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Technology Spurs On-Farm Strip Trials

New Missouri program uses GPS technology to do side-by-side comparisons with immediate on-farm application.

How can farm technology actually pay for itself?

One way is to make it easier for you to do your own on-farm research. An example is under way in Missouri, where the Extension service is partnering with corn and soybean growers to do on-farm research. Called the Missouri Strip Trial Program, it draws on the experience of the long-running Iowa Soybean On-Farm Network, where farmers have tested everything from planting date to row space to nitrogen rates on their farms.

The Missouri program, launched in 2016, has already helped a few farmers look at cover crop alternatives and in-season nitrogen applications. An on-farm trial works best, say leaders, if you keep it simple and only compare two or three agronomic practices. At least three replications add to the validity of a strip trial.

They emphasize that their goal is immediate application in the following growing season.

Technology can make on-farm research more farmer-friendly, says Kent Shannon, a University of Missouri Extension agricultural engineering specialist. He provides technical assistance to help farmers use the GPS, variable-rate, and yield-monitoring technology already on their equipment.

“My ultimate goal is to eliminate as much time as possible from the setup of a field trial,” says Shannon. “Once you program the instructions into the equipment, then you just plant and harvest and get a printout of the results. The technology does the work.”

It all starts with a field boundary map, he explains. It could come from an aerial image or one that you create with a handheld GPS unit to map field borders. It lets you see if a replicated strip trial will fit inside the field. For the most reliable results, Shannon likes strips that are at least 500 feet long.

Shannon shares an example. A farmer planted corn with a 16-row planter equipped with two variable-rate drives, one controlling each half. He planted half of the planter with a variable seeding rate and the other half with the whole-field rate of 28,000 plants per acre. GPS data was collected on the variable-rate side with the antennae in the middle of that side. At harvest, the yield map was paired up with the planting map to compare the seeding rate effect on final yield.

In-season aerial imagery, usually from a drone, is also part of the strip-trial program, explains Shannon. The images can verify ground cover and crop stands throughout a field, and they may eventually help in nutrient management.

New multispectral cameras carried from a drone will tell you when a field is under stress from lack of nutrients or from pests, he says.

The Missouri Strip Trial Program, partially funded by the corn and soybean checkoff programs in that state, wants more participants. The tools and personalized summary report will be available at no cost for Missouri growers. Farmers work with an Extension specialist or other crop consultant of their choice to guide the planning and implementation of the trial. Sign-up information is available at striptrial.missouri.edu/.

While individual results will be held confidential, farmers will have access to aggregated results across the state.

Comparing Cover Crops

One of the early projects in the Missouri Strip Trial Program involved fall-seeded cover crops in 2016. In several counties, participating corn and soybean farmers compared side-by-side strips of rye and wheat cover crops with no cover crop. Then they saw the yield impact.

Greg Luce, a University of Missouri plant science instructor and also Missouri Soybean Association research director, says so far the yield effect of cover crops is inconclusive. Some strip trials favored them, others didn’t.

“We are sorting out the causes of the differences – positive or negative – to help answer growers’ questions,” he says.

On-farm strip trials also compared a mid-April cover crop kill date with an early May kill date.

“Earlier termination seems to have some advantage on the following crop yields,” Luce says.

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