Growers get high marks
A large part of a successful variety trial is the location of the test plots
By Trista Crossley
Choosing which new wheat varieties to test is only part of the recipe for a successful variety testing program. The other part is choosing where to test them, and for that, growers play a central role.
“I couldn’t do this without them, and I’m grateful for their cooperation,” said Ryan Higginbotham, Washington State University (WSU) Extension specialist who runs the Cereal Variety Testing Program. “The variety testing plot program really revolves around farmers being willing to host (test plots) and working with us to find a good trial site. They really play an important role in what we are trying to do.”
Higginbotham works with 30 growers who host, among other crops, winter and spring wheat trials on their land, covering all the rainfall zones in Eastern Washington. He’s got some landowners who’ve hosted a test plot for more than half a decade, as well as a few who are hosting for the first time. His aim, he said, is to make hosting a test plot “business as usual for the farmer.”
The process starts with finding a grower willing to set aside approximately an acre of uniform ground for a test plot. The variety testing crew will then take soil samples to determine fertilizer needs. Growers are asked to prep the ground for seeding just like they’d do with the rest of their field and then to let Higginbotham know when the field is ready. The test plots follow the same planting method as the rest of the field, whether that’s no-till or conventional planting. As for any herbicide or fertilizer applications, Higginbotham prefers to let his crew apply the chemicals to the testing plot themselves to help insure uniform results across the trial site.
“We’ll come back periodically to takes notes, spray the alleys between the plots and to rogue weeds,” Higginbotham explained. “The grower will normally harvest the field around the plots first. It’s easiest for us to come in after because there is usually some of the grower’s wheat between the road and our plots. We’d either have to harvest their wheat or we’d trample it.”
In June or July, of course, are the variety test plot tours.
The main responsibility of the farmers is to avoid doing anything that might bias the trial, Higginbotham said.
“Driving through the testing site when muddy would leave a track, and that could cause a problem. Lots of times we have both spring wheat and barley in the plots, so if the farmer is applying herbicide not labeled for barley, we’d ask them to stay away from the plots so there’s no herbicide injury,” he said. Fertilizer drift hitting part of the testing site is another situation that might bias the results, but beyond that, Higginbotham said there isn’t too much that a farmer could do that might cause problems.
Deciding which seed to plant is one of the most important decisions a farmer can make, so having a front-row seat, so to speak, on new and upcoming varieties is one of the benefits of hosting a test site. As Higginbotham points out, it doesn’t get any more applicable than seeing how varieties perform on a farmer’s own land.
Mac Mills is one of those farmers whose St. John farm has been a testing site for more than half a decade, 60 years to be exact. His grandfather first started working with renowned WSU-based Agriculture Research Service breeder Orville Vogel in the late 1950s. According to Mills, Vogel came up with the idea of planting some of the wheat varieties he was developing as a test to see how they did in the real world and contacted George Mills. When George retired from farming, Mills’ father, Woodie, and then Mills himself continued the tradition of hosting test plots.
Usually, the testing plots are near Mill’s house, so he visits them throughout the growing season.
“Every so often, I’ll see a variety that really stands out and looks promising. I’ll watch it go through the whole cycle,” he said. “It’s interesting to see the ones that get on the market and the ones that look good at first but then become susceptible to something like rust.”
For Mills, hosting a testing site hasn’t caused him any inconvenience. He said after preparing the ground for seeding, he just tries to stay off that bit of land and let the WSU researchers work it their way. He did recount one incident where he sprayed herbicide near the test plot and ended up accidentally killing off some spring barley that was being tested.
Mills plans to retire in a few years and will likely be leasing the land to his son, who, he hopes, will continue the family tradition of hosting a test site.
“It gives the university a chance to get varieties out in the country and see how they are going to work, and it gives farmers out here a chance to look at those varieties and see how they do in a real setting,” he said.
Bickleton grower Steve Matsen said hosting test plots for approximately 20 years has brought him into closer contact with the research community, furthering his understanding of his own farming methods. One of the first no-till farmers in his area, he originally got involved with hosting a test plot because Dr. James Cook, a retired ARS researcher, needed some no-till ground on which to test spring crops.
“It’s been a good experience. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything,” Matsen said. “Having the test plots is a nice check for me. I can compare my crop to what’s in the plot.”
Matsen said the researchers are good about working with farmers on what to test in the plots and then explaining the results in a practical, useful way. When asked about any disadvantages to hosting test plots, he said there weren’t any and pointed to the communication between the researchers and farmers as a big reason for that.
“They’ve made a point of coming out here and making themselves accessible,” he explained. “If we see problems in the plots, they’ll bring out whoever might be relevant to it. The responses we see out of researchers are a huge trust-building factor.”
David DeGon of Fairfield is a relative newbie when it comes to hosting test plots—this is his third year of being involved in the program. Like Mills, he said it gives him a chance to watch the different varieties develop throughout the year, under the same conditions as the rest of his crop, instead of only seeing them during the test plot tour.
“We know our ground’s history,” he said, adding that by watching the test varieties develop and comparing them to his own crops, he learns more. Because DeGon direct seeds, the researchers direct seed the test plots as well. “That’s the thing I like about hosting the test plots, they are doing it how we are doing it.”
Having that front-row seat is another advantage DeGon said he enjoys. He’s able to look at the final testing results and relate them to how the varieties emerged and matured throughout the year. In fact, he couldn’t think of a single disadvantage of having a test plot on his ground.
“Ryan (Higginbotham) is doing a good job of making it fairly simple,” he said. “We aren’t having to prepare anything special. It’s pretty easy not to mess it up. I think we’ll continue to host a test plot for as long as we have the land for it and they want to do it in our area.”
Down in Walla Walla, Perry Dozier said he’s hosted some “crazy” trials in the past, but this is the first time in a long time he’s worked with WSU’s cereal variety testing program. Besides being a past president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (2000/01), he’s also sat on the board of Northwest Grain Growers, which sponsors seed-testing trials.
“The biggest thing for me is to be able to see which varieties are moving forward based on the conditions we are having this year,” he said on his decision to host a testing site for spring wheat. “I’m watching when the varieties emerge, how many days it took, which ones emerged first. The plots are only a stone’s throw from my house, so I get to see them every day.”
Dozier said it was important to him to have a well prepared, high quality site for the researchers to test on and to avoid doing anything that might affect the results.
“Ryan seeded first, so don’t go driving over the corner of their plot. Don’t drift Roundup across the plots when spraying field edges. Just try to be careful so you don’t do something stupid,” he said, laughing.
He said he feels a bit of an obligation to other growers in his area to have consistency throughout the testing site. He pointed out that in a regular field, a problem in one spot likely isn’t going to have a large impact on the field as a whole. But with test plots, “we are talking about something the size of a pickup truck, and what you do can impact one variety compared to the variety next to it.”
Visit smallgrains.wsu.edu/variety for a schedule of the 2016 crop tours. On that same site, you can also find maps to this year’s test plots as well as test results from previous years.