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Evaluating farm trials

Stephen Blezinger for Progressive Dairyman Published on 27 July 2017
dairy cattle feeding

There is hardly a component of the dairy that has not been researched. From management, genetics, nutrition, labor, parlor and housing design, equipment engineering and so on, every component of the dairy has been evaluated.

This effort has resulted in some truly remarkable innovations, all of which are largely focused on improving efficiency, enhancing production and increasing profitability – at least that’s the intention.

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With nutrition, academia, corporate America and the farmer have exhaustively explored products and practices that would hopefully improve production, components, health and efficiency or a combination of these. Since the farm is so profit-driven – a requirement – the common means of marketing a given product is to state “per research” on product “X,” it has been shown to provide a “Y” return on investment. Calculations of return on investment based on research can be somewhat ambiguous.

As most producers and nutritionists have seen, over recent years there have been literally dozens (or more) of nutritional products that have come into the dairy feeding market. Some are relatively new product types (i.e., essential oils). Some have been around almost since the beginning (i.e., yeasts and organic trace minerals), and some are various modifications of products that have been around a while, but the industry has changed somewhat so their use has become more prominent (i.e., mycotoxin binders).

The issue with many of the more recently introduced products is the availability of research that can validate or support the use of the product in each feeding program. Many products have come to the market with little or no research of any type (academic, field or farm trials, or combinations of the two). Academic research (university trials) is typically quite expensive. Lactation trials with even limited numbers of cows can easily exceed $100,000 for the basic trial costs. Even then, there is no guarantee the trial will produce useful results.

One problem for sponsoring companies is that the typical university, in addition to the actual cost of the trial (feeding, labor, analyses, etc.) also charges an “overhead” cost that can range from 30 to 50 percent. This covers regular overhead costs as well as numerous other expenses not so directly related to the research project or maybe even the dairy science department where it is to be conducted. For many companies, there is not an unlimited number of dollars that can be spent on research for new products. Thus, the availability of supporting research may be limited for some period.

Because of the high cost of academic research, which is generally considered less biased, many companies who are working to introduce or support new products opt for in-house research or pursuit of “farm trials.” In-house or corporate research is generally of questionable value because the perspective from the industry (producers, nutritionists, veterinarians, etc.) is that corporate research is completely biased.

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Why farm trials?

Few, if any, of my nutritionist colleagues have not been approached by one company or another asking to conduct a farm trial on one or more of their client dairies. In some cases, these requests go directly to the farm itself. In either case, efforts to pursue on-farm research is considered a less expensive means of gathering information to support the use of the product of interest. Other objectives include the opportunity to demonstrate the efficacy of the product on a given farm in hopes the cooperating dairy will adopt the product or the nutritionist will begin using the product in their programs. Ultimately, the bottom line is to initiate or to increase product sales.

Benefits

There are several benefits to the pursuit of farm trials. Some of these include:

  • Evaluation and demonstration of a given product is derived from a real-world application. In most cases, academic and corporate research is highly controlled. Most of the typical day-to-day “noise” that occurs on the farm is largely taken out. With academic or corporate trials, this degree of control often enhances the true effects. Farm trials can provide an indication of what might be expected in reality.

  • Farm trials are generally conducted in a manner where the product to be evaluated is fed with other, normally used additives or supplements in the farm’s program. This can provide an indication of how the product may work in combination with other products.

  • On-farm research can evaluate how a product or program may work in a specific location or environment, feed and forage set or management conditions. Some products that work well in an Upper Midwest production environment may not perform the same as on a dairy in Georgia or New Mexico.

  • Use of a product or program provides experience to the producer (and the nutritionist) in actual feeding or use. In some cases, this is a non-issue since the product may simply be added into a feed, supplement or premix by the farm’s feed or premix supplier. In other cases, the product may need to be hand-added or included individually on-farm at the time of mixing. Certain handling characteristics may exist that could prove challenging on the farm (i.e., thorough mixing of very small quantities). There could be palatability issues and, regardless of the method, inclusion may reduce dry matter intake to some degree.

  • For the company, as noted earlier, cost is generally much lower than academic trials. However, the control that allows for accurate statistical analyses is commonly unavailable, so the information (not data) collected may be marginally accurate since the many confounding events on the typical farm can mask a true response. But if a response is noted, it could be considered truly notable.

  • Animal numbers or group sizes are often much larger than academic or corporate trials. Thus, the response is noted over greater observations.

Negatives

Just as there are benefits to farm trials, there are also negatives. Some of these might include:

  • Trial design may be difficult so that data or information gathered is truly meaningful. In academic or corporate trials, a significant degree of control can be exercised. Also, comparative groups are established to equalize various factors such as parity, days in milk, timing, environmental control, etc., between treatments. In many cases on-farm, this can be difficult to establish since there must be a great deal of commitment to establish and maintain groups of this nature.

  • On-farm events can often interrupt or nullify studies. As indicated earlier, the average farm has any number of potential events that can affect performance and responses to a given product. A very significant example may be the necessity of a forage change mid-stream. If a silage supply runs short during the trial and a change must be made, this will affect the outcome of the trial. This is also true with other feed ingredients and forages. Another event that can affect a trial might be an employee change. A change in milking or feeding labor can also have a significant effect on performance.

  • Management and staff attitudes toward the pursuit of farm trials can greatly affect the outcome. The success (whether it shows the product or program to be effective or not) can be largely affected by the attitude and commitment of the people involved. A great deal of running a trial such as this is attention to detail. If the trial is considered an unnecessary waste of time and labor, details may be missed. It is important for the entire dairy to be committed to the effort. This also includes any of the on-farm support or consulting team members, primarily the nutritionist and veterinarian, both of whom should be involved in the trials from start to finish.

  • Because of the challenge in setting up unbiased comparisons and the amount of on-farm noise, it is often difficult to apply a statistical model that can separate the means or other accurate analyses. If stats are reported, P values are generally higher than what might be reported in a more controlled trial environment.

Evaluation of a farm trial

With all this in mind, when farm trials have been run with a given product or program, these are commonly summarized into a company marketing technical sheet or something similar. When these are brought to the nutritionist or the dairyman, certain questions and considerations should be made before serious consideration to the results is given.

First, all the pros and cons to farm trials listed previously should be considered. Second, a variety of questions must be asked, if not reported: Where was the trial run? What time of year? What was the feeding program before the trial started? Was this the first of these types of trials run on this farm or with the cooperating nutritionist? Other questions should include how the performance data was collected and by whom.

Are the results presented all the data/information that was collected or only the areas showing a positive result? What were the economics of the trial outcome? Finally, is the contact information for the farm and nutritionist available so the information presented can be verified? Like any trial, with the many variables, nothing should be taken purely at face value.

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Conclusions

Well-run farm trials can be very valuable tools for companies wishing to generate supportive information on products or programs. They can also be useful to the farm or nutritionist wishing to give serious consideration under real-world conditions.

In a perfect world, farm trials should be a component of complete product research support. But it also makes sense that these may need to be the starting point of new products owned by smaller companies with limited research budgets. For the producer, when evaluating this information, ask lots of questions and talk to the cooperating farm and nutritionist if at all possible.  end mark

PHOTO: Because of the high cost of academic research, on-farm trials are considered a less expensive means of gathering information to support the use of a product and increase sales. Staff photo.

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  • Stephen Blezinger

  • Management and Nutritional Consultant
  • Reveille Livestock Concepts
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