COLUMBUS, Ohio -- From using fungicides simply to boost crop yields to using soil inoculants to stimulate plant growth, Ohio State University Extension specialists are seeing an increase in the interest and use of nontraditional agricultural products and production practices. But stepping away from the fundamentals in favor of more unorthodox practices could do more harm than good.
Peter Thomison, an OSU Extension agronomist, encourages growers to look for solid research-based data, either from Ohio State University Extension or other relevant land-grant universities, before spending money or time on products and practices that may not work in the way they've been marketed or promoted.
"A concept may sound plausible, but the efficacy of a product or practice may be unproven. Getting more bang for your buck might be attractive, but ask for the data to back up the claims," said Thomison, who also holds a research appointment with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
Many of the products or practices are related to crop fertility -- ways to increase yields with a relatively small investment. One of the more unorthodox practices drawing attention has been using fungicides on corn in the absence of diseases to improve plant health. Supplemental labels for some fungicide products list such plant health benefits.
Anne Dorrance, an OARDC plant pathologist, said that the research at Ohio State and other universities throughout the Midwest have not shown consistent and significant yield increases when using fungicides strictly for the purpose of improving plant health.
Summaries of more than 200 replicated corn foliar fungicide trials (from more than 13 different states, including more than 25 observations in Ohio) conducted by university-based researchers in 2007 and 2008 showed that the yield differences between fungicide- treated plots and untreated checks varied from one trial to another, with an average yield response across all trials of 3.3 bushels per acre in 2007 and 3.6 bushels per acre in 2008.
"With such variability, there's something going on at the level of individual farms. It could vary with the product. It could vary with the hybrid. It could vary with the weather conditions, or when the fungicide is applied relative to grain fill, and certainly with how much disease is present in the field," said Pierce Paul, an OARDC plant pathologist. "Different combinations of these factors may have very similar or vastly different effects on the yield response. It's not as clear cut as the word out there seems to suggest."
The take-home message: Use a product in the manner it was originally developed for, said Paul.
OSU Extension fertility specialists Robert Mullen and Ed Lentz offer a few simple tips to help farmers evaluate the usefulness of a product or production practice:
• Follow the old adage of: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." If something is promising tremendous yield improvements by supplying adequate nutrition, suppressing weeds, improving soil health with a small application rate, it is most likely not going to deliver the desired benefits.
• Take a lesson from the first law of thermodynamics (that states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed – it simply changes form). "In this case, nutrients can neither be created nor destroyed, they can only be shuttled between different pools," said Mullen. "So if a product states that application of this material is equal to 50 pounds of phosphorus per acre, and the material fertilizer analysis has 20 percent phosphorus and the application rate is not 250 pounds per acre, you are not supplying the same amount of nutrients at a rate of 50 pounds per acre."
• Look for unbiased research results. "Just because a product works at some remote location does not necessarily mean it will work on your farm," said Mullen. "If the individual selling you the product is also the individual conducting the research, be wary."
• Before completely adopting an alternative product to be used on the entire farm, evaluate the product on a limited basis and make simple comparisons to current practices. If you see no yield advantages, you have your answer.
Information does exist on nontraditional agricultural products supported by university-based research. Known as the "Compendium of Research Reports on Use of Non-Traditional Materials for Crop Production," the site provides information on nontraditional materials marketed for use in crop production in the north central region of the United States. The criteria included in the database follows these guidelines: at least two site-years of research, with multiple crops or varieties substituting for a site-year; authors listed; replications with statistical analysis; reasonable application to north central region crop production; reference source availability; and author permission.
To learn more, log on to http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/compendium/index.aspx.
For more information on Extension/OARDC-based research to help make crop production decisions, log on to OSU Extension's Agronomic Crops Team Web site at http://agcrops.osu.edu.