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Adoption of environmental best practice amongst dairy farmers

Denise Bewsell1 and Geoff Kaine2

1 AgResearch Ltd, East Street, Private Bag 3123, Hamilton, New Zealand. Email
Department of Primary Industries Victoria, Tatura Email


It has proved difficult for extension agencies to promote practice change among farmers in the area of environmental management. While many attitudinal studies have attempted to explain this difficulty, none have investigated the impact of farm context on farmers’ decision making when considering adoption of environmental management practices. In this paper we use consumer behaviour theory and a market research approach to understand the impact that farm context has on the adoption of environmental practices by New Zealand dairy farmers in four catchments. The environmental practices we studied were excluding stock from waterways, reducing phosphorus use, improving macroporosity and managing effluent.

We found that farmers who chose to fence off streams did so to improve their management of stock, and not necessarily to protect the environment. We found the type of effluent treatment system installed on a farm is important because it influences farmers’ perceptions and nutrient management. We also found a link between farmers’ perceptions of the impact of the effluent on pasture, their management of fertiliser and effluent, and their type of effluent treatment system. The timing and duration of waterlogging determined farmers’ management of pugging. These results suggest environmental practices need to be linked to farm context when considering extension messages and programmes. Acknowledging that concern for the environment may not influence farmers’ decision making means that a purely voluntary approach to adoption is inappropriate. A mix of policy approaches, including regulation, may be required.

Three key learnings: (1) Understanding context is very import when considering adoption of environmental best practice; (2) Practical solutions to environmental problems that also address specific on-farm needs will succeed; (3) Attitudes to the environment may not play a large role in farmer decision making.

Key Words

Environmental management, farm context, adoption, consumer behaviour theory


Adoption of environmental best practice on dairy farms is becoming increasingly important in New Zealand as water quality in streams declines (Wilcock et al., 1999). The aim in this project was to identify those factors that influence the propensity of dairy farmers’ to adopt sustainable management practices, all of which are designed to mitigate the effect of dairying on water quality. We were interested in the following practices: excluding stock from waterways, reducing phosphorus use, improving soil macroporosity and effluent management. The work in this project was carried out in four New Zealand dairy based catchments where best practices to address environmental issues are being evaluated. Two of these catchments are in the North Island of New Zealand; the Toenepi in the Waikato, and the Waiokura in Taranaki. The remaining catchments are in the South Island, the Waikakahi in South Canterbury and Bog Burn in Southland.

Research into adoption of environmentally sustainable practices

The adoption of sustainable practices has been the subject of many studies. Curry’s (1997) research in Britain suggests that new skills were needed for farmers to successfully operate in an environment that promotes “green” values and practices. However, he also notes that this could be difficult, given that farmers have been given economic signals to maximise food production for many years (Curry, 1997). Fullen (2003) argues that different approaches to promoting adoption of conservation practices, particularly soil conservation, are essential to ensure change. Other studies have found that “environmentally aware” farmers are more likely to be influenced by conservation considerations, than by farm management concerns (Beedell and Rehman, 2000).

However, studies into stream fencing and riparian management indicate that economics and stock management rather than environmental considerations motivate the adoption of these practices. For example, researchers (Curtis and Robertson, 2003; Rhodes et al., 2002) investigating the adoption of stream fencing found that cost was the dominant reason farmers were not prepared to fence off streams. Other studies have found farm management factors such as stock management affect farmers decisions with regard to riparian management (Habron, 2004; Parminter et al., 1998). Robinson and Napier (2002) found that factors such as farm size or farm income did not influence farmer adoption of conservation practices. Their conclusion was that farmers should allocate more resources to reducing the risk and cost of adoption of conservation practices.

In this paper we draw on Kaine’s (2004) framework for identifying the factors that influence the adoption of farming practices, in order to clarify the relative importance of environmental attitudes and contextual factors in the adoption of farm practices to improve water quality.

