Using software to set up on-farm research

Software can take plot establishment from a labor-intensive operation to punching buttons.

For generations, farmers, Michigan State University Extension educators and specialists have worked together to establish on-farm research trials. These trials might have included plots looking at hybrids or varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, new-on-the market products and other things. Often, establishing a research plot required the farmer to stop so the Extension educator could lay out and flag the plot, switch out a variety, turn a valve on or off or otherwise interrupt field work to apply a treatment. At harvest, strips had to be harvested and measured in a weigh wagon. All of this extra activity took valuable time during planting and harvest. The information gathered from the trials was almost always valuable, but methods such as these often slowed down the cooperating farmer from getting field work done when time was short.

Software programs like Spatial Management Systems (SMS) Advanced and Farm Works can make setting up and establishing plots seamless. These programs can help users create geo-referenced, variable rate prescriptions for conducting on-farm field research trials to observe the effect of various inputs. The prescriptions can be saved on a flash drive or other suitable storage system and shared with cooperating farmers who can load the prescription into their GPS system. The prescription will in turn run the controller of whichever input product is being studied at predetermined blocks in the field.

In fall, at harvest, the cooperating farmer can use a yield monitor to record the yield of each treatment block and save the data in a shapefile. The Extension educator can then use the shapefile to analyze the data.

The plot set-up, establishment and harvest do require some advanced knowledge of guidance systems, controllers and yield monitors. However, time taken in-season in the field is virtually eliminated. The farmer doesn’t have to slow down to help the Extension educator set up the plot.

Several MSU Extension educators have been trained to use SMS Advanced to set up on-farm plots. If you are interested in performing on-farm plots using this technology, contact me at I can either help you directly or put you in contact with the appropriate educator. 

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