Using organic principles to create sustainable agricultural and land solutions

Elm Farm – The Organic Research Centre:

Close up of a nearly-ripe wheat field In today’s world we can barely open a newspaper or turn on the television without seeing a piece on the problems facing our world, and how we are abusing our planet and environment. But how often do you see something on activities and programs aimed at addressing these issues – and not in a futuristic sense, but things that are happening now. Programs and initiatives that are being implemented today for the benefit of the planet. Well, thankfully these programs do exist, and one such centre investigating and supporting them is The Organic Research Centre at Elm Farm.

Dedicated to developing sustainable land use, The Organic Research Centre near Newbury, Berkshire is designed to look at providing solutions that develop and support sustainable agriculture and land use. Based upon organic principles to ensure the environment’s health is as protected as possible, the research programs are conducted at the farm in Berkshire and across 25 other farms in the UK.

Specifically researchers in the crops programme are running projects that advance the agronomy and management of crops, as well as looking at the development of suitable oat varieties for organic systems and wheat breeding. Within the wheat breeding project for example researchers have developed, instead of varieties, Composite Cross Populations which, because of their large genetic diversity, perform stably under differing or fluctuating environmental conditions. This stability is increasingly being recognised by farmers as important for the future viability of their businesses and in the face of climate change; these are now being grown on 25 farms from Devon to Northumberland.

The majority of these projects need to go through several key stages: setting hypotheses, deciding on treatment levels, designing the experiments (where GenStat comes in), carrying out field plot trials, assessing and harvesting the trials and then using GenStat to analyse the data. In designing the experiments, GenStat is used to estimate the replication required and allocate the treatments to the plots; when analysing the data the menus in GenStat are used for summary statistics, ANOVA and META analysis. Outputs are then used to see the significant effects and graphs generated from the means and associated errors.

In wheat breeding trials performed by the Elm Farm researchers, the main aim was to produce wheat that performs well year after year over a range of different environments. “Over the last three years of field trials at four sites,” says Sarah Clarke of the Organic Research Centre, “the populations have indeed performed well in terms of yield and quality, but we were unable to quantify their reliability in a satisfactory way.”

VSNi Consultancy

At this point the researchers chose to use the consultancy service provided by the statisticians at VSNi to assist with their analyses. Specifically the VSNi statisticians used a “superiority” analysis, which generated a measure of superiority, based on the absolute yields and how stable they are. “The great aspect of this new analysis is that we can use data from all 12 experiments, i.e. 3 years over 4 sites, to work out which of the varieties and populations are both yielding and reliable,” says Sarah Clarke, ORC, “we can also split the experiments into those that are organic and those that are non-organic, to see if the populations differ between systems.” The initial results from the analysis indicate that the populations are generally performing well, but even more encouraging is that when other factors such as grain protein and canopy cover were analysed and results combined with the yield data it showed that the “offspring” populations were more reliably high performing that the parent strands. Further analysis is being carried out on the data, but so far the results look promising in terms of quality and yield quality.

Figure 1 graph

Figure 1. Yield superiority indices (low = superior) in conventional (black bars) and organic (grey bars) systems of the Yield (Y) category: composite cross populations (CCP) with or without males sterility (MS); parent varieties of the population; and the mixture of the parent varieties (Y mix).

The overall assistance provided by VSNi included them performing a “health check” on some of the analysis to ascertain a base point to start from. The VSNi statisticians then performed a META analysis which combined the analyses from all the sites using reml techniques to allow for the multiple variables. The team at Elm Farm needed to evaluate the stability of the sites in their study, so programs were developed to calculate the cultivar superiority measure, mean and variance of varieties. The results were assessed with permutation tests (developed by VSNi) for significance. The additional work and assistance from VSNi was made into menus for the Elm Farm researchers to allow them to use them in future studies and projects. GenStat has enabled these researchers to perform sophisticated statistics without the need to learn the sophisticated statistics themselves; GenStat’s pedigree provides a solid basis and encourages good statistical practice, with VSNi as the safety net and back up. This means researchers can concentrate on doing what they do best, rather than worrying about the validity of the statistics behind their projects.

“Without the assistance and support of the VSNi statisticians, the analysis of the data from our trials would have taken much longer and we would have not been truly able to draw conclusions on which wheat compositions perform best and under what conditions. As it is we can confidently make recommendations and refine our experiments to find the most ideal wheat for each environment.” Says Sarah Clarke ORC, “we are well equipped to understand the analysis of our data, and make predictions and recommendations for the future. Without this service our researchers may have spent valuable time and effort trying to work on complicated statistics; VSNi took the hassle out of the work and provided us with tools for future use, so that we could concentrate on the studies and results of the studies to enable better future planning.”

For VSNi it’s encouraging to know that GenStat has become an important tool for any researcher in their projects, but there is an added feel-good factor knowing that the products assist with sustainability programmes around the world. You can find out more about Elm Farm through their website.

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