Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 12, Issue 2 - December, 2019


Developing a Successful On-Farm Research Program

Zoller, C. , Extension Educator ANR, Ohio State University Extension
Hawkins, E., Field Specialist, Ohio State University Extension
Custer, S., Extension Educator Agriculture and Natural Resources, Ohio State University Extension
Fulton, J., Associate Professor, Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering, Ohio State University
Richer, E., Extension Educator Agriculture and Natural Resources, Ohio State University Extension


Ohio State University Extension launched the eFields: Bringing Science to Fields program to expand agronomic crop research efforts. This program incorporates farmer cooperators with Extension professionals to validate small plot research and transfer technology to producers. The program has experienced growth in the number of farmer cooperators, Extension professionals, and on-farm research trials. Research results are available electronically and in book form. There have been more than 20,000 views with the electronic publications and over 10,000 published copies of the hard copy book distributed in the first two years of the program.



Ohio State University Extension (OSUE) has a long history of conducting small plot research at university-owned facilities.  The university established the first experiment farm in 1870 in Columbus and The Hatch Act of 1878 established the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (Whitmoyer 2019).  Today, the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) operates nine research stations across Ohio.  These facilities conduct research on a variety of crops, generally in small plots.

On-farm research provides a means to transfer technology to farmers, validate small plot research within a farm operation, generate new discovery, and evaluate field-scale techniques (Thompson et al., 2019).  In 2017, Ohio State University Extension expanded its on-farm research efforts with the the eFields: Bringing Science to Fields program.  eFields is dedicated to advancing precision agriculture and new farming practices through the use of field-scale research (eFields 2019).



Educators involved in the eFields program identify cooperating farmers with whom to implement an on-farm research project. Research questions are identified in partnership with these cooperators. A research protocol is then developed and shared with Educators and cooperators across Ohio. Most trials are designed using a randomized complete block (RCB) design. The recommended plot layout consists of treatment strips across the length of the field. Plot size is primarily determined by equipment sizes including planter, sprayer, fertilizer applicator, and combine in combination with field size. It is also recommended that the plot width be set to enable harvesting plot centers. Plot length is typically determined by the length of the field, but a minimum of 500 feet is recommended when yield monitor data is used to estimate crop performance.

Proper experimental design is critical to ensure the validity of results at season end and a requirement for reporting within the eFields report. Plot replication and randomization make it possible for statistical analysis to account for the natural field variation that occurs. The protocol for each project requires a minimum of three replications and randomization with a preference of four or more replications depending upon field size.  Replication is required to determine what factor or definite cause contributed to any treatment differences (Digital Ag, 2019).  A free mobile app, OSU PLOTS, is available to assist with setting up the trial (OSU PLOTS, 2016). The app also allows the user to select the number of treatments and the number of replications and generates a randomized trial layout that can be exported as a .PDF or .JPEG file.  The OSU PLOTS app is used under the direction of an Extension professional.  Approximately 45% of the studies use the app to set-up the experiment, and about 74% of studies are analyzed using the OSU PLOTS before reporting results in the eFields report.

The eFields program focuses on six research areas: precision seeding, precision nutrient management, precision crop management, soil compaction management, remote sensing, and data analysis and management. A partial list of projects is shown in Table 1.


Table 1. A partial list of eFields trials conducted in 2017 and 2018.





High speed planting

Foliar feeding

Fertilizer application


Fertilizer rate and placement

Pesticide applications







Seeding rates





Seeding rates




In order to improve the usability of the trial results, additional data that is not traditionally collected and reported is captured for every trial. Data collected is listed in Table 2. During the growing season, Extension professionals monitor crop progress and collect stand counts, pesticide applications, insect, disease, or other issues.  Weather data, including precipitation and Growing Degree Days, is collected from planting through harvest.


Table 2. Data collected for an individual eFields trials.

Type of Data

Plot yield averages

Spatial yield data

Stand counts

Planting date

Harvest date

Hybrid/ Variety

Soil type

Tillage practices


Pesticide applications

Pest and disease scouting



At harvest, yield data, including moisture content and yield, is collected.  The program requires that all yield monitors be calibrated.  If a yield monitor is not utilized, calibrated weigh wagons are used to determine the amount of grain or yield harvested from a strip.  All on-farm research projects include a statistical analysis to determine significance using Fisher’s Protected Least Significant Difference (LSD) test at alpha = 0.1.  The statistical analysis can be completed by the OSU PLOTS app if individual plot averages are entered (OSU PLOTS, 2016). For corn and soybean seeding rate and nitrogen fertilizer studies, an economic analysis to determine return above seed cost in dollars per acre is also completed. The economic calculators are published on the OSU Digital Ag website. The default values used for the calculations are based on the Ohio State University Crop Production Budgets and can be downloaded and customized with farmers production costs (OSU Farm Budgets, 2019).

