Two Decades of Data

December 10, 2011 12:19 AM
Two Decades of Data

Farm Journal Test Plot program marks anniversary and marches forward with new hands-on research efforts

T here’s no doubt that the way American farmers grow their crops has evolved in the past 20 years. Amid the change, the mission of the Farm Journal Test Plots has stayed the same: to provide third-party research to help farmers grow more bushels and improve overall profitability. This past fall, the program harvested its 20th year of data.

The plot effort is truly one-of-a-kind and includes partnerships between Farm Journal, our Field Agronomists Ken Ferrie and Missy Bauer, cooperating farmers across Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, and hundreds of test plot partner companies that provide machinery, technology, seed, chemicals and other products or services. Throughout the years, we also worked with many universities across the Midwest.

A secret to the success of the cutting edge, independent plot program is that no money changes hands. No one pays and no one gets paid. Data and knowledge rather than dollars are the important currency. The research findings are then shared through the pages of this magazine.

In 1991, Farm Journal machinery editor Charlene Finck (now the magazine’s editor) and independent agronomist Ken Ferrie decided to plant their first crop of plots to fill an agronomic information need.

"The test plots were born from frustration that I couldn’t find up-to-date data on soybean row spacings," Finck says. "Ken and I decided that farmers deserved data more current than 18 years old. I offered to pitch the idea to Jon Kinzenbaw because I knew if I could get Jon to agree to participate, others would follow. He quickly agreed, and a long-term effort took root."

Four plot partner companies who participated that first year—Kinze Manufacturing, Case IH, Great Plains Manufacturing and Yetter Corporation—are still involved today.

As time has gone on, the program has looked at many areas of study in corn and soybeans,
including: nitrogen management, soil density, row spacing, variable-rate technology, the payback for precision agriculture, fungicides, hybrid genetics, row cleaners, starter attachments, planter closing wheels and more. For three years, the test plots also included a corn silage study.

More work requires more helping hands. As the plot program grew, Ken expanded his crew, more farmers were recruited and hundreds of companies joined in. Farm Journal editor Darrell Smith became a fixture in the field, taking photos to document the studies. In 2006, I joined the Farm Journal team as plot director. Three years later, Missy Bauer joined as Associate Field Agronomist, operating from her headquarters in southern Michigan.

The depth of the data requires extensive field histories and close monitoring throughout the season. Plots are planted in cooperating farmers’ fields. Each area of study is replicated multiple times across the field, and each test plot is replicated in at least three locations to widen the circle of soil types and insulate the plots from weather-related difficulties. The efforts normally span at least three years, "We learn more from the failures than the successes," Ferrie says.

"Before GPS-mapped soil testing and our knowledge of today’s variability, we had to find a field with a large consistent area and run the plot there," Ferrie says. "Today, we can use the entire field, no matter the soil types or elevations."

The sizes of the plots have also changed. "In the beginning, a 20-acre plot was a big plot, and we were running six-row planters," Ferrie says. "Today’s average plot is 80 acres, and we have planters of all sizes."

Two Decades of Data   1
This snapshot is from the first test plot looking at soybean row spacing.

High-tech data offers value. The program has adapted precision technologies, and the crew has tested every GPS steering system platform that is on the market today. "Using GPS steering, we can plant all of the passes of a particular treatment, skipping areas in the field. Then we can make the changes needed to start the next treatment and go back and fill in those empty passes, and so on," Ferrie says.

With technologies such as changing populations on the go, farmers aren’t slowed down as much by our plot protocols. At the same time, more replications can be added as today’s software allows the agronomists to replicate the trials as many times as desired across the fields.

Early season stand counts are a task that hasn’t been automated. Depending on what variable is being studied, the test plot crew will make the required number of trips to the field to do stand counts and preharvest ear counts.

Each test plot is harvested with a calibrated yield monitor and also weighed with a calibrated scale cart. "Our first scale cart only held 110 bu. and was pulled with my pickup. We manually pulled moistures from every load with a moisture tester," Ferrie says. "Today, our carts are up to 1,000 bu. and the calibrated moisture sensor on the combine checks moisture levels every two seconds, giving us a more accurate moisture reading."

Technology not only simplifies the planting procedure but also provides layers of data. Using GPS-referenced yield maps, the crew can pull more data from fewer acres and study a single factor such as soil type, nitrogen, fungicide or population. Yield maps are used with Normalized Difference Vegatation Index (NDVI) maps and as-planted maps to get a full-season perspective of the plot.

"We can use the layers of data to nail down what’s going on," Ferrie says. "Before these technologies, if there was a yield swing in replications, we might just conclude that the plot was no good because the data was erratic. Now we can look at each layer of information individually and know if one of the layers is telling us that something is taking place."

Two Decades of Data   3
The test plots include the work of Farm Journal Associate Field Agronomist Missy Bauer, who is based in southern Michigan.

Accuracy reigns. Technology can be a useful tool, but the test plot crew has learned its limits. "When the yield monitor first came out, some people said we could get rid of our scale carts, but even when the yield monitor is calibrated for spatial variability, the scale cart is the most accurate," Ferrie explains.

The data from the plots has become invaluable to Ferrie as he answers questions from farmers. "I don’t feel comfortable making recommendations about a farming practice until I see it for myself," he says.

In reflecting on 20 years of test plot data, he says the biggest lessons have been learned in genetic performance, nitrogen and soil density. Moving forward, Ferrie and Bauer will continue to lead this effort to provide independent, third-party research to Farm Journal readers.

"I see the technology and practices we use in farming changing faster and faster," Ferrie says. "We’ve been able to generate 10 times more data than when we first started, and I think being able to learn more will help us stay on top of the latest in farming."

To further the mission of helping farmers grow better crops, the first Farm Journal Corn College event was launched in 2008. That series now includes events at Bauer’s headquarters, as well as Planter Clinics, Soybean College and Wheat College, which features agronomist Phil Needham.
As the decades roll by, our plot program will continue to evolve lockstep with farmers’ knowledge needs.

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