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What happens when you assemble university scientists, crop advisors and farmers in one room for a day to talk about field trials they all had a hand in implementing? A lot of joint learning, sharing and insights!
Through a unique partnership, the Environmental Defense Fund and 20 independent crop consultants - many of them members of Brookside Labs, Inc - paired up to conduct on-farm field trials for EDF’s NutrientStar program (www.nutrientstar.org). NutrientStar’s chief objective is to collect data on leading fertilizer management tool performance in the field and share that data with other farmers and advisors. The group involved in conducting those field trials came together in a meeting in Moline, Illinois in late February to discuss results from trials of in-season nitrogen management models, the value of imagery and sensors, new products to test in 2018 and how to get more of the data NutrientStar produces in front of more farmers and advisors.
These advisors and their client farmers who contribute fields and time to the effort not only grow crops, they also produce data that can be used throughout the Corn Belt to help other farmers and advisors understand how they might expect a particular fertilizer management tool to perform in their fields. The tools are tested under real world conditions with all the variables of weather, moisture, tillage, equipment and hybrid present. In 2015 and 2016 these consultants carried out over 100 nitrogen rate trials in their fields, generating data that was used to calculate nitrogen use efficiency achieved by the Adapt N and Climate Fieldview Pro nitrogen management tool.
The group talked about their experiences with the models and as expected, some were positive and some were negative. Frank Moore of Cresco, Iowa reported that Adapt N saved him a lot of money on fertilizer in 2013, while Clint Nester of Bryan, Ohio (and others) reported not seeing much return on that investment.
In the bigger picture of trying to convey the difficulties of fertilizer management in the face of public concern about water quality, a “credible source” to back up the consultant’s opinion can also be a useful tool. There was general agreement that the models are very sensitive to such inputs as yield goal and further calibration and updates will make them more effective over time. The group agreed that there is no stand-in for a consultant’s expertise in “knowing that field” and providing the interpretation behind the results. As more data is shared, the hope is that more farmers and advisors will become increasingly comfortable turning to data for answers to the question “Will it work on my farm?”
The group talked about a new geographic framework for placing and interpreting results from field trials called the Technology Extrapolation Domain framework. The “TEDs”, as they are known, combine weather and soils data to generate regions of the Corn Belt where, all other things equal, fertilizer management tools might be expected to perform similarly. What this means in practice is that a field trial conducted in Iowa may have relevance in Ohio where water holding capacity (derived from soil type/texture) and climate (derived from variables like growing degree days and aridity) match up. There was some skepticism about the accuracy of the SSURGO database (which is used to generate the soils data behind the framework) but there was a growing interest among the group in how to use the framework to characterize unfamiliar fields or new areas where they may have an interest in working with a client farmer. There was a suggestion to promote the tool more within the research community, and another suggestion to change the name of the framework from TED to something more relevant to a farmer or advisor.
Other suggestions included developing a way to compare tools and products, sharing more information about strengths and weaknesses based on other characteristics, compiling seasonal weather data to enhance performance information, and including a comment section for each of the products or tools on the website for users to provide reviews.
The NutrientStar administrative team and field trial team are working hard to bring more data to farmers and advisors that can be used as another tool in the toolbox of fertilizer management and provide another chapter in our story of sustainability. We welcome your questions, suggestions and feedback on the program!