On-farm Research - Extension Education Program
This program trained extension agents, farmers, and conservation district field staff in skills needed to investigate the use of new practices in agriculture. During the two-year project, 135 Pennsylvania extension agents and other agency field personnel were trained in reliable experimental techniques for on-farm research.
Extension agents who participated in the training more than doubled the number of on-farm trials they were involved with in the two years following the training compared to the number they conducted prior to the training.
New ideas for on-farm experimentation included a pair-wise comparison of paddocks in a pasture study and the testing of farm compost as potting media in a commercial greenhouse nursery study.
1. Instruct Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension agricultural agents and USDA personnel to plan and conduct on-farm demonstrations and research.
2. Extension agents will collaborate with farmers to plan on-farm trials, conduct trials, interpret the results, and disseminate the knowledge gained.
3. Evaluate methods used and develop reference materials.
Project Activities and Results
Forty-three extension agents across the state’s five extension regions were trained in reliable experimental techniques for on-farm research, thirty-nine percent of Pennsylvania’s agricultural agents, surpassing the project’s original goal of reaching one-third. Training was usually conducted in small groups of three and four agents at central county office locations.
In September 1996, 92 agency field staff (consisting primarily of conservation district managers and technicians) along with a few NRCS staff and state land resource personnel received on-farm demonstration and research training. The project coordinator was the main presenter at six of their regional quarterly training meetings.
One unexpected result from the agent training sessions was a desire for knowledge of demonstrations and research projects being conducted by other agents within the state. Participants often noted that they didn’t even know what agents in adjacent counties were doing. As a result, the coordinator compiled a booklet including reports of demonstrations being conducted by all agents, whether or not they were participating in this project.
Another unexpected result of the project was an invitation by Ohio State University Extension agents and the Innovative Farmers of Ohio to conduct training sessions at two on-farm research workshops. This was a direct result of an Ohio staff person who attended an agent training session conducted by the project coordinator at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
During the course of the project, ten farmers, one agricultural service owner, and one commercial nursery collaborated with extension agents in the planning and implementation of on-farm experiments as a direct result of agent training. A few participated in the collection and interpretation of data. Two producers participated in the dissemination of results to others.
Two new ideas initiated by the project included a pair-wise comparison of paddocks in a pasture study and the testing of farm compost as potting media in a commercial greenhouse nursery study.
The pasture study using pair-wise comparison of paddocks resulted in a high coefficient of variation, indicating the that experimental method needed to be improved. The rising plate method used to measure dry matter availability may be too variable. Further study is needed with an alternative measure (such as grass clippings) to determine available forage.
The greenhouse study resulted in a workshop sponsored by the Montgomery County extension agents. The agents developed a booklet using county funds to explain the techniques they used. Workshop participants could use this information to duplicate efforts on their own.
All other methods used were based on current literature. Copies of existing materials were provided to participating agents for future application of skills learned.
Potential Contributions and Practical Applications
The 43 extension educators who received training in on-farm experimental design through the project were surveyed at its conclusion. Thirty percent (13 agents) returned the survey. Responses indicated the following:
Eleven agents (85 percent of the respondents) indicated they were involved with 44 on-farm research projects during 1996 and/or 1997. During the two years prior to the project (1994 and 1995), these same agents were involved with only 18 on-farm trials.
Respondents reported being moderately influenced by the training to increase the involvement of cooperating producers in the planning, implementation and analysis of the demonstrations or trials.
Nine out of 11 who reported conducting on-farm trials in 1996/97 said they were better able to design experiments with producers as a result of the training. The skills they reported applying were randomization, replication, proper plot size, and statistical analysis.
Participant comments suggest that while they are highly interested in doing more on-farm research trials, they perceive on-farm trials to be time consuming and somewhat difficult to manage. Additionally, agents said they would like support from university specialists in these endeavors.
The potential impact on the producers involved and the environment can be illustrated by the individual trials conducted as a result of agents implementing new skills:
Effects of starter fertilizer and/or additives for corn production on fields receiving dairy manure. None found in trials on four farms.
Comparison of sorghum silage and corn silage yields. Corn silage much better when precipitation is normal.
Vegetable variety trials. Father and son potato farmers who wanted to diversify were able to select vegetable varieties after two years of trials.
Compost container media trial on landscape nursery plants. Greenhouse business in urban area able to use farmer compost as a potting medium.
Soil aeration of permanent pasture using the Aerway machine. No significant pasture improvement found. Further testing needed to investigate effects of timing of aeration and dry matter measurements.
Corn silage variety performance trials. Dairy farmer able to select silage varieties for yield performance and forage quality.
Application of composted waste from packing plant to fertilize a pasture. Began at end of project, results yet to be determined.
Pasture irrigation using milk house wastewater. Began at end of project, results yet to be determined.
Investigate various calcium sources and applications for potatoes in a calcium deficient soil. Began at end of project, results yet to be determined.
Training/education needs beyond the scope of this project would be to train an extension staff person to remain as a resource specialist to support agents and clientele in the development, design and analysis of on-farm trials. Also, this person or another staff person should be given the responsibility of gathering and publishing reports of demonstrations and on-farm research being conducted by agents across the state.
Recommended changes to the procedures used in this project would be to assess the attitudes of state extension specialists regarding their support of on-farm research at the program proposal stage. Also, if collaboration with state grower associations is needed, up to one year prior to planned activities is needed to incorporate change into routine agendas.
Future educational programs in this area should probably assess staffing patterns of a state’s extension system. If there has been a severe cutback in agricultural agent positions, the interest for on-farm research may be very high, but the capacity to actually implement new programming may be limited.
Reported December 1997