As we mentioned in the first article in this series, one of the reasons we created On Pasture is that we wanted to share information that would help farmers and ranchers use the best tools and practices available. So we work hard checking if there is solid information demonstrating that a practice works, and then translating what scientists and other farmers and ranchers have learned into things you can use at your own place. We also want to help you find the information you need by showing you the processes we use to ask questions and find out answers so that you can do it too.
One thing you can do is your own research. Start your research just the way all scientists do by looking for and reviewing what’s already out there. Like us you can start with Google or the search engine of your choice. We like to use Google Scholar, at www.scholar.google.com. That version of Google provides a clearinghouse of peer-reviewed research and many articles include access to those resources. Not all of these articles will be available to read for free. So look to the right of the search listing for PDFs of the articles you’re interested in. You can also look through On Pasture. We have published over one thousand articles, and continue to tackle new topics. Last but not least, drop us a line and we’ll let you know if we think something might already have been done on your topic.
Be Your Own Scientist!
You can also conduct your own field research. Farmers constantly experiment, trying new products, methods, and management styles. In fact, you are probably doing research already. If you want to learn more about the process of conducting on-farm research, and possible funding sources, here’s an article we shared on that awhile back.
When you are thinking of doing an on-farm research project you’ll ask yourself all the same questions a scientist asks when preparing for an experiment. The first question to ask yourself is: What do I want to know? Maybe you simply want to know if Fertilizer A is worth using. Using that as our example, you’ll then ask, what practices or amendments will I test? That practice or amendment would be what scientists call “treatments” as in “Our experiment’s treatment is applying Fertilizer A at 250 lbs per acre.” Then you need something to compare the treatment to, so you’ll have a “control” or a site where you don’t add fertilizer.
Now you need to determine what you should measure. You are looking for a definite, quantifiable answer. For example, if you’re trying to figure out if Fertilizer A increases yield, you would measure yields from the treatment pasture where you apply Fertilizer A at a given rate, and then from the control pasture, where you don’t apply Fertilizer A. You want to make sure that the control and treatment pastures are pretty similar at the start, and are managed the same way throughout – with the exception of the Fertilizer A on the treatment pasture. Having similar control and treatment pastures ensures that you are not comparing apples and oranges. The ideal layout to get the right group of data will include replicates, or more than one pair of control and treatment pastures. That might sound scary, but that’s okay. Get an expert to help, and just take it one step at a time. They might even help you by figuring out what measurements to take and them take them for you.!
After you’ve got all these measurements, or data, how will you analyze it? In some cases a simple Excel spreadsheet is enough. But you might also get in touch with your local Extension person or some other helpful service provider to do data analysis. Data analysis uses statistics, which tells us if there is a real difference between the treatment you applied, and the control comparison. Sometimes it may look like there is a difference, but those differences may not really matter when they are compared statistically. If you’re a statistician, we’re really impressed. But if you’re not, don’t worry. You can find someone to help you with this analysis. It’s actually a good idea to seek out that statistical genius before you get started so you can be sure you are taking enough measurements and laying out your experiment the right way to find the answer to your question.
OR…Just Keep Good Records
Sometimes, just by tracking what’s happening at your place, from where you’re grazing to what’s coming up in pasture to the weather and precipitation, you don’t even need to do a formal trial. If you record stocking rates and time in each pasture over a number of seasons, you may find that you’ve got your answer to whether or not Fertilizer A does the trick. The key, though, is to record it all. Relying on our memories can get us into trouble more often than not. Camera, notebook, record your notes on a Dictaphone, jot them down on a calendar, just keep records you can go back to.
Ask questions. Question authority, even the authority of your own brain wanting to believe something, like that Power Balance bracelets will keep you from falling over, or a so-called expert with no research data to back up claims, or even an expert with proof that doesn’t seem quite right.
You can also always email us and ask us to check something out. Then we can share the answer with you and the On Pasture community so we can all learn and grow together!