HAVRE, Mont. – An all-encompassing virtual field day held for Montana State University’s research centers last year proved to be a surprising success.
In fact, while MSU is planning in-person field days this summer for its seven research centers, some elements gleaned from the 2020 virtual field day may be tried again.
“Field days will never go away, but we may have some informational videos produced again that producers could view all year long,” said Darrin Boss, MSU department head of research centers, housed at the Northern Ag Research Center. “I don’t know if we will do another live event like we did in 2020, but producers have told us they liked having videos/presentations online that they could refer back to.”
Boss helped plan and moderate virtual field days last year.
With COVID-19 hitting the state last spring, the staff had to decide what to do about field days – an important event that touches on the type of research on crops and livestock being conducted at each research center each year.
“The decision wasn’t made lightly – it was a very difficult decision,” Boss said. “We realized the dissemination of information to producers is important, and with in-person field days, producers can get out and see and feel the crop. Farmers and ranchers like to touch and kick the tires – they are hands-on people.”
But Boss and the other staff didn’t want anyone to become exposed to the virus from attending field days during the summer.
“We didn’t want to risk the health of our farmers and ranchers with in-person field days. If you think about Sidney, for instance, there’s 120 people that go to field days, and in Havre, we get some 300-500 people,” he said.
With most of the farms and ranches in Montana run as a family with a couple of part-timers during planting and harvesting, Boss pointed out that one member becoming ill could be devastating to an operation.
“With our ‘Mom and Pop’ family operations, no one can afford to be sick, let alone a family in the summertime,” Boss said.
In the end, all the research centers agreed to try virtual field days last year.
Boss and his staff decided to ask scientists at each research center to post informational videos about some of their research center ahead of time.
Then they planned five “question and answer” sessions, for the virtual field day on July 30. The “informational” presentations were filmed by the scientists themselves and posted two weeks before virtual field day question and answer sessions.
“We posted the presentations online about two weeks before the live show,” Boss said.
In addition to Boss, Waded Cruzado, MSU president, and Sreekala Bajwa, agriculture dean and director, welcomed producers in separate videos on their special “2020 Virtual Field Day” website.
Reagan Colyer, MSU News Service communications specialist and content producer, said, “MSU researchers and scientists all did the videography themselves for the presentations. They filmed several-minute videos, which were then collected and hosted on our YouTube page.”
The video presentations also formed the background for the “question and answer” virtual field days.
Producers watched the videos ahead of time and then tuned in to hear the live session.
“The question and answer session was generated by producers. They told us they wanted to ask researchers questions, so that is why we did it that way,” Boss said.
Boss also enlisted the help of Montana PBS station.
“Montana PBS and Mike Suarez pulled a live show together for us, just like Montana Ag Live, which is on PBS,” he said. “They filmed it all from Zoom.”
His Havre administration staff placed a professional background behind him, and Boss gathered email questions from producers.
“PBS was really good to work with before and during the field day,” he said.
Producers in Montana are still able to view the videos.
“They are able to review these other talks and data (available on MSU website) while they are going down the field on auto steer,” Boss said. “They are still able to go back and review those videos. So if a producer wonders what Phil Bruckner said about the new winter wheat, he can open up the website and review that presentation again.”
Producers told Boss that while they do like in-person field days, the information provided ahead of time could be looked at over the year.
“All the scientists you normally see at field days were there, but they were there virtually,” he said.
Producers asked questions on e-mail or in the chat room during the question and answer field day sessions on July 30 – or called Boss directly.
“I talk to producers all the time, so I fielded some of those questions they asked me ahead of time. We also had a chat room and some e-mailed questions,” he said.
For the virtual field day, Boss and the staff wanted to extend their reach – allowing producers all over the state and in other states, as well, to hear the kind of research MSU is conducting.
They discussed having each research center do a separate question and answer session.
“But then we weren’t extending our reach. If I just focus on eastern Montana, we would miss organic production, so we broke it up by topics instead, and dividing it that way gave us the further reach across Montana (and beyond),” Boss said. “If a producer from Joliet was looking for research on irrigated wheat production, or someone from Conrad or Havre wanting dryland production (research), I wanted to have people on every panel that could cover that.”
Boss joined research scientists from different centers into five sessions on the general topics of soil microbiomes, crop pathology and soils; sugarbeets, crop rotations and alternative crops; pulses, weeds, organic production and horticulture; livestock forages and cover crops; and entomology and crop variety development.
“There is a lot of corn growing in Yellowstone County, but now we are growing it up in northwestern Montana and we grow some in Havre, too. Producers want to hear about that. We are growing alfalfa at Southern Ag Research Center. People that go to Northwestern Research Center field days may not see the alfalfa work at Southern Ag or at Eastern Ag,” Boss said.
During the virtual event, Boss fielded questions to different research scientists. While many department heads would not want to take on the job of moderating an entire day, Boss was so familiar with the research at the different research centers that it proved to be the best way to go.
“I had people calling in as they were driving down the field. One producer called me with questions while he was running down the field spraying and another guy called me while he was discing,” he said. “It was a fun day, but I was definitely tired at the end of it.”
With all the modern technology available, including the technology that allowed the virtual field day, Boss pointed out that many producers use and embrace information gathered with ag technologies from research centers, ag businesses and other sources.
“The speed of information (technology) is crazy right now – producers use on-the-go information centers. I had a producer call me up and talk with me about how he uses precision ag decision making processes,” Boss said. “For example, if a producer had certain ag technology on his cellphone or tablet, he could send trucks to one elevator because they might be paying a little more for higher protein wheat, and when his yield monitors went down, he could decide to bin his wheat.”
Producers can use that information technology to make better management decisions. Of course, it is not an easy decision for an operation to make.
But producers in Montana use the ag technologies if they can, and they are aware of what is available.
“Producers here are on top of information technology and how to use it on their operations,” he added.
For the upcoming summer field days, producers have requested that MSU consider a “mixed” field day this summer. They liked the informational presentations so they could refer back to them after the busy season was over. They also would like an in-person field day, as well.
Boss said they might do both this year, but will decide as the time moves closer.
“I sure hope we are back to normal and can hold in-person field days this year,” he said.
Boss suggested that producers should always feel free to ask any and all questions they might have.
“I hope they feel free to call their local county Extension agent when they need information, but I do get calls from all over about forages, cover crops, or other research,” he said.
MSU has posted dates for possible in-person field days this year: Northern Ag Research Center, June 29; Southern Ag Research Center, June 30; Central Ag Research Center, July 13; Western Triangle Ag Research Center, July 14; Northwestern Ag Research Center, July 15; Eastern Ag Research Center, July 20; and Western Ag Research Center, July 29.
For more information, see https://agresearch.montana.edu/virtualfielddays.html.