Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Monitor farms as a tool for practice change – the 8x5 Wool Profit Program experience

Sarah Campbell1, David Counsell2, Doug Friend3, Robin Thompson4, Sarah Ackland5 and Steve Barrington5

1 Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment, PO Box 46, Kings Meadows, Tas, 7249. www.dpiwe.tas.gov.au Email Sarah.Campbell@dpiwe.tas.gov.au
2
Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment, PO Box 46, Kings Meadows, Tas, 7250. www.dpiwe.tas.gov.au Email Robin.Thompson@dpiwe.tas.gov.au
3
Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research, Mt Pleasant Laboratories, GPO Box 46, Kings Meadows, Tasmania 7249. www.tiar.tas.edu.au Email David.Counsell@dpiwe.tas.gov.au
4
Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research, Mt Pleasant Laboratories, GPO Box 46, Kings Meadows, Tasmania 7249. www.tiar.tas.edu.au Email Doug.Friend@dpiwe.tas.gov.au
5
“Apsley Park”, 610 Lake Highway, Apsley, Tasmania 7030. Email sackland@bordernet.com.au

Abstract

Although catalysing on-farm change is the basic reason for extension programs, this is often difficult to achieve. Mindful of this challenge, the 8x5 Wool Profit Program established three ‘monitor farms’ to help promote adoption of best practice management. Although it is difficult to emphatically attribute cause and effect, evaluation of the program has shown that the monitor farms were a successful tool for influencing on-farm practice change. Significant practice change occurred on each of the monitor farms, resulting in benefits such as increased stocking rates, decline in weaner deaths and increase in wool production. More importantly, an independent survey of wool producers found that of the respondents that attended monitor farm field days, 61% reported making changes to their on-farm practices. Practice changes included timing of key management events, weaner management and improved pasture management. This paper evaluates the concept of monitor farms as a catalyst for change and how they can be integrated into other agricultural research, development and extension programs. It also examines our own journey through the process of developing, implementing and managing the monitor farms, and how this journey has provided professional development for the research and extension specialists.

Three key learnings: (1) Key success factors of a monitor farm are: a clear plan; a board of management, including an appropriate time span; the right farm; integration into a complete industry extension program. (2) A monitor farm is a commercial farm where decisions on management and risk cannot be taken lightly. (3) Monitor farms are appropriate for tackling a range of issues or single issues, and may involve the whole farm or part of the farm.

Key Words

Monitor farms, companion farms, 8x5 Wool Profit Program, practice change.

Introduction

Australian Wool Innovation Limited (AWI), in partnership with the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research (TIAR) and the Department of Primary Industries Water and Environment (DPIWE), funded the 8x5 Wool Profit Program (8x5 WPP) in Tasmania from 2003-2006. The 8x5 WPP was an integrated research, development & extension program to assist Tasmanian woolgrowers to achieve their vision of an 8% return on net assets managed for wool production within five years. The extension component of the program offered access to benchmarking, best practice management information and group improvement initiatives.

A core extension strategy of the 8x5 WPP was to use monitor farms to:

  • focus on the key profit drivers of wool growing businesses
  • provide benchmark information to assist growers to identify potential areas of their business for improvement
  • assist grower groups to utilise action planning methodologies to identify management priorities for their individual farms
  • enable researchers and growers to work together to identify problems, and implement strategies to address them, in the context of managing a commercial farm
  • introduce and demonstrate new technologies to farmers
  • provide a forum to discuss new and current management options.

The concept of a monitor farm is a commercial farm being used to demonstrate beneficial practices to growers by providing not only visual evidence, but also credibility through application in a ‘real’ farm system. Farmers tend to be wary of advice given by extension agencies and are more inclined to listen to their farming colleagues. Monitor farms can take many forms. Some can be linked to a general district discussion group, while a dedicated group can run other farms. All or part of a farm can be utilised for a monitor farm. Some groups, such as the South West Prime Lamb Group, lease a section of a farm (Joseph 2002). This can be beneficial in terms of having more scope for implementing change, but with less risk to the owner. The Dexcel Monitor Farm Program in New Zealand (Abercrombie 2001) not only utilises monitor farms for information transfer, but also as a source of benchmarking data.

