The interactions that bring information about the latest Kansas State University research to farmers who base production decisions on it often happen over a cup of coffee or while standing in a field.
"A lot of what we do is out in the field or in small group meetings — farmers talking with their neighbors to see what's going on," said Tom Maxwell, K-State agricultural Extension agent for Saline and Ottawa counties. "There's a lot of cross-pollination and a lot of information being shared — not only between K-State researchers and Extension people but also farmers telling K-State, 'Here's the problem we've experienced,' and they go back and do research on it."
Increasingly, thanks to modern GPS technology and yield monitors in combines, farmers are participating in the research themselves, providing localized data about yields and seed-planting rates and sharing it with other area growers, Maxwell told Kansas Agland.
Ignacio Ciampitti, K-State assistant professor in crop production and cropping systems, puts the data from combines into charts and graphs and helps farmers make sense of the numbers to determine their optimum grain yield and most profitable production practices, Maxwell said.
"It's really taken off," Maxwell said. "I think farmers are really interested to know what works best on their farms."
Justin Knopf, who farms in the Gypsum and Kipp areas, said he's participated in on-farm research with K-State for eight to 10 years, starting by using a wagon with weigh scales to calculate yields from soybean population trials. He said precision ag tools available now have made the process simpler.
"I think what we bring to the table are ideas and challenges, things we want to fine tune," Knopf said. "We've got the full resources of KSU research and the professionals there to design the experiments and make sure we're using sound methodology that will produce statistically sound information."
Knopf said it's helpful to have data from his own farm and farms in the area on which to base decisions.
"It's opening our eyes to things we didn't see before," said Matt Everhart, who raises diversified crops on a family farm southeast of Gypsum and has conducted on-farm research for K-State for three years. "There's always something to learn in agriculture. You'd think we had it all figured out by now, but we're far from it."
Everhart thinks on-farm research will lead to improved efficiency.
"If we saw something that made sense, we'd definitely change our practices," he said. "When everything's good, it doesn't matter as much, but in times that are tough, small efficiencies could make a difference."
Since commodity prices currently are low, farmers are having to weigh carefully decisions about costs versus benefits, Maxwell said.
"Farm incomes are way, way, way down from where they were," Maxwell said. "We're trying to help start the conversation about what we can do — cash rents, working with bankers on refinancing — and get farmers to thinking about how they're going to weather the storm because it's not going away any time soon."
Maxwell, who recently helped organize a daylong program in Salina on the "Top 10 Considerations for Navigating a Struggling Farm Economy," said part of the problem is the amount of grain that's been produced in recent years.
"We're sitting on a mountain of grain," Maxwell said. "If you drive around the countryside, particularly in western Kansas, there's wheat on the ground and milo on the ground. We've just done too good of a job of production, and all of a sudden, commodity prices are at their lowest in 10 to 15 years."
But Maxwell said that unlike during the 1980s farm crisis, when the combination of low grain prices and high interest rates caused many farmers to lose their farms and land values to plummet, at present, interest rates are low and land prices have stayed relatively firm.
"Farmers have some equity built up from those really good years from 2010 to 2014, so we kind of banked up a little ammunition to weather some storms," he said.
Maxwell said technology continues to transform agriculture. The cab of a new tractor or combine looks like the cockpit of a fighter jet, he said, and the farmer sitting in it can push a button and instantly know the moisture content, test weight and yield of the grain he is cutting. He said driverless tractors may be on the horizon.
"The days of, 'This is the way Dad used to do it' are long gone," Maxwell said. "Things have changed too rapidly to stay static."
Maxwell said satellite imagery that can show soil type differences under a growing crop in a whole field may already be making drones obsolete for that application. However, although images can show low-performing areas of a field, it still requires boots on the ground to figure out what the problem is, he said.
If it turns out the grain sorghum is being eaten by sugarcane aphids, or a stand of pigweed is strangling the crop planted in that area, K-State researchers are continuing to seek solutions, he said.
Maxwell said the aphids are a pest new to the area, having blown into Kansas for the first time about two years ago from the gulf states, where sugarcane is grown. The bugs have found milo to their liking and did significant damage last year to a crop that typically has been more profitable.
He said that although the Kansas Extension Service has received considerable information about the pest from Texas Extension, differences in temperature and grain sorghum hybrids mean some of the findings don't apply here.
"We're trying to extrapolate that data and deliver it to farmers here, but there are still a lot of unknowns," Maxwell said. "Some farmers sprayed last year. Some farmers didn't spray. Some farmers that sprayed had good milo. Some farmers that sprayed had poor milo. Some farmers that didn't spray had good milo. Some farmers that didn't spray had a train wreck. All this happened while we're experiencing really low commodity prices."
Maxwell said there's "no silver bullet" to control pigweed, which has become resistant to widely used herbicides like Roundup. He said chemicals that were in use 35 or 40 years ago are being evaluated, but they can't kill weeds taller than 3 or 4 inches, and the weeds can grow 2 inches a day.
"There's no new chemistry coming out from the chemical companies," he said. "Really, there's nothing."
Maxwell said farmers have been calling the Extension office asking where they can find a crew to hoe weeds in fields.
"You might see people out there pulling weeds after it rains, and you didn't see that 10 or 15 years ago," Maxwell said. "Roundup worked so well. We just didn't worry about weeds, but things have changed a lot, and very rapidly."