On many Illinois farms, there is more going on than meets the eye.
Ag companies, universities and commodity groups often rely on farmers for use of a piece of their land to do research into areas as diverse as crop yields, water quality and livestock performance.
BASF conducts most of its research on company-owned land on small plots, as do other ag seed and chemical companies. But Greg Ury, an agronomist for the company’s Credenz seed brand, said that about 10 percent of BASF’s plant research in Illinois is done on private farms.
“One big reason is to be able to get opportunity to look at performance on soils that are less common, soils that we wouldn’t be doing a lot of small testing on,” Ury said. “One situation may be Illinois river bottoms. They have a lot of sand and gumbos in different fields. We don’t do a lot of small-plot testing on those.
“It gives us the opportunity of testing comparisons, how varieties perform on soils we don’t have the chance to look at in small plots.”
Illinois Farm Bureau partners with outside entities — mostly universities — to conduct nutrient and environmental research. Some is operated in conjunction with the state’s Nutrient Research & Education Council, which is funded through the $1-per-ton fertilizer checkoff.
Many of the farmers who participate are interested to see where their money goes.
“Our farmer members were getting very frustrated that they weren’t hearing about a lot of the research,” said Lauren Lurkins, IFB’s director of natural and environmental sciences. “They are footing the bill for NREC, and we wanted to try to give the information to as many people as possible.”
Multiple farms are ideal for such research, with their differing soil types, landforms and proximity to forests, hills and rivers. Researchers tell Lurkins what they need, and she works to find it.
“I play matchmaker, basically, between farmer and researcher,” she said. “Whatever the project, we can help. When you tell me what soil types and what parts of the state, I will try to find you what other kind of practices are on that field.”
Livestock research doesn’t lend itself as well to on-farm trials. Travis Meteer, a beef educator with University of Illinois Extension, said that is largely because of difficulty controlling variables. Also, the university has large land resources for animal trials, divided between the Orr Center in Perry, the University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus and the sprawling Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in the southern tip of the state.
“Luckily, we’re blessed with the research centers, where we can control more things,” Meteer said. “From a nutrition and reproductive standpoint, that’s many times very crucial to control those external factors.”
That doesn’t mean there is no part for livestock producers to contribute to such projects. Meteer’s colleague Teresa Steckler is conducting a widespread study to determine why the bovine disease anaplasmosis appears to be expanding in the state. Volunteer cattle producers offer up their herds to provide blood samples for the research.
The Illinois Corn Growers Association participates in some on-farm research through various organizations, such as the Soil Health Partnership and Precision Conservation Management. But ICGA isn’t involved in most production research.
“It is important to remember that by state statute, the Illinois corn checkoff is prohibited from doing research to improve yield,” said spokeswoman Tricia Braid.
“Think of it as a conflict of interest. The checkoff is a per-bushel contribution, not based on price. Our field-research will be targeted for other outcomes, like nitrogen use efficiency, nutrient loss reduction, establishing the actual costs and returns of best management practices, improving soil health to mitigate other variables.”
Cooperators are compensated in various ways. Contracts between farmers and ag companies are not normally disclosed publicly. Some cooperate freely with other entities in order to gain information on treating or preventing problems on their farms.
Lurkins said that Illinois Farm Bureau doesn’t pay cooperators, but sometimes groups authorizing research provide compensation.
“Depending on the project and the level of how complicated or invasive the project is, it varies,” she said. “Maybe a gift card. Or if you’re going to be hosting on-farm site tours for years, there may be stipends of $1,000 to $2,000 a year just to offset those costs.”