Want to surround yourself with enthusiasm amid agriculture's anguish: Check out Practical Farmers of Iowa

Today's new high-tech information systems could multiply your profits if you apply an old idea: Synergistic, farmer-led research with other farmers. "Practical Farmers of Iowa" pioneered this idea in the ag crisis of the 1980s. PFI has grown and adapted for more than 30 years. Today it's energized by more than 3,000 enthusiastic farmers of all ages and interests. Here's what cooperative research could do for you now.

Nov. 1, 2017   By Jerry Carlson — The Practical Farmers of Iowa vision of coordinated, farmer-led research trials originated in 1984. If you farmed through that ag crisis and survived—as I did—you know the mid-1980s were a preview of today's cost-price pressures and doubts about costly inputs. One answer was born at a field day on the Dick and Sharon Thomson farm near Boone, Iowa. Larry Kallem of the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives attended that field day, and the concept clicked:  Why not organize an on-farm research "cooperative," where farmers in a region of similar growing conditions can accelerate discoveries of low-cost, practical and profitable growing ideas? 

Dick, Sharon and two other people with similar ideas accepted Larry's invitation to present their on-farm research approach to the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives in Autumn 1984. From that genesis, the concept of cooperative research trials multiplied with support from farmer members, the Institute, extension service and others. The origins are outlined on the PFI site at this link

I became an early on-farm research cooperator, eager to test "biological farming" concepts. My motto for testing new technologies came from Dick Thompson: "Show me the data." Now 33 years later, our 20-year-old grandson Blake is a PFI member. He travels nationwide to tap into the enthusiasm and ideas of PFI members and other innovators. 

We've used on-farm strip trials to test and refine Renewable Farming LLC's products, WakeUP Spring and WakeUP Summer. In the 1980s, combine yield monitors were relatively primitive. We installed one on our small plot combine, but it was touchy to calibrate. Yield measured from harvest of a half-mile strip could vary by 10 bu. per acre just from errors in the measuring system, a baffle on the emptying auger. Since many test treatments have only about a 5-bu. influence on yield, weighing and moisture testing remained the only accurate field test. 

We've seen today's GPS-based combine monitors deliver some very revealing trial results just from looking at the color maps showing yield variations in the field. But typically the yield differences show up clearly only if the yield response exceeds 5 bu. per acre, so color variations show up on the screen and on the printed map. Precise data is essential; it's worth going after a 5-bu. yield booster if the cost is right.

Most of the yield "boosters" we've tested, such as the foliar micronutrients, offer only a 5 to 10 bu. yield benefit in corn; 2 to 4 bu. in soybeans. That's how yield gains are bolstered: Small, cumulative increments. Farmers repeatedly remind us: "It's tough to find any jug that consistently adds 5 bushels with a $3 payback per $1 spent."  Fortunately, we've shown in almost a decade of in-field trials that $2.10 to $3.50 per acre spent for in-furrow or foliar WakeUP is quite consistent in that rate of return. Even with today's corn and soybean prices.

Even so, it's also tough to find farmers willing to invest the time and management to conduct meaningful on-farm tests of products and techniques. Comparing yields just once using only the treated half of a field versus the untreated half can mislead. Soil, drainage and other factors inject such powerful yield variables that multiple test replications with similar conditions are crucial to believing the results. 

Our friends at the ACRES research farm just completed a study for one of their clients who offers a biological product. Their product did an outstanding job on rate of return: A 15-bu. yield increase in corn for about a $16 product cost. WakeUP Summer used the same way — in-furrow and at R1 — showed a 13-bu. yield benefit for a $5.60 per acre product cost. Normally we'd recommend using WakeUP Spring in-furrow. These gains are statistically significant at the 95% confidence level. 

We've adapted the Practical Farmers of Iowa strip-trial protocol to make it as farmer-friendly as possible while retaining a statistically sound, random-replication arrangement to offset soil and drainage variations. The image below is an example.  You can also download a higher-resolution PDF version at this link and print it out as a "keeper" guide to follow when setting up experiments in the field.