How They Work: The Details Behind the Data

August 21, 2008 07:00 PM
Charlene Finck, Farm Journal Editor

For the past dozen years, we've written numerous stories on Farm Journal's Field Test program. While you've benefited from the results of our original research, you probably haven't realized what kind of behind-the-scenes details go into creating the data. Those details are paramount—they are the strength that sets our research results apart from other efforts.

The key to that strength is Farm Journal field agronomist Ken Ferrie and his crew at Crop-Tech Consulting. Ferrie and his team work tirelessly. They have no agenda, take no payments for producing objective data and have no monetary interest in the machines or products being tested. Data and knowledge rather than dollars are the end result.

I can see you shaking your head, thinking that's too good to be true. After a dozen harvests of data with this team, I can assure you they're the real deal. Ferrie sets the tone. He's principled, motivated to learn and attentive to detail, and has an unbelievably thorough understanding of crop production. He is a trained agronomist who has a strong background in fertility, soils, machinery, diseases, insects, chemistry and herbicides. Thankfully for us, Ferrie's mission matches ours. The way he conducts the Farm Journal Field Tests is what makes them so relevant to our readers.

For starters, each plot is a field on an actual farm. The crop is planted and harvested with full-scale equipment. This makes results more applicable to our readers. Although all our plots are planted in central Illinois, each is replicated at least three times at multiple farm locations. This not only strengthens the data but also widens the circle of soil types and insulates the plots from weather-related difficulties.

An extensive history is assembled for each field before it is selected as a plot. This history includes:
  • Soil types
  • Fertility and soil tests
  • Previous manure applications
  • Crop rotations
  • Past herbicide applications
  • Disease, insect and soybean cyst nematode pressure
  • Soil density
  • Yield records

Before planting, all equipment is checked for mechanical soundness and accuracy. Meters are set for the seed to be used and insecticide applicators are calibrated. No detail is too small.

Once set, the equipment is operated outside the plot—generally within the same field—to make sure everything is fine-tuned before the official planting begins. Companies participating in the plot have the opportunity to set and "bless” their equipment or product before the plot takes place. However, they do it under the watchful eye of Ferrie. If row spacings are a part of the plot or various planting technologies are being used, all mechanical factors that can impact yields are taken into account.

At planting, seeds are dug multiple times to ensure planter performance. The planting date, conditions, seed varieties and other variables are recorded. The plot is flagged, and a map of the field is drawn and filed.

When the crop comes up, emergence is monitored and multiple counts taken at various developmental stages. Throughout the season, the field is scouted for insects and disease. In nutrient-related plots, nitrate tests and tissue samples are taken. Rainfall and temperatures also are monitored and recorded.

Ear counts and final populations are tallied and recorded before harvest. Then each plot is harvested with a combine equipped with a calibrated yield monitor. The grain from each plot is also weighed—to verify the accuracy of the monitor and make sure we have accurate—rather than relative—yield data. Harvest losses are checked behind the combine.

During harvest, the yield results are ground truthed by Ferrie to determine the agronomic reasons behind yield fluctuations—and to document what has happened. When the yield monitor results are cross-checked with a scale, the data are analyzed by soil type or yield zone. Any corrupt data are cut out.

At that point, Ferrie assembles the mountains of data and analyzes it. Regardless of the results, his strength is telling it like it is. He definitely fits a Farm Journal adage: Tell me less of how it came to be and more about what it means to me. That describes Ferrie and the Farm Journal Field Test program.

You can e-mail Charlene Finck at  

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