With last year’s season completed and this year’s yet to begin, now is a natural time to reflect on your farm’s performance and how you can improve in the future. One way to make your decision-making process even better is by conducting your own on-farm research.
It’s a process the Hardwick brothers and Nick McMichen have gained tremendous value from using on their respective operations. Here they share how they got started, how they design their trials, and the tools and technologies they use to make it happen.
Universities Propel Start of On-Farm Research
Located in Tensas Parish, La., Mead and Marshall Hardwick have followed in their father’s footsteps with on-farm research for their 8,000-acre operation on their family’s 20,000-acre , Somerset Plantation.
It started when their parents returned to their mother’s family farm in the 1980s. Their father, Jay, was not a farmer, so he got involved with Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Ag Center to learn about agriculture, which eventually led to them conducting on-farm research projects together.
Today, the brothers continue working with LSU on experiments that will impact their row crops, which are primarily cotton, corn, and soybeans, as well as some grain sorghum and wheat. They’ve studied everything from corn and soybean populations, to nitrogen in corn, to fiber-quality in cotton.
Nick McMichen’s background with on-farm research is similar. Based in Centre, Ala., he began doing on-farm research the year he started farming full-time with his father in 1988. That’s when a local county agent asked if they’d be interested in doing a variety trial in conjunction with Auburn University.
McMichen has continued doing variety trials with Auburn every year since. Today he grows cotton, corn, peanuts, soybeans and wheat on 3,500 acres spread out over three counties in Alabama and Georgia, and conducts other on-farm studies like corn populations, nematodes in cotton, reduced tillage practices and cover crops.
Keep it Simple When Setting Up Trials
The first step in getting started with on-farm research is deciding what to evaluate.
McMichen prefers to take detailed notes throughout the year to identify potential issues, then refer to his use yield and soil maps after the season to see if there was a correlation between what he saw and whether it affected his yield. That often springs research ideas, but he’ll also use networking platforms like AgFuse to see what other farmers are doing.
The Hardwicks’ research also often focuses on trying to solve a problem or achieve a specific goal. But sometimes the ideas are out of pure curiosity. Because they work so closely with LSU, researchers often come to them with ideas of things they’d like to try.
“We’re all guilty of ‘Well that just looks cool, I just want to try it,’” Mead says.
Once an idea has been decided, the next step is planning. The Hardwicks say this is often the most time-consuming aspect of on-farm research. “It takes a lot of time on the front end to make sure you get it done right,” Mead says.
“Once we pull the trigger and go, the computers record it, it’s all taken care of,” Marshall adds.
Working with LSU has led to some pretty sophisticated “checkerboard style” trial setups on the Hardwicks’ operation. Mead and Marshall both acknowledge that without the guidance of scientists, they wouldn’t be able to replicate them on their own.
“That type of research requires someone who really knows what they’re doing in terms of analytics on the back-end,” Mead says. "We can execute the field operation fairly flawlessly.”
The Hardwicks use MapShots AgStudio to implement the designs the extension researchers come up with, as well as for analyzing the data.
For farmers who aren’t working with scientists, they recommend sticking to simple field strips.
For example, Marshall says that for fertilizer studies, they have a 16-row fertilizer rig and a 12-row combine header. To make the data flow in correctly so they know which part of the crop is from the treatment, they’ll make three field passes of the fertilizer rig, which is equivalent to four twelve-row combine passes.
“We’re just setting it up to make sense,” he explains.
McMichen often works with Auburn University Extension agent Eddie McGriff and other industry experts to develop a protocol for conducting his studies and how much should be dedicated to it. If it’s something they think could affect the entire farm, for example, they try to execute a large-scale study.
Tap into Technology for Accurate Analysis
Both the Hardwicks and McMichen rely on technology to execute and collect the data from their trials.
For the Hardwicks, it starts with the equipment. Four years ago they went to a PrecisionPlanting planter, which has all electric-drive and high-speed mechanics.
“The precision that comes along with those planters really allows to perform those checkerboard plots,” Mead says. “You can’t do that with an old mechanical planter.”
They also have ExactApply on their John Deere sprayer, which allows them to be very precise with their spraying applications. They use the MyJohnDeere system to wirelessly transfer the data to the AgStudio program.
The Hardwicks warn that AgStudio is not for the casual user.
“It’s simple in terms of what you’re asking it to do and what it’ll spit out,” Mead says. “It’s a program that takes some time to learn.”
For somebody just starting out, they recommend Climate FieldView, which they used prior to AgStudio and is a simple platform run on iPad to set up strip trials.
McMichen remembers when on-farm research was conducted with pen and paper, so the advances in technology have made huge strides for trials conducted today.
