it might push that N rate calculator we use a little bit, but the numbers were still right on. So we are really confident in what we have been sharing and advising people to do with those rates,” Custer said. “But before you take a look at the document and make major management changes, you need to remember a lot of this is single year data and we had an unusual year with lots of rain in 2018. Keep that in mind. We looked at 2X2X2 placement, for example, and what we found in 2018 was no significant difference of 2X2X2 versus a typical 2X2 application. That is only one year of data.”
There are more eFields projects already underway for the third year of the program in 2019 and Ohio State University is looking to further expand its on-farm research efforts with interested participants, said Elizabeth Hawkins, a field specialist with Ohio State University Extension.
“Our goal with eFields is to bring local results to farmers in Ohio. Farmers identify with seeing research results as they play out on their individual farms. It gives them the opportunity to test different practices that they maybe have been thinking about incorporating on their farms. They can get a better idea of how they will work and whether they will pay off,” Hawkins said. “We saw a need to do a better job of standardizing some of our Extension protocols around the state and then communicating those results more broadly. We have seen tremendous growth and excitement around this program. We are seeing more farmers getting involved and learning together with Extension. I think it is a great movement. From year one to year two we doubled the number of trials in Ohio and we are already seeing growth moving into 2019.”
Farmers interested in cooperating with an on-farm Extension research project in 2019 or in the future should contact the local county Extension educator. A hard copy of the 2018 Report is available for free at county Extension offices and online at https://digitalag.osu.edu/efields.