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A participatory action learning model proves of value to the beef cattle live export industry

Felicity Hill1 and Ross Dodt2

1DP1 Queensland Beef Industry Institute, AFFS, PO Box 53, Cloncurry, Q 4821
DPI Queensland Beef Industry Institute, AFFS, PO Box 668, Mackay, Q 4740


The Toorak Live Export Link project was a major DPI initiative that ran from 1997 to 2001. Key extension objectives were to use to a participatory action learning and research model involving a co-learning group of industry stakeholders. This co-learning group included beef producers in North Queensland as well as others involved in the live export industry, ie buyers, feedlotters, transporters, agents and other stakeholders. The project was driven predominantly by the participating beef producers.

Other objectives of the Toorak Live Export Link project were to identify best practices as seen by producer participants; improve skills in management of live export cattle pre sale; and to enhance marketing skills of producer participants.

The final stages of the Toorak project have only recently been completed. Evaluations have shown that members of the co-learning group have benefited from the project in terms of knowledge gain and implementation of practice change.


Timms and Clark (1997) outlined a framework for the design, management and evaluation of extension projects. This framework provides a process to explore, evaluate and identify critical components of an extension project by encouraging critical thinking. Once the nature of the project is understood appropriate extension models or processes can be applied.

The Timms and Clark framework was used to help design, manage and evaluate extension processes for the Live Export Link project. Key elements of the framework are context, purpose, objectives, principles, processes, planning, management, evaluation, advantages and disadvantages. Factors that influenced, shaped and directed the participatory action learning extension model used for this project are discussed.

Project context

To initiate and facilitate understanding, learning, knowledge gain and subsequent practice change the complexity of the project context had to be congruent with the extension model used. The Toorak Live Export Link project focused on the production, management and marketing of live export cattle. The issues and concepts dealt with were complex from a biological, management and marketing viewpoint. Many of these issues and concepts are not yet fully understood.

Pivotal to the project was that several groups of cattle owners each deliver small mobs of weaner steers to Toorak Research Station Julia Creek on five separate occasions during the five-year life of the project. From this point on the performance of each group of steers was monitored whilst on Toorak, and then after marketing, throughout the live export chain. This included the road transport, sea transport and Asian feedlot phases. Cattle owners were actively involved in all phases of the project as well as planning aspects of the project. The authors of this paper were the site coordinator and project leader.

The performance, management and marketing of the steers were of major importance to the participating cattle owners. This combined with the project need to take advantage of the action learning process meant that regular and effective communication was critical to the success of the project. The geographical spread of participants across North Queensland from Townsville to Cloncurry and from Croydon south to Winton had an effect on the number and type of communication activities.

The live export market is dynamic in terms of market specifications, demand and price. This in itself made the project dynamic. Adding to this were the objectives of the five co-learning groups. In summary these were that the cattle be sold to live export markets only, that a price below market value was unacceptable, and that each group of cattle be sold onto the market at one point in time, ie no selling in sub groups.

Because of the nature of live export marketing there was always uncertainty surrounding the marketing of each intake of project cattle. The Asian “currency crisis” occurred soon after commencement so that the project operated predominantly during a period of market decline, adding further anxiety to marketing decisions. Another factor was that at times some cattle were outside market specifications at the time of marketing, but because of the objective to sell the cattle as a group, this was offered as a reason by prospective buyers to discount.

Issues of contention arose on occasion as a result of differing opinions on the marketing of the cattle. While all participants agreed to keep the cattle together and seek feedback, a few were willing to accept less than market value. Others felt that this would send the wrong signal to industry. This was the key reason why often the first and even the second or third attempt to negotiate a sale fell through.

The cattle owners were asked to share their concerns about possible negative ramifications of the project. In summary the cattle owners did not want negative conclusions to be drawn with respect to any particular breed of cattle, or to any cattle from a particular property, as a result of the project. This has had implications on the distribution of the data, the extension of some of the material and the messages that the project wanted to extend to the wider beef industry audience.

The willingness of the North Queensland beef industry to support the project meant that individual producers often went to costly and time consuming lengths to deliver cattle to Toorak Research Station. This was encouraging.


Each participant had the opportunity to develop an individual vision of the project and to define outcomes they wanted to achieve. From a DPI viewpoint the ultimate purpose was to initiate change. In this case the parameters of change had to be defined by the participants.