Theoretical framework

Consumer behaviour as a model of adoption behaviour

Kaine’s (2004) framework integrates consumer behaviour theory (Assael 1998) with farming systems theory (Crouch, 1981; Kaine et al., 2004) to provide a method for identifying the factors that influence the adoption of new farm practices. There are three reasons for the choice of consumer behaviour theory as a theoretical framework. First, the theory recognises that purchase (adoption) decisions may be made using a variety of styles of decisions (Assael 1998, 67). Second, the theory contains criteria for inferring which decision style is invoked in a particular purchase (adoption) situation (Assael 1998, 67). Third, consumer behaviour theory also recognises that consumers purchase a product to meet different needs. Differences in needs form the basis of market segments for a product.

Consumers make purchase decisions in a variety of ways depending on circumstances. One of the key factors which influences the way in which a purchase decision is made is the level of consumer involvement in the product. High involvement purchases are purchases that are important to the consumer (Assael, 1998). High involvement products are generally expensive, rarely or infrequently purchased and closely tied to self-image and ego. High involvement purchases usually involve some form of risk, such as financial risk or risk to self esteem. Where the risks are high the consumer is more likely to devote time and effort to careful consideration of alternatives before making a purchase.

Consumer behaviour theory suggests that complex decision-making is associated with investing a high level of effort. It is a systematic, often iterative process in which the consumer learns about the attributes of products and develops a set of purchase criteria for choosing the most suitable product (Assael, 1998).

The benefit or purchase criteria represent the key benefits sought by the consumer and generally reflect their usage situation. In the case of consumer goods the usage situation is often a function of the consumer’s past experiences, their lifestyle and their personality (Assael, 1998). Having settled on a set of purchase criteria for deciding between products, the consumer then evaluates the products against the criteria and makes a choice.

In the case of agriculture the purchase criteria that producers use to evaluate new technologies should reflect the key benefits the technology offers given the producers’ usage situations. In this instance the usage situation is likely to be a function of the farm context into which a new technology must be integrated. The farm context is the mix of practices and techniques used on the farm, and the biophysical and financial resources available to the farm business that influence the benefits and costs of adopting an innovation (Crouch, 1981; Kaine and Lees, 1994).


Kaine (2004) argues the use of complex decision making in ‘high involvement’ purchasing implies that the purchaser develops explicit chains of reasoning to guide their decision-making. The idea is that producers gather ‘evidence’ on the attributes of the technological alternatives available to them. This evidence is processed into a coherent causal model which is used to evaluate the extent to which the alternatives will meet their farming needs, as defined by their purchase criteria, and upon which a decision is finally made (Cooksey, 1996).

Given the purchase criteria that producers use to evaluate innovations are defined by farm contexts then there should be shared and complementary patterns of reasoning among producers that adopt a technology and those that do not, and there should be consistency in the decisions they reach. In other words, producers with similar farming contexts will offer similar explanations for their decision making, and these explanations will differ from those of producers whose farm contexts are dissimilar. Furthermore, the differences in the reasoning of producers from different segments should follow logically from differences in their farm contexts.

Consequently, the factors influencing producers’ decisions to adopt an innovation should be discoverable using a convergent interviewing process (Dick, 1998). In this process laddering techniques, asking “why?”, are used in interviews to systematically explore the reasoning underlying the decisions and actions of the interviewee (Grunert and Grunert, 1995). Convergence is achieved when the same patterns of reasoning keep emerging.

We interviewed dairy farmers from each of the four best practice dairy catchments selected. AgResearch researchers provided an initial list of dairy farmers to interview in each catchment. A total of 30 interviews were carried out (see Table 1).

