Plots Suck. Part I.

Think about this: You farm 4,000 acres and you need a way to figure out which hybrids perform best. So what do you do? You pick 1 field and plant 1 plot. Yep, a 5-acre plot represents 4,000 acres. That’s all the time you have for this. Seriously, that’s what most of you do. The rest of you ask your neighbor what worked on their farm. And it doesn’t matter that they farm differently than you; rather, they’ve survived this long so they must be making the right decisions on hybrid selection. And, then, next year when the hybrid you chose wasn’t as good as the previous year or as good as the neighbor was bragging about, you get upset. And call your seed rep who then calls his agronomist who then rolls his eyes wondering why we repeat this cycle. Plots suck.

As an agronomist in the business for over 20 years, I estimate I’ve been involved with about 8,000 plots. Of these, 7,500 were a complete waste of time. Exaggeration? Not much. Seriously? Yes, seriously.

While it takes up more space, split the planter between two hybrids. And while it may take more time to plant, the outcome is better and you get a whole lot more free seed.

The goal of plot work is to evaluate product performance with a high degree of confidence. Confidence can have a statistical connotation but at the end of the year you want to walk away knowing that the test was fair and every entry had an equal chance of performing to its highest potential. So let’s explore this.

You have 12 hybrids and a 24-row planter and very little time to plant the plot that the sales rep has been pestering you about for the last month. (The reps don’t haven’t much of a life – all they do is drive around dropping off plot bags in the hopes that somebody will feel sorry for them and plant the damn things.) You’re under pressure and won’t devote more than an hour or so to get this done. What do a lot of growers do in this setting? They fill the planter with 6 hybrids, 4 rows each, refill at the end, plant back and they’re done. In this scenario, 4 of the 6 hybrids in the pass are treated equally, the other 2 are screwed. The 2 that were treated unfairly (those under the tractor tires and in the pinch rows) will likely yield less leading you to draw the conclusion that they’re not as good. Consequently you don’t order a single bag of either and tell the neighbors that those hybrids suck. You know what? The plot sucked.

I am fond of saying “to measure inaccurately is to not measure at all.” I firmly believe this. Think about this scenario – many growers will take the time to plant a quality plot but won’t take the time to use a weigh wagon. They harvest the plot using a combine with a yield monitor that hasn’t been calibrated and surely won’t be calibrated with each change in hybrid. This is another scenario where we walk away with limited confidence in the outcome of the plot. We justify this by telling ourselves that, if there is a source of error in the uncalibrated system, it affects each entry equally and in the same way. I am here to tell you that this is not a good assumption. Which reminds me, I’ve never heard a grower say, “if I get some time I’ll send you harvest maps of the plot where we used an uncalibrated combine.” Discomforting, to say the least.

Plots can offer a lot about product behavior and performance. To the best of your ability plant them when most other acres are being planted (certainly not last with a planting date that is not typical for the area). Plant them with the same care and attention as you give all the other acres and respect the time and effort that the breeders have invested in creating a bin-busting hybrid that can yield 500+ bu/a. Visit with the agronomists and sales reps beforehand to design a quality plot experience from start to finish.

I’ll leave you with this – if you put out a quality plot and my hybrids don’t perform well, I will respect that. If put out a plot that everybody and their dog knows wan’t done well, we’ll all talk about you every day at the local coffee shop and how your plot sucked. Don’t be that person.

I want y’all to do well. God bless my farmers!

Farmer vs. Agronomist

I am not a farmer. I work with farmers. I am a trained agronomist. (I’m what you call a professional so don’t try this at home.) I have all the answers – most of which are derived driving by fields at 70 mph. I am an “armchair farmer” of sorts, reading articles, published scientific papers, trade magazines and I formulate opinions about the successes and failures of crop production. Of course, I walk fields. Lots of them. My advice is the best advice. I firmly believe that. Do as I say. End of discussion.

I often go out and share my knowledge and wisdom on increasing crop productivity with every grower within listening distance and return back home to the armchair and ponder whether I actually had any impact.  In the couple of months after harvest I will have made presentations to over 500 growers. I’ll know shortly of my influence as planting will commence in the next couple of weeks in south Texas.

How will the farm economy affect their decisions? Will they avoid the temptation to plant before the last spring freeze? Will they keep their crop rotation intact to avoid the yield decline associated with monoculture? Will they take the time to eliminate compaction and ruts left after last year’s harvest? Will they plant my hybrids and plant the recommended seed populations or take somebody else’s advice on what to plant?

More importantly, do they realize that when every grower chases the highest price that over-production and depressed prices are the result? Of course they do. They’re independent growers selling into a global market that they virtually have no control over. And that stinks. As the agronomist, I can only give them advice and knowledge about how to increase productivity. But as a farmer, they often can only do what’s needed to survive another year. And in today’s world decisions are often influenced by their bankers or other financial supporters. And I’m pretty sure very few of them have a degree in agronomy. And that stinks, too.

All the training I’ve had. All the years in the business. All the watching and learning from growers all over the Midwest, the Great Plains and throughout Texas. All the reading, studying and driving by countless fields at 70 mph usually lead me to this conclusion – “I told them not to do that.”

I want y’all to do well. God bless my farmers!