The Dairy Branch of the DPIWE (Doonan pers. comm. 2004) has successfully run an extension program involving companion farms, which are a form of monitor farms. This concept involved the Department providing intensive assistance to selective dairying businesses undergoing significant change and development. The results were then relayed to industry as positive examples of change management.

Funding bodies generally prefer programs that can demonstrate the occurrence of on-farm change in order to provide their stakeholders (Government and primary producers) with the satisfaction that their money is being well spent. It was therefore important that the 8x5 WPP could demonstrate practice change.

Methods

The project supported three monitor farms located in different regions of the state - the Northern Midlands, the Southern Midlands and the East Coast - reflecting the geographic and climatic diversity of the Tasmanian wool industry.

Businesses were selected as monitor farms using the following criteria:

  • enthusiasm and preparedness of management to adopt new ideas and try new technologies
  • competent manager with a good knowledge of pasture management (preferably completed PROGRAZE course)
  • willingness of the manager to contribute time towards extra on-farm duties such as monitoring and participating in a farm management board
  • willingness of the manager to talk at discussion group field days about their experiences
  • wool as the major farm enterprise, with a farm stocking rate above 7000 DSE
  • property with a range of pastures types and potential to increase productivity
  • year-round access for monitoring and farm walks.

Development and operation of the monitor farms were split into a number of phases, involving establishing the future direction of the farm, analysing the current situation, formulating strategies, implementation and review (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The process of planning and implementation on the monitor farms.

A discussion group encompassing farmers from the local district was established for each monitor farm. Members of this group were considered the primary targets for adoption of practice changes demonstrated on the monitor farms.

A board of management with the following composition was established for each monitor farm:

  • Farm Manager(s) – responsible for the day to day operations of the farm
  • 8x5 Program Manager – responsible for farm business planning and livestock management
  • 8x5 Program Project Officer – responsible for administration, group coordination and NRM planning
  • Agronomist – responsible for providing pasture management advice
  • local farmer or consultant – responsible for providing advice on broad farm management issues.

The board of management was responsible for:

  • identifying potential areas within the monitor farm business that could be improved to increase profitability
  • provision of a range of solutions to management issues identified as priorities for the farm
  • identifying paddocks for pasture monitoring
  • analysing the impact of management changes on the farm
  • identifying case study activities and issues of district relevance
  • identifying the key pasture/wool enterprise extension messages relevant to the surrounding district
  • provision of technical advice on issues identified by discussion group members.

During the initial development of the business plans, board meetings were held on a regular six-weekly basis. As activities on the monitor farms became more settled, the board meetings became less frequent, extending out to approximately every three months. Specialists in the areas of pasture nutrition and animal production attended meetings and provided advice to the board of management as required.

The management board reviewed each monitor farm business from a ‘triple bottom line’ (economic, social and environmental) perspective. The following key profit drivers were used to determine the areas for change that the farm business needed to focus on: internal and external parasite management; pasture management; soil fertility; sheep genetics; stocking rate; weaner management; footrot management; enterprise management calender; capital utilisation; labour efficiency; clip preparation; wool marketing; and business management, incorporating risk management and benchmarking.

New technologies, such as electronic tagging and alternative worm management strategies were examined for applicability, and if suitable, were implemented as small on-farm trials. If successful, the new technologies were fully implemented. Any changes to the farm had to be acceptable on economic, physical and personal levels, and integrate with current farming practices. The operation of the farm and final management decisions were still the responsibility of the farm manager, despite the board of management providing advice and recommendations.

A strategic operations plan was developed for each farm in association with a financial plan. Goals were then set around each of the strategies. Strategies were flexible, and often changed in response to seasonal and market influences. Small, on-farm, research and demonstration projects were initiated to address farm and district issues to which there was no proven solution.

