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Harvesting knowledge can transform world agriculture, study finds

An international study has found there is strong demand for on-farm experimentation where growers collaborate with researchers.
Photo: Brad Collis

Supporting on-farm experimentation (OFE) networks and activities globally to better connect growers and researchers could help transform agriculture and solve some of its toughest challenges, an international study led by Curtin University in partnership with Murdoch University and CSIRO has found.

OFE refers to grower-centric and data-driven approaches to innovation where growers conduct their own experiments in their paddocks in collaboration with researchers and other industry professionals. It is a way for growers to test technologies and practices by varying management, observing and measuring changes and analysing results – all in real-farm conditions, with a focus on what matters to each farm and paddock.

The study, published in Nature Food, found that there is high demand internationally for this type of collaborative research.

Co-author Dr Rob Bramley, a senior principal research scientist (precision agriculture) at CSIRO, says there is growing momentum to rethink the relationship between growers and scientific experimentation to drive meaningful impact. Dr Bramley says success with OFE is driven more by what growers see is effective, combined with spatial analysis, than through more classical statistical approaches.

“We’ve found on-farm experimentation to be particularly effective for farmers who use precision agriculture (PA) technologies such as variable-rate controllers, yield monitors and crop sensors, because they are able to not only use these to lay out the experiments automatically, but also use them to measure the effects of different management strategies and so derive the optimal approach for their own land and farm businesses,” Dr Bramley says.

“There is also an ‘over the fence’ knowledge exchange effect with learnings from one farm helping to inform investigation and decision-making on other farms.

“Over many years we have been successfully using the OFE approach in research, including for crop responses to fertiliser in Western Australia. Farmers lead the investigation and make the observations, while researchers take on the role of supporter, providing data analysis and transferring the knowledge,” Dr Bramley says.

He says OFE approaches are particularly useful where PA is involved, but they are not limited to that area.

“It’s relevant to the whole gamut of agricultural research, but it’s especially relevant to PA, for the simple reason that the kinds of digital technologies that are used in PA allow farmers to very readily both implement the experiments and collect data from them – and can hopefully do that as part of their usual business. But it doesn’t need to be confined to PA, and there are some good examples of the OFE approach being used in smallholder, third-world agriculture.”

The value of scale

The key benefit of OFE, Dr Bramley says, is that experiments are generally carried out on a larger scale – perhaps involving a grower’s entire property – and the results can often be more readily applied to current practices.

“There’s a scale issue with small-plot trials that immediately leads to ‘is this relevant to me?’ questions for growers. OFE is much more focused on addressing the problems confronted by a grower on their farm, generating some learnings that that grower and their neighbours can use to improve their business or farm system.”

Larger-scale experiments also introduce a greater range of covariates that more closely mirror real-world conditions, he says.

“Growers know perfectly well that the paddocks they work in are variable; in fact, there is no such thing as a uniform paddock. They have to confront and deal with that variability on a daily basis. So, for example, they can see how the response to treatments in a larger experiment varies according to where in the paddock they are. With a spatially distributed type of experiment, you’re not just looking to see whether ‘treatment A’ responds better than ‘treatment B’, you can see that each treatment may have advantages but their relative performance will vary depending on the conditions in different parts of the paddock.”

Grower motivation to learn

Lead Curtin University researcher Dr Myrtille Lacoste from Curtin’s Centre for Digital Agriculture says the growing need for OFE can be attributed to both the motivation of growers to learn by observing research results directly, and scientists’ own thirst for data.

“OFE places farmers back at the centre of innovation and gives them the opportunity to test and measure the effect of any technology or practices that matter to them, from fertiliser, crop variety or cultivation practice, with researchers and scientists providing guidance and expertise rather than leading the entire experiment,” Dr Lacoste says.

“The roots of OFE were pioneered decades ago but are only now gaining momentum worldwide. This has been supported by a growing demand for research practices that recognise farmers’ own role in innovation, and by the rise of digital technologies that facilitate experimentation.

“OFE brings forward experimentation as a force to innovate by building bridges between farmers, researchers and other stakeholders.

“This powerful collaborative tool has the potential to transform agriculture if the people from around the globe who are first concerned are able to routinely add to the ways knowledge is built themselves, create new tools and harness different types of information in better ways – as opposed to simply receiving then adapting solutions developed elsewhere.”

OFE, run by farmers, civil organisations, businesses, social enterprises and scientists, is very diverse and that’s a strength.

Dr Lacoste says the success of the inaugural conference on grower-centric OFE held in 2021 with the support of the OECD Cooperative Research Program showed the depth and breadth of the international interest on this topic.

“We had 170 participants from 36 different countries networking and sharing ideas outside of their usual circles. OFE communities across the world are connecting, and we hope the results of this study will help bring international partners together,” Dr Lacoste says.

“OFE, run by farmers, civil organisations, businesses, social enterprises and scientists, is very diverse and that’s a strength. International leadership would greatly help communication between groups and progress the sciences supporting OFE.”

Australia ahead of the curve

Dr Bramley says Australia is ahead of the curve in OFE research, having largely pioneered the approach in the 1990s.

“Farmers have been experimenting since the start of farming. The OFE approach gives every grower who wants to improve their business an experimental tool to help them do that – to try things and work out which ones deliver benefit. It gives growers a way of formalising things and being more rigorous in the assessment of treatment benefits and understanding which things deliver benefit, and where.

“One of the key developments – in how we can analyse spatially distributed experiments – was generated by Tom Bishop at the University of Sydney. The analysis he pioneered allowed researchers to do spatial analysis that had statistical rigour. More recently, Warren Jin and colleagues at CSIRO developed a refinement to that approach that allowed the analysis to be done locally. That analytical method is available through a suite of CSIRO tools called precision agriculture tools (PAT).”

“Through the Future Farm project – in which GRDC co-invested – we have been doing experiments where we have realised that if your goal is to optimise your nitrogen management, for example, you pretty much have to do an on-farm trial.

“And now we have got together a group of people from around the world who are interested in pursuing the OFE approach and we can now pool resources, share approaches and refine methods so that they are fit-for-purpose, depending on the objective you’re trying to service – whether that be a high-end farmer using all the gadgets, or a smallholder sub-Saharan African who is trying to optimise their system.”

The OFE study involved an international team of researchers spanning 24 research institutions across eight countries, including co-author Professor Simon Cook, who is based at Murdoch University and the WA Premier’s Fellow of the Agriculture and Food Fellowship.

The full paper, entitled ‘On-farm experimentation to transform global agriculture’, is available online.

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