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A participatory action learning approach to developing management guidelines to achieve effective weed control and minimise off farm movement of atrazine in central Queensland.

Anne Sullivan1, Maurice Conway 1 and Rodney Collins 2

1DPI&F, LMB 6 Emerald Qld 4720
DPI&F, LMB 1 Biloela Qld 4715


The Central Queensland Sustainable Farming Systems Project (CQSFSP) uses a participatory and action learning approach to work with farmers on issues that impact on the profitability and sustainability of dryland grain farming systems in central Queensland (CQ).

In 2004, farmers involved with the project highlighted concerns about the use of atrazine, a residual herbicide used commonly in sorghum and maize crops in CQ. Atrazine has been frequently detected in water samples collected downstream of cropping areas in CQ, and rural communities have expressed concerns of the impact it will have on human health. Farmers where aware of atrazine’s off-site impacts and as a result were keen to minimise off-farm movement, whilst maintaining its efficacy. CQSFSP staff utilised a participatory action learning approach to develop atrazine management guidelines with farmers, with a view to improving the efficacy of atrazine whilst minimising off-target movement and adverse environmental impacts.

Media Summary

The Central Queensland Sustainable Farming Systems Project has worked with farmers in central Queensland to develop management guidelines that aim to improve the efficacy of atrazine and minimise its movement off-farm.

Key Words

Atrazine, herbicide, efficacy, runoff, participatory, action- learning.


In 2004 farmers working with the Central Queensland Sustainable Farming Systems Project highlighted concerns about the detection of atrazine in water quality samples. Atrazine is a residual herbicide used commonly in sorghum and maize crops in CQ. Growers were concerned that atrazine products would be removed from sale if graingrowers were not able to show that they were using these products efficiently and reducing the risk of atrazine moving off-farm. In response to these concerns the project team developed an action learning module for developing guidelines for atrazine use. A participatory action learning approach was used with farmers as an effective means of ensuring ownership of the guidelines and adoption of the suggested practices.

We chose the process of action learning as the CQSFSP is based around this process and has been extremely successful in the past in achieving practice change. Action learning is a process of continuous learning and reflection and allows individuals to learn with and from each other. Everyone learns through experience and thinking through, or reflecting on, past events. Action learning builds on this normal process of learning, by making more clearly the relationship between reflection and more effective action (McGill & Beatty, 1992). The project already has established groups of farmers that have worked together in the past. They are accustomed to working together and learning from each other. Through this process it is up to the individual to take action after reflecting with the group. The issue of atrazine management was identified by the farmers themselves, and the action learning process helped guide them towards the next step of doing something about it – that is improve the management of how we use atrazine. The evaluation process was based on Bennett’s hierarchy particularly capturing information in regards to knowledge, attitudes, skills, aspirations and practice change (commonly known as KASAP) (Wissemann, 1992).


The following five step process was used to develop the guidelines.

1. Workshop one

This workshop had a number of strategic components, commencing with the collection of current practices and knowledge about how atrazine is used. Farmers were asked to complete an entry survey about how they used atrazine, the effectiveness of atrazine in controlling weeds, and whether they had any concerns about the product. The aim of this survey was to develop a collective view of current knowledge and practices among the group. It also provided the team with a benchmark in regards to the farmers current knowledge, attitudes and skills in atrazine management that could be used to evaluate practice change that may occur over the coming years as a result of this process.

From the initial survey we confirmed that this was an issue for the majority of farmers, as 67% had some concerns about the future use of atrazine. The survey also highlighted the importance of this product in the farming system as 80% of the area planted to sorghum was treated with atrazine. There were a number of concerns listed by growers about using atrazine, of which 25% responded as being concerned about the contamination of waterways and off site movement.

The second component of the workshop was aimed at delivering more information. Four speakers presented information on:

  • Factors to consider when using atrazine and management practices to follow to ensure the best results.
  • Research results from CQ trials about improving the efficacy of atrazine and residual studies to determine recropping intervals after atrazine.
  • Information about how herbicides (particularly atrazine) move in the catchment and factors affecting the persistence and rate of breakdown of atrazine.
  • Local water quality monitoring results indicating the presence of atrazine in most water quality samples taken.

The third component asked farmers to draw on what they already knew, and what they had just learnt, to develop practices that would help improve the efficacy of atrazine and minimise its movement off farm. They were challenged to consider what the grains industry could do, and not just what they were capable of individually. The aim here was to develop as many guidelines as possible that could be used widely in the CQ grains industry.

Following this, the group members’ aspirations were collected in terms of the practices they could implement over the coming season and within the next five years to improve atrazine management on their farm. This was done by discussion and a survey.

2. Update at CQSFSP meeting

The key to keeping people interested is keeping them informed. The project meets with its grower groups biannually, so we took advantage of these meetings to update the growers on the progress with the development of the guidelines. We also were able to feed back information that we had collected from them about their current practice, which the group members found very interesting.

3. Field walk during the season

A field walk was planned to inspect a sorghum crop, discuss the weed control measures undertaken to grow the crop, and ask the farmers to share what management practices they had tried in regards to their atrazine use or any alternative weed control options.