Performance monitoring related to the identified profit drivers continued throughout the life of the monitor farms to not only help ensure that targets were being met, but to provide valuable ‘ground-truth’ results.

Monitoring included:

  • pastures (botanical composition, pests, production )
  • livestock (faecal egg counts, live-weight, wool clip analysis, condition scores, stocking rates, weaner mortality, lambing percentages, flock structure)
  • financial (cost of production, gross margins, return on assets managed, labour efficiency).

The discussion group associated with each monitor farm helped ensure local ownership and extrapolation of results beyond the monitor farms. The discussion group also provided feedback related to the wider adoption of technologies. The monitor farm manager also becomes the ‘champion’ or figurehead for promoting new best practice or technology.

To ensure information was not restricted to just the associated discussion groups, extension messages arising from the farms were transmitted through newsletters, the web, rural press, public field days and forums.

Results

Monitor farm practice change

The practice changes implemented on the individual monitor farms varied between farms and depended on the priorities identified for each farm. In order to protect the farm managers’ privacy, the farms will be identified in this paper as A, B and C.

Farm A experienced the highest level of on-farm practice change, especially in terms of weaner management, pasture management and utilisation, and business planning. The other two farms made a relatively smaller amount of change, focused mainly on genetics and production benchmarking, although Farm B also focused on pasture management. In some instances, Farms B and C were already using best practice management practices, and thus could be used to demonstrate these practices without the need to initiate and implement changes.

At this time natural resource management (NRM) was topical in Tasmania, given the current local issues with non-forest vegetation management, farm dam construction and game management. Farm C focussed largely on this area, with a vegetation management plan being formed in conjunction with the local NRM coordinator. Farm A also incorporated native grass and non-forest vegetation management into their whole-farm plan. Farm B, on the other hand, had already been through this process before becoming a monitor farm. The main natural resource issue on farm B was salinity in some lower lying areas, which was already being addressed.

The data presented below indicates the improvements made in the farm business for Farm A. Although the program officially started in June 2003, the results of strategies implemented were not evident until June 2004. For the purpose of our evaluation, June 2000 to June 2003 was considered as pre 8x5 WPP. The period June 2003 to June 2004 was a developmental stage for the farm, during which time the farm managers were getting used to newly implemented strategies, and the period after June 2004 was a consolidation phase.

Over the three years, average greasy wool production increased steadily, with production in 2005 being 188% of that in 2001 (18.8 vs 35.4 kg/ha: Figure 2a). Stocking rate also increased by 27% over the four years of the program, which is equivalent to approximately an additional 2.1 DSE/grazed hectare (Figure 2b). Profit per kilogram of wool varied during the life of the program, as to be expected with a market dependent commodity. However, in the year before becoming a monitor farm there was no profit from wool production (Figure 2c). Cost of wool production declined by approximately $8.00/kg over the life of the program (Figure 2d).

Figure 2. Changes in production and financial variables for Farm A: (a) average greasy wool production, (b) stocking rate, (c) profit per kilogram of wool produced, and (d) cost of wool production.

The managers of Farm A evaluated the benefits of being a monitor farm as providing:

  • increased knowledge of the main profit drivers affecting their wool growing business
  • providing a clear understanding of where their business stands in relation to these profit drivers, and where improvements can be made
  • development of a farm plan incorporating a biodiversity plan, and allowing possible alternative marketing options in the future
  • reduced procrastination about making decisions and better planning, allowing increased labour efficiency
  • increased production by increasing stocking rate
  • improved management of weaners, mainly through worm management and summer feeding management
  • increased objectivity and understanding of the process of making logical decisions on fertiliser applications
  • increased knowledge of when breaks occur in the wool of their weaners, ewes and wethers
  • better knowledge of what native vegetation they have and what condition it is in
  • a good network of contacts in the wool industry
  • a positive outlook for the future of their business (there is plenty of room for optimism regarding both wool prices and options they have to make the business more profitable).

