Field Trials file photo

Crop scientists have run small-plot trials for more than a century, but implementation is extremely labor-intensive without the benefit of large-scale farm machinery.

Larger-scale “strip trials,” in which researchers apply different rates to field-length strips, are a more recent development. Despite providing information about larger areas of land, strip trial analysis assumes that field characteristics are uniform throughout the field. This is an assumption which is often incorrect.

This is where Data Intensive Farm Management (DIFM) comes in, a new protocol from the University of Illinois designed to help producers run sophisticated trials on their own farms assessing fertilizer and seeding rates in corn and soybean production systems, according to a university news release.

Using GPS-guided precision agriculture technology, researchers and farmers are collaborating and conducting large-scale, on-farm “checkerboard” field trials. DIFM’s checkerboard trials provide more specific, higher quality data than can be attained through either of the more traditional field trial methods.

The goal of DIFM is to revolutionize farm management by working with farmers to implement scientific experiments on their own farms. This will enable farmers to increase their profits by making data-driven management decisions.

Researchers use DIFM specialized software to program “instructions” to a variable rate planter and fertilizer applicator. The farmer simply drives through the field as the seeds and fertilizer are applied. At harvest, the DIFM software works with a GPS-linked yield monitor to record the results of each plot.

Because DIFM trials are conducted on commercial farm fields, they generate specific information from those fields about those fields. This data is immediately pertinent to decisions about future management for the producers who are involved.

In addition to measuring field characteristics, DIFM will measure weather on each experimental field by installing equipment that measures and records precipitation and temperature many times per day.

The DIFM method can generate huge amounts of pertinent field trial data on a farmer’s actual fields, but with minimal nuisance to the farmer. Still, participating farmers play an active role in research, and of course take on certain responsibilities while participating, the university said.

DIFM researchers ask that farmers attend an organizational meeting during their first year of participation in order to discuss their roles in the project. And prior to planting, the farmer:

  • dedicates a field of at least 80 acres to the project;
  • provides a shape file showing the field’s boundary;
  • provides the latest soil fertility information available for the field
  • provides an A-B line for planting, fertilization, and harvest;
  • provides a yield map from at least one year of the crop species to be planted.
  • provides the width and number of rows, where applicable, of all equipment; and
  • provides information about the fertilization and seeding rates that would be used on that field if the farmer were not participating in the experiments.

After planting, the farmer provides an as-applied map for both seeding and fertilization. This tells university researchers what was actually applied to the field, confirming that the experiment was correctly implemented. After harvest, the farmer provides a yield map as a shape field on a one-second interval for the entire field.

DIFM compensates farmers to ensure that they experience no income loss from participating in the project by estimating what farm income on the field would have been without DIFM. In addition, DIFM provides each participating farmer with an annual $500 payment to defray the cost and time.

For questions regarding the DIFM project or interest in becoming a cooperator, contact Phillip Alberti, crop science educator with University of Illinois Extension, at, 815-235-4125 or on Twitter (@NorthernILCrops).