Nuts and bolts of on farm experiments: For best results, work together by Cathy Nicolls

ON-FARM trials can take a lot of time to coordinate and run. To be worth the effort, trials have to give valid data that can be analysed properly.

Principal Agronomist John Doughton of the Queensland Department of Primary Industries at Emerald says this relies on a genuine partnership between scientists and growers. It might also include consultants and agribusiness.

"As scientists we can bring our knowledge of how to conduct valid research and what has already been done, so we don't end up reinventing the wheel," he says. "But the partnership is the key to working out which questions really need answering. Because solutions are jointly developed on-farm, growers can quickly integrate these changes into their practical day-today fanning operations."

This also means good farming systems research can be as much about good communication as about the research itself. "We have found that spending the time talking, looking at what others have done, and stepping back to evaluate what we have been doing can be very valuable for everyone," Dr Daughton suggests.

Plan the plot

Some groups, like Mingenew-Irwin, Central Queensland Farming Systems and Corrigin, sit down with a whiteboard at the start of each season and plan, with scientists, what they will do for the next year to five years.

"We have no shortage of new ideas, but we often work with scientists to help us ask the right questions and design trials that give reliable answers," says Corrigin grower Richard Guinness. "We also leam a lot from them at times."

The amount of time that needs to be put into a successful trial can be off-putting for some and grower groups generally work hard to spread the load. Some rotate onfarm trials around, so that no one grower is doing all the work; others pitch in to help at the busy times of setting up, sowing and harvesting.

"We try to set it up so that a grower can come into the trial plots, help set up and sow a treatment, and get back to his own operation in an hour or two," explains Mingenew-Irwin Group coordinator Cameron Weeks.

Scientists also find the extra workload daunting at times, but their reward is to see their ideas refined and proven on farms, and then adopted more widely by growers. The process also gives scientists access to field sites and ways of doing research that they otherwise would not have.

"It has been a real eye-opener to see just how quickly something can get implemented after some good on-farm trials," Dr Doughton said.

In the Central Queensland Farming Systems group alone, 80 per cent of growers believed that the project made them more profitable and 96 per cent of them thought the trials and the work that went with them were a good use of their own money.

The increased profitability is not restricted to this one group. Gill Stewart, who is now with Mallee Sustainable Farming Systems, says she saw some great results in Queensland just from people getting together and talking about what they did in the context of on-farm trials.

Going beyond the quick-fix answer

"The best on-farm trials I have worked with saw growers starting to talk about what they did on their own places as they started learning to ask the right question instead of just trying to get a quick-fix answer," Ms Stewart said.

"The talk in the pubs changed from how little rain there was to how much fertiliser someone was using, and you could see growers starting to make more money as a result," she added. "Just sitting down and talking about what we were doing now and next season was probably the most valuable part of our trials, and we hadn't even planted out a single plot."

Contact: Dr John Doughton 0749837422 Mr Richard Gulnnest 0890657045 email: kwongan@bigpond.com Mr Cameron Weeks 08 9964 2914 email: week.@wn.com.au M& Gill Stewart 03 5021 9411 email: gstewart@dlwc.nsw.gov.au

Region North