A further measure of success was the degree to which the farm attained the goals set at the beginning of the program. Production and financial goals are the easiest to measure, and the results presented indicate the success achieved towards increasing greasy wool yield and wool profitability. Other goals that were attained included improved fertiliser decision making, which resulted in correcting soil nutrient deficiencies, while also reducing fertiliser costs. Improvements in grazing management through improved paddock allocation and rotational grazing, and improved worm management through a strategic summer drenching program were also achieved. Other goals, such as improving the composition of perennial pastures, will be reached with time and experience. Setting goals gave the farm managers clear directions in terms of their sheep and pasture management. The most important outcome of goal setting was giving the farmers involved direction through the strategic plan and confidence in their farming future.

Industry practice change

Evaluation of the program shows that over the last four years, over 200 growers attended activities associated with the monitor farms. Approximately 10 service providers from local merchandise and fertiliser companies also attended. Workshops on rotational grazing were the most popular, with over 60 growers attending. Over 200 growers received the ad hoc monitor farm newsletters containing information specific to each farm, while 200 and 880 growers respectively received the 8x5 WPP monthly and quarterly newsletters, which also contained information relating to the monitor farms. Given there are approximately 1080 woolgrowers in Tasmania (ABS 2002), information from the monitor farms was disseminated quite widely.

In a 2004 phone survey of 60 Tasmanian woolgrowers (Tilbury 2004), 80% were aware of the monitor farm field days, and 27% actually attended. Of those that attended, 62% had made practice changes on their farm. Practice changes included changes to timing of management calendar events, weaner management and improved pasture management. Reasons for not attending field days included lack of time or bad timing (56%), lack of interest in the topic (18%) or lack of awareness (16%).

Organisational practice change

The monitor farm provided the majority of TIAR and DPIWE scientists serving as management board members with a new and positive experience. Although many of the institute or agency staff had been involved at some level in other extension programs either as speakers or facilitators, the one-on-one contact with farmers at a consultancy level was a first for most of them, as the demise of district officers has minimised this opportunity. Farmers clearly valued the opportunity to interact more closely with scientists because of the perceived unbiased nature of their advice. At the same time, scientists benefited from their close involvement in implementing new technologies and seeing the effects of this implementation on the whole-farm system.

Discussion

The results show that the monitor farms proved to be a useful tool for catalysing change, both on the monitor farms themselves and on other farms in the neighbouring districts. Successful extension occurred because activities were whole-farm, business focused and relevant to the growers’ own businesses. Significant practice change occurred on the monitor farms, with objective evidence showing them to be significantly more productive and more profitable as a result of implementing key strategies identified in their initial business reviews. This demonstrates the benefits of a close relationship between individual growers and their external consultants.

The monitor farm approach allowed use of a variety of extension methods, ranging from small-scale plot trials to whole paddock demonstrations and, finally, to whole-farm implementation. One major benefit was to bring scientists to the farmers via the monitor farms, so that they gained a better appreciation of the complexities associated with implementing on-farm changes.

Having three monitor farms allowed a greater range of issues to be addressed, which had the advantage of allowing farmers to select from a wider range of technologies and issues that may be relevant to their farms. However, to benefit from this greater range of issues required some farmers to travel greater distances. In reality, most of the interest in the monitor farms was from the immediate surrounding area, suggesting farmers are reluctant to travel far or to move outside their established networks and social groupings to discuss their farming practices and to seek new information. This suggests that location is an important consideration when selecting a monitor farm.

In considering the location of a monitor farm it is important to ensure that there is a commitment from the local growers. This is most likely to be achieved if the issues being addressed by the monitor farms are perceived as relevant and the scientists involved have established credibility with the local farmers

Selecting a suitable farm manager is also important. A monitor farm manager must be contemplating changes and be prepared to share the experiences irrespective of outcomes.