“We’ve got grid sampling, we have variable-rate planters, we can vary downforce,” he says. “It makes it much easier to develop this type of protocol and have a platform to use such as John Deere My Operations Center.”
The My Operations Center is his primary platform for on-farm research, mostly because it’s proprietary to the equipment he’s using. The agronomist he works with on grid sampling is also able to access his Operations Center so that all of his data can be combined.
“It makes it much simpler to identify what we’ve done,” he says.
Regardless of which tools or technologies a farmer decides to use for on-farm research, McMichen stresses the most importance of making sure the records are correct.
“You want maps, dates and records,” he says. “You can’t discern what you’re looking for if you don’t have the proper records.”
How On-Farm Research Pays Off
The records developed from on-farm research have led to positive changes for both operations.
One example for McMichen is the adoption of skip-row cotton. While the practice had been around for a long time, he decided to give it a try after talking with other growers who were seeing a financial gain from it. Side-by-side trials confirmed he could save money without losing yield. It also provided the added benefit of eliminating boll rot because it allowed for more air flow down in the canopy.
“That was something that we knew could be an issue, but it was more of an issue than we thought,” McMichen says. “We wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t tried that first on our farm.”
Now he grows all of his cotton on a 2-to-1 skip row pattern in 30-inch rows, which has resulted in a $70-per-acre savings.
“It’s helped keep me profitable in a situation where right now, margins are pretty thin, and you really have to pay attention to details,” he says.
The Hardwicks have also seen a financial benefit to on-farm research, especially as their data has built up. For instance, after 5 years of using AgStudio on a 350-acre field, the Hardwicks were able to take all of the data and “smash it together,” Marshall says, to see what areas were the highest-, medium-, and lowest-producing.
Because corn responds heavily to population, they used the zones created from that to adjust seeding rates: 38,000 for their best producing areas, 34,000 for the middle, and 30,000 for the poorest.
“We started with the thought we’ll plant fewer bags,” Marshall says. “What we found out is we’replanting about the same amount of bags, but we’re redistributing the seed in a place where it’ll do better. Instead of having 34,000 cutting 200-bushel, you’ve got 38,000 cutting 250.”
He adds that fertilizer also mirrors that and it’s had a direct effect on yield: corn is now averaging 220-230 bushels, which is about 20-40 bushels higher than before.
But there’s more to on-farm research than seeing a financial ROI. The brothers tout networking as one of the key benefits. Recently they started working with two researchers — one from Brazil and the other from Greece.
“In what other aspect would we get to meet and work with these two brilliant guys?” Marshall asks.
It also leads to opportunities they couldn’t have imagined. For example, back around 2000 their father, Jay, and LSU Ag Center received a grant worth a couple million dollars from NASA to use imagery from a plane to study whether greener vegetative areas in the field corresponded to higher insect populations. And working with LSU often means they’re getting to experiment with new ideas and technologies before they’re commercially available.
Find Experts to Work With and Just Get Started
The positive experiences both operations have encountered from woking with people outside of their operation is why they recommend farmers new to on-farm research get experts involved when getting started.
The Hardwicks understand there can be some hesitancy for farmers to share their data, especially with private companies, which is why they encourage looking for opportunities with land-grant universities.
“They don’t want money, they want notoriety for their work,” Marshall says. “They’re working with you to help themselves and you’re working with them to help yourself, so you’re both lifting each other up.”
From their experience, LSU is constantly trying to find farmers who are willing to do on-farm research, which they expect would be the case for other universities.
In addition to Extension personnel and other experts growers can consult, McMichen advises seeking ideas and suggestions from other farmers. He uses AgFuse and other platforms to gather information and see what people are doing.
But McMichen stresses it’s not really important how a farmer gets started with on-farm research, as long as they give it a try.
“I would encourage everyone to do it,” he says. “And they do, they just don’t realize it. It wouldn’t take a whole lot for everybody to realize what they’re doing and start gathering information. You don’t have to have all the technology, you can gather information in other ways.”
He advises starting small and not trying to do too much at once. Stay focused on what you want data you want to gather and figure out a protocol for making sure it gets done. He adds that once you begin to incorporate it into your farm, it’ll be much easier to continue going. It can be stressful at times, especially when you’re in a rush, but the time spent on it is valuable.
“When you make a decision on 500 or 1,000 acres, it’s one thing,” he explains. “But when you start stepping it up to the 5,000-, 10,000- or 20,000-acre grower, the simplest of things can add up to be a huge loss or ROI. Paying attention to details is what’s going to help get us through this current economic situation we’re in. You need to know where every dollar is spent and what the return on it is, and doing on-farm research can help you with a lot of your agronomic decisions.”