Test Plots Pave Unchartered Territory

Test Plots Pave Unchartered Territory

Born during the twilight of waning national investment in the Extension Service and when big data was barely a twinkle on the horizon, the Farm Journal Test Plots harnessed the drive Ken Ferrie and Charlene Finck had for independent, cutting-edge information. The pair believed it was paramount for farmers to have non-biased information to integrate modern technology into their operations with one goal in mind: increase profitability by improving yield in low-dollar corn days.

The Farm Journal Test Plots were established by today’s Editor Charlene Finck and Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. 

In the spring of 1991, they met by accident and before parting, the pair formed the Farm Journal Test Plots program as a vehicle to fill a critical void. Now, for more than 23 years, the one-of-a-kind effort continues to provide Farm Journal readers—and the agriculture industry—with unbiased, independent, cutting-edge, on-farm field tests where the end goal is data and knowledge rather than dollars or market share.

Kinze was the first to join our effort, but more than 190 companies have participated throughout the years.

The first test plot was developed out of frustration that the latest research on soybean row spacings was old enough to vote. From there, they began to build multiyear, field-sized plots to study machinery, technology and advanced agronomic practices. 

Everything is transparent in the plots. Here, Tom Evans with Great Plains and Ken Ferrie walk through in-field solutions.

The program quickly took root with cooperating farmers and machinery, seed, chemical and technology companies understanding the importance of relevant research, focused on farmer-first goals with zero commercial ties. Throughout the lifespan of the program, we’ve appreciated the participation of more than 190 companies that have joined efforts to harness the pioneering spirit of agriculture.

Our plot yields are recorded with calibrated yield monitors and verified with scale carts.

A cornerstone of the effort is that Ferrie and Associate Field Agronomist Missy Bauer don’t sell anything other than their knowledge. Yet, they, like farmers, understand crop production in a full-circle, real-life manner. They know machinery breaks, not everything goes according to plan and Mother Nature throws curveballs. They understand one factor influences another—and nothing matters if you don’t improve your yields, profitability and sustainability.

Missy Bauer and all those who help in the plots are meticulous with equipment setup.

The plot program runs on a zero budget, which means no money changes hands. No one pays and no one gets paid—including Ferrie, Bauer and the farmers who participate. All parties are motivated to learn and help take production agriculture to the next level. 

What started by happenstance quickly grew into a long-term effort and a new era in service-based agricultural journalism.

Tillage is one of more than a dozen production practices tested in the program. 

The collaborative effort and behind-the-scenes work to create high-tech data two decades ago is still intact. The magnitude and depth of data continue to expand and stay in lockstep with technology. 

The plot program follows strict protocols under the direction of Ferrie and Bauer. Extensive field history is assembled before planting, and time is spent before heading to the field to make sure all checks are in place. No detail is too small. 

Test Plots Director Aimee Cope works firsthand to execute field tests.

Crop monitoring is a priority throughout the growing season using normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) images and thermal images. A combination of aerial imagery and ground truthing allows the test plots team to scout and monitor diseases, insects and problem areas. 

At harvest, the grain from each plot is weighed to verify the accuracy of the calibrated yield monitor and make sure we have precise yield data. Ferrie and Bauer assemble and analyze all of the data and, regardless of the results, report bias-free agronomic information to our readers.


In 2014, Farm Journal and partners planted plots to study vertical tillage, variable-rate nitrogen and irrigation, starter fertilizer and more. The strength of the test plots lies in the fact that all parties have no alternative agenda. Rather, the overriding goal is to offer practical results to increase the knowledge and profitability of farmers.

The test plots will continue to deliver actionable, independent information that is not available from any other source. You can count that: 

  • Our test plots will always focus on what is best for you as a farmer; 
  • the information will always be completely independent; and 
  • our hands will always be in the dirt researching what’s best for serious ag production. 


    You Heard It First from the Farm Journal Test Plots

Since the beginning, the Farm Journal Test Plots program has served farmers and the industry by being the first to test cutting-edge agronomic practices and technologies. The highlights include: 

Soybean row spacing. Serving as the longest-running plot to date, the row spacing tests continue to find a significant yield response by lowering plant populations. The plots also identify how to tailor spacing to specific field needs.

Picket fence stands and photocopy plants. The plots help educate the industry on how to create the best seed environment to achieve uniform growth and development. 

Autosteer evolution. The plots tested the first auto-guidance steering system and, to this day, have studied every system in the industry. 

Vertical tillage. The first to coin the term “vertical tillage,” the plots demonstrate how to farm in a vertical format by first understanding uniform soil density. 

Carbon penalty. By understanding the carbon penalty, first taught to farmers by Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie, the plots show how to successfully achieve corn-on-corn and implement cover crops. 

To view a list of cooperating farmers, companies and photos of two decades of test plots effort, visit http://www.FarmJournal.com/test_plots


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