The benefit of a monitor farm is that it demonstrates what is possible in the local environment. Visual evidence of the results of practice change provides a powerful message, which is why field days that involve paddock walks are often more successful than the simple shearing shed talk. Farmers tend to live by the ‘seeing is believing’ rule. Being able to see practice changes occurring on the monitor farm, and having the farm manager champion the change, is perhaps one reason why other farmers had the confidence to implement similar changes on their properties. Being able to show positive financial results from the changes would also have influenced other growers to adopt the new technologies on their properties. Whilst it is acknowledged that farmers use a diversity of information sources, it is reasonable to conclude that themonitor farms contributed to the practice changes on neighbouring farms.

Whilst change was not as great on Farms B and C, they both had areas of current best practice management, such as suitable pasture species selection, footrot eradication, weaner management, pest control and grazing management, that were also utilised as discussion group topics. Discussion groups associated with these farms could see the results of practices on these farms and question the managers as to how the changes were implemented.

One of the main reasons why monitor farms tend to work is the need for farmers to collaborate with their peers. Within the bounds of a monitor farm discussion group, farmers can find advice, reassurance and sometimes, friendly competition and peer pressure. The rate at which farmers implement change will largely depend on their own circumstances and their motivation to change. The monitor farm can provide motivation, confidence and support for change in a relatively non-threatening environment.

Management boards are essential to running a monitor farm. A board of management should have a facilitator to run the meetings, specialist experts and, of course, have the farmer involved. It is also important to involve all parties involved in the farming business, whether it is the wife, partner, children or key farm employees. This will help to ensure that well-informed discussions take place, and that there is greater ownership of decisions made by all those involved in running the farm, and greater enthusiasm for implementing changes. The monitor farm managers must be comfortable to disclose financial farm management information to the board.

It must always be remembered that the monitor farm is not only a commercial business, but is also part of the emotional livelihood of the farm manager and their family. In analysing the farm business, care must be taken when discussing negative aspects or poor performance of the business. Members of the board of management should adhere to predetermined protocols when dealing with sensitive issues. Sometimes managers will not be comfortable with change, due to previous experiences or their personality, and the board of management should also respect this fact. Where a strategy is not implemented, the board of management should always look for an alternative, whether it is utilising another property or using other extension methods such as workshops or guest speakers.

In making decisions relating to the farm business, the board of management has the responsibility of ensuring that any changes don’t have a major negative effect, especially on financial returns. Such a consideration may restrict addressing some issues. On the three monitor farms there was a simple agreement that the decision to implement any change was the managers responsibility. However, managing the risks associated with change could be addressed by provision of some financial underwriting to a monitor farm. This may be achieved, for example, by the organisation involved having adequate insurance should there be financial losses. It was important to analyse all changes in terms of the potential risks, and determine appropriate remedial or recovery strategies should there be adverse effects.

Involvement in a monitor farm can be very time consuming for both farmers and the program team. The majority of researchers involved in the project had other projects to work on, which sometimes meant they were not available to deal with issues arising on the monitor farms. It is important, therefore, that adequate time is allowed for a researcher involved in a monitor farm, where farm inspections and decisions may need to be made without prior notice. Good communication between the monitor farm manager and the project team is essential to ensure the program keeps on track. This includes keeping the monitor farmer informed of any fieldwork so that property traffic can be monitored.

One of the major negatives of a monitor farm is that it tends to alienate farmers from outside the discussion group area. Information gathered from the monitor farms must be available to all industry stakeholders using media such as e-mail, newsletters and the popular press. The challenge with such communications is to provide relevant information to a wide farmer audience using the monitor farm results to strengthen the messages being delivered.

Lack of time was a major limitation to the effectiveness of the monitor farms. As the changes implemented were starting to show results, our program was nearing completion. Unless continued funding can be guaranteed, the full benefits of monitor farms may not be realised, as some strategies may not yield results in the short (2-3 year) term. A survey of both the monitor farms and other farms in the surrounding districts conducted in two to three years time would be useful to further evaluate the success of this extension program.