Table 1: Number of Interviews in Each Catchment


No. of farmers







Bog Burn





Excluding stock from waterways – fencing streams

Interviews with farmers revealed that for most, deciding to fence a stream is based on whether there are issues with controlling stock, as the literature suggests. Based on the information gathered in interviews we classified farmers into segments based on why they had fenced part or all of the streams on their property (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Typology of segments for fencing streams, rivers, lakes and their banks to exclude stock

Segment 1

The first segment consisted of farmers who have or are in the process of redeveloping or redesigning their farms. These farmers have taken the opportunity to shift paddock boundaries and as part of that process, have fenced off streams. For some farmers this process has led them to develop a plan for managing stream fencing. For other farmers it has simply been the best way of managing the redevelopment process. This has helped them improve the management of their farm through improving livestock handling.

“Shawn is a dairy farmer in the Waikoura catchment. Recently he bought some land next door which prompted him to undertake some redevelopment. He did a riparian plan with the Regional Council. Although he had done a fair bit of fencing, he found the process quite helpful, particularly to help choose appropriate plants. Most of the waterways on his farm are wide and deep gullies. Some have been planted in pines. During the redevelopment process he was able to realign paddocks and fence streams off. The streams run the right way with the paddocks which made it easier!”

Segment 2

The second segment consisted of farmers who have streams or water bodies on property boundaries. These streams are routinely fenced simply because farmers do not want stock getting into their neighbour’s property. For example

“Terry runs a 115 ha dairy farm milking 360 cows in the Toenepi catchment. Most of the drains and wetlands on his property are on boundaries and are fenced on his side of the boundary.”

Segment 3

In contrast, farmers in segment three have had problems with stock getting into streams and getting stuck. This also seems to apply to managing drains. These farmers fence off those streams that cause problems for stock. For example, Gavin, Jeff and Mick:

“Gavin share-farms a 55 ha dairy farm milking 187 cows in the Toenepi catchment. Gavin is planning to fence off the stream because he is sick of the cows getting in. The Toenepi stream is a problem because if cows get in you can’t get them out. The banks are steep and muddy. However Gavin also believes he will have problems with weeds and maintenance if he fences out the stream – the blackberries, gorse or ragwort will take over.”

Segment 4

Farmers in the fourth segment have fenced off areas of their farm because they are wetter patches that pug easily.

“Dale runs a dairy farm in the Toenepi catchment. He has fenced off most of the drains and waterways on his place to stop the stock getting into them. He started with areas on the farm that got boggy in winter. He would clean them out, get the drains working and fence them out.”

Segment 5

Farmers in the fifth segment have fenced off streams on their properties because of concerns such as animal health.

“Martin share-farms a 42 ha dairy farm milking 140 cows in the Toenepi catchment. All the streams and drains on the farm have been fenced. Martin says that it’s important to keep the cows out of drains in particular as they can catch liver fluke. They have also put in crossings so that cows wouldn’t have to even walk through a drain. Martin also sprays out the drains which decrease the stock’s interest and there is no reason for them to go there.”

We also interviewed farmers who had decided not to fence off streams on their property. These farmers did not believe that fencing would have any significant benefit to either their stock or water management. Others did not have any problems with stock getting into streams and saw no reason to fence. For example:

“Aaron and Sherry manage a 118 ha dairy farm milking 386 cows in the Toenepi catchment. The Toenepi stream flows through one part of their property but Aaron and Sherry have no plans to fence it off. They don’t have a problem with cows getting into the stream so they see no reason to fence it off. They only time they see animals in waterways is in winter when they are break feeding.”

We found that farmers were fencing off waterways in order to manage stock. Interviews did not reveal that farmers were fencing streams to improve water quality or for any other environmental reasons. This suggests that understanding animal management in each catchment is important, in terms of type of stream bed, amount of sediment and other location specific factors, in order to promote adoption of waterway fencing.

Managing effluent

With the exception of the Toenepi catchment, most of the dairy farmers we spoke to were irrigating effluent onto land. Many had converted from a two-pond system, usually when they started to increase cow numbers and, as a consequence, had to either increase the capacity of their ponds, or install a different effluent treatment system.

