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Field-scale research by the RACK

Above: Dennis Bulani's (left) research at his fertilizer-herbicide retail operation helps producers like Tom McKinley improve profits.

University researchers in Pakistan have been getting a phenomenal response on herbaceous plants by spraying plant growth hormones on them prior to flowering, says Dennis Bulani, owner of the Rack Petroleum, a farm input and agronomic services company in Biggar, Saskatchewan. He read about their research on the Internet.

Bulani then decided to conduct field-scale research to see if it also could be used to increase canola yields in west-central Saskatchewan.  Results were so good, he now recommends it to his canola-growing customers and has made it part of the company's Ultimate Yield agronomy program.

Private operators like Bulani are changing the way agricultural research in Canada and the US is being done.  Governments and universities still do the biggest share of basic science, but increasingly it's the independents that are doing the practical, farm-scale studies in the field.


Faster results.  "Independents are filling a void', says Elston Solberg, president of Agri-trend Agrology in Red Deer, Alta.  "They can go out and bang in some plots, get a couple of years of data, and then turn iit around and get the results out to farmers in a hurry.  Their results might not have been published in a scientific journal, but we can see which things are working.  Some people are willing to take these findings and run whith them to try to get ahead of the curve".


Above: Solutions to production problems are rarely simple, Bulani says, because they're often caused by many things going wrong at once.

This trend allows agricultural research to be extremely responsive to environment and market changes.  It also knocks years off the time it takes to get new discoveries from plots around the world onto farmers' field. 

"Traditionally, researches would do three or four years of small trials at a number of different sites", Solberg says.  "Then the peer review takes another two or three years.  By the time the data finally gets out, the clock has been ticking for anywhere from five to seven years.  In the meantime, varieties have changed, and it's become irrelevant.  It's frustrating for everybody".

Qualifying problems.  As a fertilizer-herbicide retailer, Bulani always did field-scale trials, but over time his interest in research grew.  Solutions to his farm customers' problems were rarely cut and dry, so he decided to use a scientific process to find out and quantify what was going right and what was wrong in customer's field.

"The number one reason we do test plots is to evaluate products on a field scale". Bulani says.  "The number two reason is to add more tools to our customers' toolbox that they can utilize to push the envelope of return.  We do it because there's a need for customers to know how some of the new technologies will work in their system."


Above: Elston Solberg says that real-time kinematics and precision farming technology are changing how crop research is conducted.

Bulani puts a lot of emphasis on nutrition research.  His field of interest is funging ways to prove that using a product will make producers money.

"Lets look at whether adding copper will make me money this year", Bulani says.  "The research papers will say you will get a copper response in a particular type of soil but nobody has really researched when a copper deficiency becomes important.  We have discovered that it only becomes important if you are doing everything else right.  For example, there's no point in doing a copper trial on a farm with poor soil phosphate levels".

Another important reason Bulani devotes so much time to research  is to show producers whether or not new agricultural products or practices will work on their land.  At times it's like reinventing the wheel, he says.

Companies do a lot of work to prove that fungicides control disease to get their products registered.  Despite this, he has to do trials to convince growers that using them can make them money if they're used in the right way.

 "Farm-scale research trials aren't always appreciated by the research community", Solberg says, "but farmers love them and they're very responsive.  Agriculture is a knowledge-based industry, but the world population is growing rapidly.  In the next 40 years we've got to grow the equivalent of the last 10000 years of food production.  The old research model won't let us.  We have to find out how to do things in a quicker way".