Putting farmers at the centre of research to transform agriculture

By Kate LangfordJanuary 18th, 2022

New global research shows that when farmers and researchers co-create knowledge through On-Farm Experimentation there can be lasting and meaningful impact to farm profitability and sustainability.

By working together, farmers and researchers can achieve more productive results.

When you think of agricultural experiments, you might picture a scientist running trials on small plots, answering questions they’re interested in. But On-Farm Experimentation (OFE) challenges this model.

OFE supports farmers to conduct their own experiments on their own farms to address the problems they face.

New OFE research has triggered a growing call to overturn traditional methods of agricultural research to solve the challenges facing contemporary agriculture. OFE might involve testing new technologies or practices such as different fertilisers, chemicals, crop varieties or cultivation practices. The farmers observe and measure changes in real farm conditions, with scientists taking on the role of supporter, helping with data analysis and interpretation of results.

Dr Rob Bramley, CSIRO Senior Principal Research Scientist (Precision Agriculture) said success with OFE is driven much more by what farmers see is effective, combined with spatial analysis than through more classical statistical approaches.

“We’ve found On-Farm Experimentation to be particularly effective for farmers who use precision agriculture technologies such as variable rate controllers, yield monitors and crop sensors, because they are able to not only use these to lay out the experiments automatically, but also use them to measure the effects of different management strategies and so derive the optimal approach for their own land and farm businesses,” Dr Bramley said.

“There is also an ‘over the fence’ knowledge exchange effect with learnings from one farm helping to inform investigation and decision-making on other farms.”

Design of a simple OFE used by farmers Jessica and Joe Koch to inform improved nitrogen fertilizer management in a 101ha wheat paddock at Booleroo Centre, SA.

Farmers using On-Farm Experimentation

OFE recognises that farmers hold local knowledge about their production contexts and practices and are themselves key sources of innovation as they routinely experiment.

Joe and Jessica Koch, cereal and sheep farmers from Booleroo Centre in South Australia, were involved in a OFE nitrogen trial over the 2021 season. For them, OFE meant they could see first-hand how different management regimes impacted on their yields.

“With the On-Farm Experimentation approach, we were able to better understand how our in-crop nitrogen management decisions were reflected in protein, yield and therefore profit at the end of the season. We believe that paddock scale strip trials are the best way to practically assess inputs, and better understand how our variable soils respond to different rates and timings,” Jessica said.

Mark Branson, of Branson Farms from Stockport in the mid-north of South Australia, has run such trials for several years and agrees.

“In-crop nitrogen management is a very hard practice to get right. The OFE approach has allowed us to see how different management affects grain yield and protein. The practical aspects of strip trials have allowed us to see how different soils and slopes respond to different Nitrogen management making optimising N rates and timings so much easier,” Mark said

Meanwhile, Hans Loder, who is vineyard manager at Penley Estate in the Coonawarra wine region of South Australia also sees trials as an important part of his business improvement. He conducted strip-based trials to inform both fertigation and compost application as means of impacting vine vigour and fruit quality, especially in respect of Yeast Assimilable Nitrogen (YAN), which can have major impacts on winemaking.

“Using the strip-based On-Farm Experimentation approach, results could be assessed in ways which I would not have otherwise considered but which greatly assisted in untangling the effects of vineyard variability. This provided immediate benefit and insight to the whole Penley Estate team beyond just myself and our winemakers,” Hans said.

Crop sensors, such as those mounted on this tractor, assist cereal farmers such as Mark Branson in collecting the data needed to assess the effects of different experimental treatments.

Expanding the collaborative approach

There is now a growing body of international researchers keen to see the open innovation approach of OFE expanded to improve farm businesses worldwide.

Led by Dr Myrtille Lacoste from Curtin University’s Centre for Digital Agriculture, the recent study published in Nature Food was a collaborative effort involving an international team of researchers spanning 24 institutions across eight countries.

Dr Lacoste says the high demand for OFE can be attributed to the motivation of farmers to develop better practices, learn by observing results directly, scientists’ increased thirst for data and the rise of digital technologies that facilitate experimentation.

“This powerful collaborative tool has the potential to transform agriculture if the people from around the globe were able to routinely add to the ways knowledge is built, create new tools and harness different types of information in better ways, as opposed to simply receiving then adopting solutions developed elsewhere.”

Dr Lacoste and her co-authors are hopeful the paper will encourage a rethink of the relationship between farmers and scientific experimentation to drive meaningful impact.

Hans Loder, supported by PhD student Xinxin Song (University of Tasmania), pruning vines for determination of pruning weight in a vineyard OFE at Penley Estate in Coonawarra.

History of On-Farm Experimentation in Australia

Professor Simon Cook from Murdoch University, who co-authored the research, was an early pioneer of OFE in the mid-1990s. At the time farmers in the Western Australian wheatbelt were concerned about variable crop responses to fertiliser. This led to a ‘chequerboard’ experiment over about 70 ha aimed at optimising nitrogen management.

CSIRO used a similar approach in the mid-2000s to help wine grape growers with vineyard floor management and disease control. Vineyard managers could see for themselves how the response to different treatments varied in different parts of the same block.

More recently, CSIRO and partners in the Future Farm project have been using OFE as a key platform for enabling grain growers such as Jessica Koch and Mark Branson to gain increased confidence in their nitrogen fertiliser decision-making and improved profitability from nitrogen use.

Dr Andy Hall, Senior Principal Scientist with CSIRO says that while participatory processes have seen success in the past, there has never been a standard practice, which has prevented an effective integration of science-based and farmer-based knowledge.

“With our current approach to research, we are largely missing out on valuable and abundant knowledge and innovation generated by farmers,” Dr Hall said.

From this new paper and the inaugural International Conference on farmer-centric OFE in 2021 attracting 170 participants from 36 countries, it is clear there is growing international interest. A conservative estimate puts the number of OFE initiatives globally at over 30,000 farms in more than 30 countries.

Read the full paper, On-Farm Experimentation to transform global agriculture: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00424-4

A mid-season satellite image of the original 72 ha chequerboard OFE done in the WA wheatbelt c. 1995. A variable rate fertiliser spreader was used by the farmer to establish repeating plots to which fertiliser was applied at rates either side of his ‘best guess’ rate. The idea was that this trial would show how crop response to fertiliser varied around the paddock due to differences in potential yield caused by variable soils.

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