We found there were several systems for dealing with effluent. The first was a two-pond system. For some farmers, ponds were the only system that would work on their property because of the proximity of buildings or the presence of drainage. The second system for managing effluent was irrigating effluent onto land. Farmers we interviewed had previously managed with a two pond system, but had found that, due to increasing herd size, or more stringent requirements from their Regional Council, a two-pond system was no longer effective. These farmers had switched to irrigating effluent on land. Most were happy with the change. For other farmers a two-pond system did not suit the environment.

Farmers in the Waikakahi catchment were often using their existing irrigation system to irrigate effluent. It was evident from interviews with farmers that their context influenced the type of system they used for managing effluent. The topography of the land, the climate, soil types and farm development issues were key factors influencing decisions made on effluent systems.

Reducing phosphorus use

Most of the dairy farmers interviewed used soil tests to determine the mix and amount of fertiliser required. They also sought advice from their fertiliser rep or farm consultant and used their own experience to evaluate any recommendations. Some farmers had been advised that their phosphorus levels were high and they could gradually cut back on the amount applied. Generally, farmers were inclined to take this advice when it was given. For example:

Duncan is a sharemilker in the Waikakahi catchment. A rep from Ballance comes in once a year and does a soil test and a fertiliser recommendation. After this the farm owner is consulted to see whether or not there can be cut-backs.

From our interviews it seems that opportunities to reduce fertiliser use will be considered by farmers, if they trust the advice given. In addition, whole farm recommendations will be more considered favourably than complicated fertiliser recommendations.

Management of the effluent disposal area

One major part of managing nutrients is managing the effluent disposal area. Interviews with farmers revealed that most were irrigating effluent onto land. Based on this information we classified farmers into three segments describing farmers’ perceptions of the influence of effluent on these areas (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Typology of segments for managing the effluent disposal area

Segment 1

Farmers in the first segment were more likely to have two-pond treatment systems. They had the ponds cleaned out once every year or two. The liquid effluent was pumped onto a paddock, and sludge spread out as well. These farmers indicated that they did not see any significant difference in grass growth on the paddocks where the effluent was spread. This belief influenced their decisions when planning fertiliser application. They did not believe it was worthwhile making changes to fertiliser application on that area. For example:

Mick has a two pond effluent system, which then goes into a drain. The ponds are emptied every year by spraying it on the paddocks. He usually has it spread on three paddocks one time and a different three the next. He uses the same fertiliser on the effluent paddocks as for the rest of the farm. This is because he hasn’t noticed a difference in the paddocks that have effluent sprayed on them. Mick thinks he would notice some difference if he was pumping effluent directly from the shed onto the paddock as the water would have an effect on the pasture.

Segment 2

Farmers in segment 2 were diluting the effluent before application. These farmers did not have a two pond system but were diluting the effluent with fresh irrigation water coming onto the farm and then irrigating it as normal through the border-dyke system. We found these farmers did not believe that the effluent made a difference to grass growth. For example:

Ken and Barb are dairy farmers in the Waikakahi catchment. On their farm, effluent is collected in a pond. Effluent is pumped from the pond into the head-race while irrigating and so it is diluted by the fresh water coming onto the farm. Ken does not believe there is any difference in grass growth because the effluent has been diluted considerably.

Segment 3

In contrast many of the farmers we interviewed who were irrigating effluent indicated that they believed there was a considerable difference in grass growth in the area where effluent was spread. These farmers were in the third segment. Some talked about the difference in grass growth because of the water, rather than the nutrients, especially when it was a dry summer. For example:

Mario and Susie are dairy farmers in the Toenepi catchment. Mario and Susie converted from a two pond effluent system to an effluent irrigation system four years ago. They are really pleased with how this has gone. They have a large holding pond so they don’t have to irrigate every day. Mario is able to irrigate pasture when it is dry, and promote growth. He sees lots of benefits to the effluent irrigation system.