This activity did not eventuate as dry conditions meant that few crops were planted and in many cases changes to atrazine use planned did not occur. This component was incorporated into the second workshop, as detailed in the section below.

4. Workshop two

The aim of this workshop was to complete the action learning cycle and give the farmers the opportunity to reflect, generalise and plan for future atrazine management, and collect feedback from the farmers about the guidelines. The workshop also included a facilitated discussion where the participants were reminded of what they indicated they were going to do (in workshop one) to improve the management of atrazine on their farm. As the field walk during the season was not held, we incorporated this into workshop two. It involved going out into a farmer’s paddock to inspect a crop, discuss weed control options, and conduct a risk assessment to evaluate the potential risk of runoff and atrazine movement. The draft version of the guidelines was posted to all farmers in the CQSFSP groups to give them the opportunity to read them prior to the meeting. We wanted to ensure that the grower’s ideas had been captured accurately in the management guidelines, and that what we had produced would be of benefit to farmers and the industry. An exit survey was completed by all growers’ to capture their changes in knowledge, attitude, skills, aspirations and ultimately practice change in their management of atrazine.

5. Distribution of the guidelines

The project has completed all changes to the guidelines after collecting feedback from growers at workshop two. The guidelines will be distributed in October via a GRDC mailout which will target all grain growers in CQ. Resellers and agronomists will also be sent the guidelines.


The atrazine action learning module was developed using the action learning cycle. In the initial workshop growers were involved in a planning process and decided on what actions they would do differently to improve their atrazine management. Throughout the following cropping season they were able to act upon those plans developed in workshop 1 and observe the results of their practice. Workshop 2 provided the opportunity to share those observations and reflect on their actions. This process provided an opportunity for growers to have input into an issue that was of concern to them. Participation by farmers provided an open and sharing learning environment, and ensured they have ownership of the guidelines. This approach lead to the development of a product that is useful to farmers and addresses an issue that is important to them.

Throughout the workshops, it was important to be flexible in how the material was developed and presented. We had to adapt depending on the group and the environment. For example, we had planned to use the pinboarding technique in workshop one when asking growers to list management practices. This would allow us to brainstorm all potential practices, and than group them according to whether they would improve efficacy or minimise runoff or both. As a pinboarding exercise, the whole group could be involved in this process, and recognise the linkages between many of the practices that have a positive benefit to both efficacy and the environment. This worked in certain venues, but in farm sheds was not practical.

The growers were challenged to think broadly, which proved difficult for some whilst provided an enjoyable challenge for others. We wanted them to think beyond their own farm gate and develop possible solutions for the whole industry. This proved challenging, as certain practices that might greatly improve weed control (for example incorporating atrazine via tillage) may impact more negatively on ground cover and hence increase the risk of runoff. However, many practices that improved weed control also had a positive outcome for the environment. Risk assessment, strategic planning and flexible management were key aspects to achieving the aims of the guidelines. The result was a list of practices that growers could choose from that were most suitable for their individual farming system.

An issue that is faced by many extension officers is getting those farmers involved who “need the most help”. Farmers who continually aim to improve their farm management are often the first to be involved whilst there are others who have no desire to change and improve their farming system. It is a problem that growers involved with the CQSFSP have also identified – the project needs to target more farmers, and that often the ones who should be at our meetings are not attending. By mailing the guidelines to all grain growers in CQ, they will have access to the information produced. Unfortunately they miss the action learning opportunity provided through the workshops.

Overall, the action learning process to develop management guidelines for atrazine has been extremely successful with a usable and practical document produced. Considering the principles of adult learning added to its success by working on an issue that is relevant to farmers in CQ, involving them in the process and placing value on their knowledge and experience. Working in a familiar environment (that is the farm shed), and allowing time for people to reflect on what they had learnt before coming back to the group to share their experience also contributed to the success of this approach.


The participatory action learning approach used ensured that the guidelines are relevant to the needs of the target audience. The evaluation conducted at the end of workshop 2 asked growers to rank on a scale of 1-5 how useful the guidelines were to themselves and to the industry, and what impact they thought the guidelines would have on improving efficacy and reducing runoff. Many growers ranked highly the usefulness of the action learning process in improving their understanding of how atrazine works, and what practices they can adopt to improve weed control and minimise off farm movement. They also ranked highly the usefulness of the guidelines to the grains industry and the impact they may have on improving efficacy and reducing movement in the environment.

Addressing the community concerns about atrazine demonstrates a proactive approach by CQ farmers to ensure they have access to a product that is of value to their farming system. This approach also increases awareness in the grains industry about the importance of effectively managing atrazine and other herbicides and pesticides in the farming system. The growers involved in developing the guidelines believe it is important that all growers need to use atrazine responsibly to get the best value by gaining better weed control and minimise its movement off farm. The result has been the development of practical guidelines that farmers can adapt to their own farming system.


McGill, I & Beatty, E. (1992). ‘What is action learning and how does it work?’ Action Learning – A practitioner’s guide, Kogan Page, London. UK, 21-39.

Wissemann, A. (1992). Three key concepts in Extension Evaluation, Research in Extension Unit, Department of Primary Industries, Brisbane.

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