Conducting Effective Trials to Make Sound Decisions
Follow these steps to test new crop inputs to gauge their true efficacy.
June 3, 2010
Today's growers are faced with ever-increasing pressures to be efficient and profitable. The days of "doing things the same way we always have" are waning, and many growers cannot afford to be complacent about their crops and production systems. Fortunately, there is a constant wave of new crops, products and practices that can help growers improve their operations. Before introducing new crops, fertilizers or plant protection products to the marketplace, reputable companies perform extensive testing to understand how the technology works, determine optimal conditions and rates and provide the best guidance on how to use the products or grow the crops. However, even the most comprehensive research programs are limited when it comes to exploring the incredibly wide range of crops, geographical locations, variable environments, conditions and applications that exist in the marketplace today. That's why it's imperative for growers to trial new crops and products before incorporating them into their operations.
The purveyors of new products and crops will typically try to sell them to growers by mentioning a variety of desirable features and benefits, such as improved profitability and easier production, or offer solutions to common problems. Some features or benefits offered by these products may appear so lucrative that many growers adopt them immediately. However, in most cases, before modifying any current production practices, it's necessary to get some hands-on experience. After all, there is some wisdom in the old axiom, "If it ain't broke; don't fix it." Conducting an effective trial allows growers to sift through these new opportunities, decide if any have value and determine whether it makes sense to comprehensively adopt something new into their operations.
Before starting a trial to determine how a new product or crop will perform under your unique and specific set of conditions, thoroughly review the supplier's claim support pieces (internal and third party research data, other grower trials and testimonies, product sheets, etc.). You might also ask company representatives about other grower's trials and talk to those growers directly about their experiences. The more you learn beforehand, the more likely it will be that you can conduct a meaningful trial on your own. After you are convinced a potential change is worth further exploration, set up a proper trial to assess how a new product will perform in your operation.
Defining Trial Objectives And Protocols
The first step in any effective trial is to develop an objective and a protocol that truly measures the stated benefits and claims of any new product or crop. Clearly define and document objectives and timetables in advance. The more details you can include, the more useful this information will be later. After setting your objectives and protocols, consider following these steps for the best, most thorough trial:
- Do a preliminary financial assessment to estimate the potential benefits of any change to your current practices. This includes determining if long-term incorporation of the new product will require any change in irrigation, regulatory issues, handling, storage and equipment. If the financial costs outweigh the benefits from the start, there may be no point in conducting the trial.
- Determine what factors are most important to you, and measure them during the trial. Common decision factors include overall plant performance, plant size, foliar color, rooting, crop timing, nutrient availability, price, cost-in-use, product convenience and ease of application.
- Pre-define the data you wish to determine during the trial. This data may include height, weight, timing to flower, quality grades, percent loss, nutrient tests and return on investment.
- Limit the number of treatments so the analysis doesn't get too complicated. If you do a trial with multiple products, rates and application methods, you might end up with a mountain of data that is difficult to sift through, leading to inconclusive results.
- Test only one new product or crop at a time during a trial. I have seen many growers make wholesale changes all at once - growing media, fertilizers and irrigation systems, for example — and then attribute the results (good or bad) to only one of these inputs. If you make multiple changes at once, you can't positively know what factor or interaction of factors was responsible for the trial results.
- Include a grower practice control (what you currently do) as a baseline. While you may be quite satisfied with your current production systems, if you don't compare the new product against your current system, you may not see potential improvements. All the plants grown in your current program may be very uniform, but there may be hidden potential in a new product that you won't notice unless you place your current practice side by side.
Trial Set-Up And Management
So, you've done all the necessary analysis, and you've decided to move forward with the trial. Here's where good trial planning and follow-up will provide you with information on which you can rely. Adequate time and resources should be allocated to a trial program in order to get the best return. To perform a trial correctly, it may be best to find an analytical, detail-oriented employee who can manage the trial program for your greenhouse or nursery. Instead of looking at a trial as an added cost, look at this R&D effort as an investment in future operational efficiency and profitability.
To be meaningful to any specific operation, a grower trial needs to be set up and managed properly. It may seem to require a lot of tedious detail work in advance; but the fact is this — a poorly set trial can often lead to incorrect conclusions, cause confusion and end up being a big waste of time.
Here are a few tips that can help your trial go more smoothly and provide more accurate results:
- Determine when you will make a final assessment of the trial. Most likely this is at harvest, but it may be sooner.
- Test key crops. Trial new products on crops types that will respond to potential features and benefits of new products. Test a variety of response types (e.g. heavy feeders compared to salt sensitive/ slow growing crops; plant species susceptible to a disease or pest compared to a more resistant crop).
- Trial new product on crops/ situations where previous problems have occurred.
- Conduct the trial at the correct time of year and under typical environmental conditions.
- Set up an ample sample size. It should be big enough to be significant and observable, but does not include so many plants to be financially risky. Results will be more accurate if the sample size provides a representative test in your operation. Generally, a bench, half of a house or a whole bed is usually a good rule per plant species.
- Use good quality, uniform liners/ plugs, and plant the same cultivars in the same container sizes on the same date across treatment comparisons.
- Replicate treatments in blocks to minimize confounding variations in temperature, light, humidity and irrigation.
- Mark trial plants clearly by labeling each pot if possible. If you don't take this step and end up uncertain about which treatment is which, the whole trial could be an enormous waste of time and resources.
- Try to keep plants from being moved during the trial.
- Subject all treatments to normal cultural practices (e.g. spacing, shading, sprays, pruning, etc.) unless advised otherwise.
- Make sure key employees engage in the trial and observe the test blocks frequently.
- Document, document, document. Record data and observations and take photos throughout the trial for later use.
- In the final assessment, involve a number of employees to get the best comprehensive overview. Include your head grower, sectional growers, decision makers (owners/ general managers) and any supply company representatives.
A well-conceived and conducted trial will yield very useful information about how a new product or practice will work in your current operation. The key is to think carefully ahead of time so you ask the right questions. Follow-up and thorough documentation are essential to ensure that you've collected the information you need before you make a significant change.
Fred Hulme, Ph.D.; is Director of Technical Services at Scotts Professional. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.