Differences in perceptions

Other farmers believed that there were significant amounts of nutrient being applied in the form of effluent and so took care to change their management of that area. For example:

Jed is a dairy farmer in the Waiokura catchment. He irrigates effluent onto pasture. He is able to store a great deal of effluent as he has ponds with large carrying capacity. This means he doesn’t have to pump out everyday. Jed pumps effluent over 26ha, rotating the paddocks. He notices the difference in paddocks with effluent and doesn’t use any fertiliser on paddocks that have effluent sprayed on them. He is planning to increase the area he irrigates effluent onto as the nutrients are getting too powerful.

However although several of the farmers we interviewed believed they could see some difference in grass growth on the effluent paddocks, some did not believe it was significant enough to change their fertiliser application. For example:

Lex and Kristy are sharemilkers on a dairy farm in the Waikakahi catchment. They don’t see much of a difference in the grass where the effluent is applied, so they don’t change the fertiliser application on those areas.

Interestingly none of the farmers we interviewed were using K-line irrigation to apply effluent to land. This is one of the best practices being investigated by researchers. However, the results suggest that the type of system a farmer has for disposing of effluent effects their perception of the impact of that effluent. The type of system chosen depends on farm context, such as soil and climate.

Improving macroporosity – management of wet soils

Previous work on wet soils management

Kaine and Niall (1999) investigated the adoption of options for managing waterlogged soils by dairy farmers in Victoria and Tasmania, Australia. Options for dairy farmers included installing sub-surface drainage or using on-off grazing in conjunction with feedpads or stand off areas. Kaine and Niall (1999) conducted interviews with a range of dairy farmers, and followed this with a mail survey. They found that a third of farmers in the study area did not have a problem with waterlogging on their farm. The remaining two thirds of farmers were classified into six segments based on how severe the waterlogging was on their farm, and when the waterlogging occurred (Kaine and Niall, 1999). There was a strong relationship between the severity and timing of waterlogging and investment in subsurface drainage or feedpads. The segments are illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Market segments for the management of waterlogged soils, from Kaine and Niall (1999).

Farmers in the first three segments had problems with waterlogging in winter and in spring. Often a large proportion of their farms were affected. Farmers in segment one could not graze their pasture in spring for very long without causing damage from pugging. Farmers in segment two could graze their cows for a few hours but only for one rotation, while farmers in segment three could graze their cows for a few hours each day.

In contrast Kaine and Niall (1999) found that farmers in segments four, five and six experience waterlogging in winter, but not in spring. Usually less of the farm was affected. Farmers in segment four could not graze their pastures very long in winter and only for one rotation. Farmers in segment five can graze pastures in winter for a few hours each day, while farmers in segment six could graze all day unless it was very wet.

Kaine and Niall (1999) found that farmers in segments one and two experience considerable economic and lifestyle losses from waterlogging and as such they could justify the installation of sub-surface drainage. Some farmers in segment three could also justify sub-surface drainage, but it would depend on the soils and topography of the farm as well as the farm infrastructure, and the availability of labour and capital. Farmers in segments four, five and six, could not justify installing sub-surface drainage and instead other options such as a stand off area, feedpads and on-off grazing were of more use. We used this work by Kaine and Niall (1999) as a starting point for classifying farmers into segments based on information gathered from interviews in the best practice dairy catchments.

The Toenepi catchment

The information we gathered during interviews with farmers in each catchment offered an insight into how much of a problem wet soils were. In the Toenepi catchment most of the wet soil problems occurred in winter and farmers were used to dealing with this. Most had well established strategies to ensure that there was minimal damage to the pasture. Feed pads were used by a few farmers. Most of the Toenepi farmers were considered to be similar to the descriptions for either segment four or five, depending on the severity of the waterlogging in winter. Most farmers in the Toenepi catchment had tile drains on part of their properties, put in as the land had been developed. Some had increased the amount of drainage on the property as an attempt to manage pugging with mixed results.

The Waiokura catchment

In the Waiokura catchment most of the wet soils problem also occurred in winter. Once again, all of the farmers interviewed had strategies for dealing with this, including feedpads or standoff areas. Most of the Waiokura farmers were considered to be similar to the descriptions for either segment four or five, depending on the severity of the waterlogging in winter.