The report is compiled by the OSU Digital Agriculture Team and released annually in early January.  All participants are asked in November about expected needs to develop a final order count.  Currently, there is one print cycle for hardcopy versions to meet our early January release.  The report is used during traditional Extension meetings, workshops, and field days as a teaching tool.  Educators and state specialists also distribute publications during other extension activities.  Additionally, orders are taken from industry and shared internally.  The report is distributed as a printed book and an e-publication. The e-version is published on the OSU Digital Agriculture Progam website and BuckeyeBox (; BuckeyeBox, 2019). BuckeyeBox is internal to OSUE and serves as the cloud solution for archiving trial data and summary reports.  It is also used to share necessary protocols and other information in support of field studies. No additional staff have been hired dedicated to the eFields program.  The program has been a combined effort among Extension professionals and faculty and staff in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences to fill a void while enhancing existing Extension programming.  The number of Extension programs has not declined.  Rather, eFields has formalized a means to all work together and involved in research and Extension efforts.



From its start in 2017, the eFields program has experienced substantial growth in trials, partners, contributors, and publications.  This growth is outlined in Table 3 between 2017 and 2018.


Table 3. Growth in eFields program (2017-2018).







Partner Farms



Industry Partners



Ohio State University Contributors



Report distribution – electronic


9,923 views (as of September 10)

Report distribution – hard copies

2,500 printed copies

8,270 printed copies


As a result of the eFields program, there has been an increase in the uniformity in on-farm research being conducted across the state. This has enabled data to be aggregated and more robust analysis to be conducted, in particular, the corn and soybean seeding rate trials and the corn nitrogen trials.  These aggregated data sets are also being archived with the intent to build a database that OSUE personnel can use to analyze and compare county and state level results offering farmers and consultants current crop production conclusions.

The eFields program has also led to Ohio farmers making changes to their production practices. – “Based on on-farm research conducted by OSU Extension on our farm and published in eFields, we have changed our corn starter fertilizer program to 15 gallons of 28% UAN from the 12 gallons of 28% UAN, six gallons of 10-34-0, two gallons of thiosulfate, and two quarts of zinc.  We have also reduced our seeding rate in soybeans from 200,000 to 130,000 seeds per acre.” – Aaron Overholser, Darke County, Ohio farmer.

“eFields gives you a chance to look at research on a field scale, on your own farm.  The trials are going to get replicated across the state and there are a lot of people helping develop the protocols.  The trials are set up in a fashion that it’s not an inconvenience to deal with.  Every farmer should look at this eFields data.  We are doing the best we can with the equipment we have.  It is pretty reliable data.” – Les Seiler, Fulton County, Ohio farmer.


Tips for Developing an On-Farm Research Team

On-farm research provides an opportunity for Extension professionals to develop relationships, answer questions, and make a positive impact with clientele.  These are important factors for Extension personnel to remain relevant within crop production and offering current research findings.  We provide the following tips for Extension professionals to successfully develop an on-farm research program.

  • Begin with a clearly defined purpose.  Know what you want to study, evaluate, and measure.
  • Identify interested Extension professionals.  Explain the purpose of the team, expectations, and benefits.  In addition to strengthening relationships with farmers, Extension professionals who participate have the opportunity to focus research on local issues, conduct research that can benefit many farmers, and publish their work at professional meetings and in journals.
  • Develop written protocols for each study.  This allows for consistency across multiple trials and provides farmer cooperators with a clear understanding of the project.  Copies of protocols our team has developed are available at
  • Meet with cooperators to describe protocols, define expectations, and answer questions.
  • Publish the results.  We provide two outlets, hard copy and digital, for distribution of the final report.  Hard copies of the report are provided to cooperators and distributed at Extension and industry meetings. 



As documented, the eFields program has been successful. The number of Extension professionals, farmer cooperators, and research trials continues to grow. Also, published research results have been used by farmers to make management changes. Farmers and agriculture have benefitted from university small plot research for years. Field-scale on-farm research builds upon and validates this work.

The eFields program provides a framework that is scalable and can be implemented in states where horticulture, specialty crops or other cropping systems exist.  Extension professionals interested in developing an on-farm research program should identify research needs, develop standardized protocols, talk with willing farmer cooperators, implement trials, and publish and share results with farmers and colleagues.



BuckeyeBox. (2019). Ohio State University Office of the Chief Information Officer.

EFields On Farm Research (2019).

Ohio State University Extension Digital Ag. (2019). 

Ohio State University Extension Farm Budgets. (2019). Ohio State University Extension.

OSU PLOTS. (2016). OCV, LLC.

Thompson, L., Glewed, K., Elmore, G., Rees, J., Sayli, P., and Hitt, B. (2019).  Farmers as Researchers: In-depth Interviews to Discern Participant Motivation and Impact.  Agronomy Journal.  11(4).  Retrieved from: file:///C:/Users/zoller.1/Downloads/aj-0-0-agronj2018.09.0626.pdf

Whitmoyer, R. (2019).  A brief history of OARDC.  Retrieved from: