Proving the worth of new technologies, varieties
THERE IS consensus that on-farm trials are at their best when they take a well-researched but new technology and develop it in a farming system.
There are numerous examples that illustrate how this can work. Varietal trials conducted by groups such as the Mingenew-Irwin group, the Corrigin group and South East Premium Wheatgrowers Association (SEPWA), for example, evaluate pre-release varieties of wheat for how well they perform at the farm scale.
"We see on-farm trials as a stepping stone, giving us a chance to pick up any faults that were missed in the small plot trials used to develop and test a new variety," says grower Richard Guinness of the Corrigin group in WA.
Mr Guinness says that his group has seen more than a few lines held back from release as a result of their on-farm trials. One new variety was rejected after the trials showed an unexpected susceptibility to black point, another because of harvesting difficulties due to lodging.
"The small plot work done by researchers can't always show this type of problem because they harvest a smaller area with more efficient machinery," Mr Guinness explained.
"On-farm trials have saved us from some very expensive mistakes over the years, as well as giving us some great opportunities, but they can't replace the research done to develop a new variety in the first place."
Many agree that basic research is a vital first step before testing ideas through on-farm trials. The development of the red-legged earth mite (RLEM) control package 'TimeRite'™ and industry adoption of canola are two good examples.
TimeRite™ is a management package that is the product of seven years of basic research into RLEM biology. These were followed by several years of on-farm trials which, says CSIRO scientist James Ridsdill-Smith, were a crucial part of the package's development. "Growers tested the timing of RLEM control on their own properties by comparing the effect of spraying on adjacent treated and untreated plots, each at least 2 hectares."
The trials were so successful that growers were quick to start spraying their entire properties at the time prescribed by TimeRite™ Even though the package is now available commercially through the CSIRO, grower input continues to help shape it into something that can deal with an increasing range of on-farm conditions.
As for canola, Ground Cover 39 reported on recent Victorian on-farm trials run by TOPCROP growers aimed at identifying nitrogen fertiliser rates for yield and oil production across the range of soil types and climates throughout the State. This scale of on-farm trial could give good results because it came out of years of industry development and some basic agronomic research by CSIRO, spinning off from the basic research that developed canola varieties.
Broader-scale on-farm trials, such as those over the entire cropping zone in Victoria, are probably beyond the resources of one scientist or even one agency. This is where on-farm trials come into their own.