While production and financial benefits have occurred on our monitor farms, and survey results indicate a high level of practice change by farmers participating in field days, it is not possible to attribute such changes solely to the influence of the monitor farms. Quantifying the success of the program in terms of return on investment by AWI is therefore difficult. Our initial goal of an 8% return on net assets managed for wool production within five years will be evaluated at the end of the overall program. Results from the New Zealand Monitor Farm Program (McIvor 2005) certainly provide confidence that monitor farms can result in significant on-farm change and a good return on investment for funders. McIvor (2005) reports a cost benefit of 1:21, which if applied to the Tasmanian experience would be considered significant. Similar quantitative evaluative data is required in Australia to support continued Government and industry investment in extension. Long term, intensive evaluation must be an integral part of the management of a monitor farm program, in order to accurately attribute farming practice changes to the monitor farms.

The Dairy Branch of the DPIWE also uses the monitor farm/companion farm concept in their TOP Program. This program focuses on developing the skills of the farmers involved in order to achieve a 10% return on capital (ROC) or, alternatively, an increased ROC of 2% per annum. Of the four farms involved in the program from 2001-2002, three farms had exceeded the target of a 10% ROC by the 2004-2005 season, whilst the fourth was close to reaching the target (DPIWE 2005).

A national survey conducted by the Sheep CRC (Green 2005) evaluated the efficiency of different extension methods in promoting awareness and decision changes to primary producers. Although awareness could be assured through the use of mass media, when it came to decision making, 30 - 40% of respondents based their decisions on advice from field days. Given that the monitor farms in our extension program were field-day orientated and focused on experiential learning, then the monitor farms were an ideal extension tool.

Organisations should consider the concept of monitor farms when planning future research, development and extension programs (RD&E). Whilst research stations are still an integral part of demonstrating new technologies, they are often not functioning like a typical commercial farm. Using a commercial farm or part of a commercial farm, will show how technology change works in the ‘real world’.

To what level the concept of a monitor farm is used is dependent on what the RD & E program wants to achieve. If a group of producers have a specific part of a production system they want to investigate, the leasing of a small area of a farm would be more beneficial than trying to utilise a whole farm. Where a whole-farm approach is required, then a whole farm should be used. Research may be carried out elsewhere where variables can be minimised, and development and extension carried out on the monitor farm. As well as field days, the internet, e-mail, newsletters and the media should be used to help disseminate the information. This will help build an interest to follow the progress of the monitor farm.

Conclusions

Monitor farms are a valuable but expensive extension tool focused on implementing on-farm management changes. It is evident that they are successful in a number of agricultural industries, but they must be well planned, managed and undergo intensive evaluation to gain maximum benefit to both the industry and the researchers.

References

Abercrombie R (2001). Support for regional decision making through monitoring. Dexcelink. Winter 2001. Dexcel New Zealand.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2002). Statistics Tasmania. 1999-2000 Corrigendum Agriculture. Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment (2005). The companion farm grand tour – July 2005 (Booklet). Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment. www.dpiwe.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/Attachments/CART6EM4G6/$FILE/Booklet%20for%20Companion%20Farm%20Tour.pdf

Green B (2005) Efficiency in extension – Investing in locating and assessing the target audience. Sheep CRC. Department of Agriculture Western Australia.

Joseph K (2002). Farm focus to target specific markets. Feedback. MLA. June 2002.

McIvor S (2005). Monitor Farms. Meat and Wool New Zealand.www.meatandwoolnz.com/main.cfm?id=40

Riddel I (2001). Monitor farms and farmer discussion groups in New Zealand (Summary). Scottish Agricultural College. www1.sac.ac.uk/info/External/About/publicns/Reports/MonitorSummary.pdf

Tilbury O (2005). 8x5 Wool Profit Program Follow Up Survey March 2005. Total Business Consultants. Prepared for the 8x5 Wool Profit Program (Commercial in confidence).

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page