The purpose of the project could be summarised as:

  1. To carry out meaningful field work with a group of participating beef producers to generate information, which would enable better decisions in production, management and marketing live export cattle.
  2. To carry out effective extension processes and techniques, which would enable participants to critically think about the information generated and to learn from it, to learn from each other and to learn from the process of participating in the project as a group.
  3. To bring about changes in the knowledge, skills and practices of participating producers and other industry stakeholders.
  4. To carry out effective extension processes which would enable the wider community to be aware of the key outcomes of the project.

Live Export Link also provided purpose to others who had no direct involvement with the day to day management of the project, ie live exporters, agri political associates, industry organisations such as Agforce, Livecorp, and Leac, as well as DPI management. The project purpose as defined by these groups was sometimes in conflict with the purpose defined by cattle owners and project team members.

The purpose of the project was revisited several times as aspects of project context changed, ie the markets, seasonal conditions, participant knowledge. Any change in purpose could not clearly be defined without consultation with all participants. Subsequently the objectives of the project could not be defined either, as objectives must be congruent with purpose. The purpose defines the goals and desired outcomes of the project. The objectives are set in place to achieve these.


The key principles of the project are outlined below:

  • The key principle was participation. The process had to be participatory because all participants are co-researchers and co-learners. This relates back to the context, which states that many of the issues involved are still largely misunderstood.

    In the book: Winning Through Participation, Laura J. Spencer states that participation links all of the following values together: flexibility and responsiveness to change; innovative thinking; informal communication, continuing education and learning, visionary leadership and emphasis on quality. These are principles in themselves and this further reinforces the importance of participation.
  • The principle of being group focused is congruent with participation. The project had a defined group of individuals belonging to it. Individuals learn faster in a group situation.
  • All group participants require a clear shared vision. The owners of the cattle indicated that this was important to them.
  • To operate effectively under the previous two principles there was also a need for group ownership of the project and for self direction. Effective groups need a common goal and each participant must have ownership of that goal. To achieve this the group must have self direction in determining its goals, plans and actions and each person must be given equal opportunity to participate. This project can demonstrate strong group ownership.
  • For the group to make decisions on project goals, objectives and management or marketing of the cattle there was a requirement for problem solving and needs analysis processes. This was necessary to determine the direction of the project.
  • The principle of the acquisition of knowledge and skills to leave the participants better equipped to carry out practice change was an important part of this project.
  • The complexity of issues outlined in the context suggests that the above will only happen if the extension model used was co-learning based.
  • Action needs to be taken in order to learn.
  • To learn from action taken, extension processes that enabled participants to reflect, interpret and question had to be in place.

By exploring and understanding the principles, the project team had to focus on processes that were relevant to the project. An understanding of what processes would or would not achieve desired outcomes in terms of understanding, knowledge, and skills acquisition and ultimately practice change was required. For example, given the above stated principles and context, a series of trials not directly involving producer participants, or a project involving just field days or workshops, would not have achieved the purposes of this project.

Key extension model and processes used

The extension models used for the project had to be congruent with the project purpose and principles, while taking into account key aspects of the context of the project. The context of the project indicated that the situation was complex, not only from a biological point of view but also from a production and marketing viewpoint. The production and marketing aspects were dynamic and sometimes were seen differently by individual participants and stakeholder groups. Other considerations were the length of the project, the opportunity for producers to be involved with several intakes of cattle over time to improve the extent and validity of the information generated.

These aspects of the project context together with the principles and purposes suggested that the most appropriate extension approach or model should involve participation, some action research and learning, and some educational extension. The models or extension approaches most appropriate to the project were Participatory Action Learning, and Participatory Action Research.

In Participative Action Research problem identification, problem refinement and planning involve both the researcher and the participants, while in applied research these stages mostly involve the researcher with some input from clients (Clark et al 1997). It assumes that producers, extensionists and researchers contribute critical but different types of knowledge to the process of technology development (Lev & Acker, 1994). The strength of this process is that different types of knowledge and skills are integrated. In this project different people had different skills in extension, marketing, production and management. Participatory approaches support local innovation and adaptation, accommodate diversity and complexity and enhance local capabilities. In doing so they are more likely to generate sustainable processes and practices (Petty and Chambers 1993).

The Participatory Action Learning approach integrates producers as co-learners and co-participants in the process. Participatory Action Learning recognises that learning is an ongoing process. This approach enabled participants to be involved in an action learning cycle a number of times with each intake of cattle delivered to Toorak. Continuous improvement or continuous learning was part of the extension approach. Many participants were involved in several learning cycles of the project strengthening their knowledge on each occasion.

The extension of the research results and other associated information, eg marketing information, involved learning (largely by participating), some educational and some information based extension. This is congruent with a participative approach. The co-learning taking place was action and experiential. For example the participants were involved in the marketing and monitoring of their cattle in the project.