The Waikakahi and Bog Burn catchments

Similarly, farmers in the Waikakahi and Bog Burn catchments had problems with wet soils in winter. However farmers in these catchments wintered their cows off farm. Most of the Waikakahi farmers were considered to be similar to the descriptions for segment four. However, for farmers in the Bog Burn catchment, wet soils were also a problem in spring. All farms in this catchment are tile drained. It would not be possible to farm in the area without tile drains. The farmers in the Bog Burn catchment were considered to be similar to the descriptions for segments one and two, depending on the severity of waterlogging in spring.

This is consistent with Kaine and Niall’s (1999) work, as farmers who experienced waterlogging in winter were less likely to install subsurface drainage or experience many benefits from installing subsurface drainage, than those who experienced severe waterlogging in spring.

Discussion and conclusion

Excluding stock from waterways

The farmers interviewed identified a number of factors that influenced their decision on whether to fence off streams and other waterways. These factors were centred on management of stock. They were also likely to fence off streams when redeveloping their property. This is similar to the results from the study by Parminter, Tarbotton et al. (1998). This suggests that it is important to address these concerns whenever fencing is being promoted. In addition, demonstration sites could be important for providing practical examples of dealing with weeds and flooding issues.

Effluent management, phosphorus use, managing wet soils

We found that farmers were choosing an effluent management system based on their herd requirements and their location. However, when managing the fertiliser requirement for the property, farmers’ perceptions of the difference in pasture yield on those areas where effluent was irrigated became important. There appeared to be a consistent association between farmers’ perceptions of whether effluent made a difference to grass growth in a paddock and their management of fertiliser in every catchment.

The farmers we interviewed did not see phosphorus as a separate issue deserving special treatment from other fertilisers. Phosphorus was part of the fertiliser mix going onto the farm. Some farmers had responded to advice recommending a reduction in phosphorus application, especially as it saved money. However not all were getting this advice. Some farmers noted that this was starting to change.

Fertiliser companies are no longer competing on how much fertiliser to sell you, but on how much they can reduce your fertiliser use,” said one farmer from the Waikakahi catchment. This suggests that working with the fertiliser companies and farm advisors may have more effect than working directly with farmers.

Managing wet soils is an issue for all farmers in all catchments. Many, however, are only faced with pugging problems in winter and have rules of thumb that work for their property, depending on the timing and severity of waterlogging.

Adoption of the environmental best practices

Consequently, while we found that all the farmers interviewed agreed that looking after the environment was important, not all were actually practical for particular farmers. On this evidence we believe farmers’ decisions about the environmental practices are primarily based on a systematic evaluation of their production context and the management options that are available. This suggests that the choices farmers make in regards to adoption of these practices are not strongly influenced by their attitudes to sustainability and the environment. We found that those farmers that had undertaken some of the best practices outlined in this report had done so to address specific needs.

The importance of linking best practices that address environmental issues to farm context should be seen as critical to the successful adoption of these practices. A one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate. Practical solutions are needed that link strongly with farming context as a farmer’s decision to adopt management practices depends on their perception of the benefits of those practices.

The use of consumer behaviour theory was critical to understanding the influence of context. There are other disciplines, such as evaluation (Tilley, 2000), which also place considerable emphasis on understanding context. However in the absence of a particular change or extension programme, consumer behaviour theory provided a robust framework. Realistic evaluation captures linkages between the context, mechanism and outcome in order to evaluate programme outcomes (Tilley, 2000). Although this is similar in many respects to consumer behaviour theory the assumption behind realistic evaluation is that there is a change programme already in place.


In this qualitative study involving a relatively small number of interviews, a key assumption is that the range of contexts in which these issues are considered have been included.. Further interviewing may yield different contexts. In addition the qualitative nature of the work did not allow for the collection of other data that could have been useful. This study could be considered as scoping work that would inform further work in this area.

Note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at NZARES, Nelson, New Zealand in August 2005.


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