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Conducting on-farm field trials

EAST LANSING, MI. — Now is a great time to reflect back on the 2021 growing season and think ahead to 2022 and crops, rotations, new products and technology. Farmers and farm technology are becoming more sophisticated.  More farmers are doing some kind of on-farm comparisons, demonstrations or even research.  

On-farm field trials can provide valuable information because the farmer is seeing what the results are on his own farm, soils, climate, management, equipment, etc.  On-farm research can help improve production efficiency, farm profitability and environmental stewardship.  There is no better place for doing field trials than the farm itself IF you are willing to take the time to do it right.

Whether replicated, randomized, research field trials, or simpler demonstration projects, these take the farmer’s time, land and equipment.  I am constantly amazed at the willingness of farmers to try something new or different because there is no guarantee that the idea or project will show a benefit.

Ideally a field size trial should be replicated at least four times with the new product or treatment compared to the “standard” product or treatment and only compares one thing at a time.  Four replications of a “new treatment” and four replications of no treatment mean harvesting eight separate times to measure the result of each replication.  Alternating between the treated and untreated strips is simpler to do, and acceptable, but not as good as a randomized order of treated and untreated strips.  Going across the entire field takes more time and costs more as well.  Farmers generally like field size plot projects as compared to much smaller university plots, which may be 5 feet wide and 17 feet long in size.

Field size trials should have as uniform of soils as possible and ideally be done across tile lines.  Stay away from field margins or otherwise “odd” spots in the field where perhaps there used to be buildings, for example.  Ideally the project should be conducted for more than one year to minimize any unusual weather of one particular year.

Soybean yield world-record farmer Kip Cullers has said he likes to try something new on ten acres by the house so you can look at it every day.  On-farm testing demonstrates how real factors such as different soil types, plant population and pests may affect a new practice, product or piece of equipment.

USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has funding of small grants for farmers to run on-farm experiments.  Farmer grants typically have run between $500 and $15,000.  Visit to download calls for proposals, check deadlines and learn about grant requirements.  I will be happy to work with farmers who have ideas of new products, practices or equipment.