There were also elements of participatory problem solving, benchmarking, and total quality management in a process appropriate to this project. The context pertained to the complexity of the situation. Therefore problem solving was sometimes necessary to prevent people “jumping to solutions”. Total quality management was part of the process as it involved management, monitoring, and marketing (including meeting marketing requirements and producing a consistent market product). The learning cycles also provided an opportunity for the group to benchmark parameters that they saw as important, such as cattle performance indicators.

Extension techniques

The techniques appropriate to the extension models used are potentially many and varied. The techniques used in this project were simple, non- threatening and on appearances uncomplicated. A clear purpose was crucial. The key purposes behind the extension techniques were to stimulate and facilitate:

  • Producer participation in, and ownership of, their interactive learning environment.
  • Reflective thinking and learning.
  • Critical and lateral thinking.
  • Discussion and information exchange.

Central to the application of extension techniques were effective communication processes that had a specific extension purpose. Effective and regular communication was critical to group ownership, participation and effectiveness of project processes. The context of the project refers to the geographical spread of the participants and the difficulty of organising face to face interactions. This presented a challenge to develop processes and techniques, using non face to face forms of communication, which allowed effective participation, discussion, information exchange, as well as reflective and critical thinking. Therefore a very large percentage of the communication in the project relied upon extension processes and techniques involving phone conferences, phone calls, faxes or letters. Critical thinking about techniques using these forms of communication was needed as well as forward planning, plus regular and effective sequencing to keep up the group “momentum”.

The following are examples of key techniques used:

  • ORID type discussions (Spencer, 1989) were used to facilitate reflective thinking and learning. Issues included live weight loss during transport; implications in terms of costs involved in sending cattle to a feedlot; management implications of meeting market specifications; and how the project may be improved so that objectives were met.
  • The technique of using a round robin of individual ideas followed by the amalgamation and discussion of similar ideas was commonly used with conference calls. Conference calls were used extensively. During conference calls participants were notified of the order in which they would be called upon to give ideas. The order depended on the participant, for example whether that person was outspoken or less so and whether they would be likely to follow the previous idea or not. In face to face situations where this technique was used participants were given the option of writing down their individual ideas first. This allowed the more reflective types time to think.
  • Throughout the project techniques were used to stimulate critical and lateral thinking about project components such as management, planning, production and marketing. In non face to face situations this process often involved letters or faxes, and sometimes surveys, sent to group members posing certain questions and/or providing or seeking information. This would be followed by personal phone calls and then one or more phone conferences. Again the phone conferences were facilitated so everybody had input into questions posed and general discussion.
  • When group members were able to meet face to face they had the opportunity to discuss planning phases of the project as well as problem identification and solving aspects. The Strategic Planning process discussed in Winning Through Participation (Spencer, 1989) was adapted for some of the project planning meetings. Discussion of strategic directions, planning issues and project objectives often involved using small plenary groups that later came together as a large group with their ideas. These group sessions were usually incorporated into field day agendas.
  • Problem identification and solving techniques were necessary at times due to the nature of the live export industry, the “Asian currency crisis”, the need to keep everyone happy with sale prices and decisions. Group Dialogue techniques were mostly used, however the Nominal Group Technique was used on a couple of occasions.


Basing the extension approach of the project on both Participatory Action Research and Participatory Action Learning models raised the question: “where does extension begin in the process being used?” A key purpose of the project included bringing about change in the Live Export Industry. Research in this case was necessary to bring about that change process. The extension component in a research/ extension type process must function effectively if the generation of research information is to bring about change as defined above. Additionally the research information generated must be useful and relevant. This was more likely to happen if producers and other stakeholders such as live cattle exporters and Asian feedlotters were involved in the research component.

While participatory action learning and research processes used were effective in bringing about attitude, knowledge, skills and practice change, this type of model does require experienced extension skills, knowledge, commitment and institutional support. Often this type of extension model is avoided because of the effort required, and the perceived cost, especially in time.

Participants, some of whom wished to continue the ongoing learning process in some manner, plus others who wished to join in on the learning process, have been denied this by the conclusion of the project. This is an issue which is common and which should be addressed when extension strategies are discussed.

It is easier to bring about change in knowledge, skills and practices of people who are themselves involved in the process of change. The ownership by these people of that change process is important. In the Participatory Action Learning and Research model such as the one used for the Toorak Live Export project the cattle owners were the principal participants, however other stakeholders who may have been initially distant from the project assumed ownership as time went on and benefited from this.


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