Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

A learning approach to developing farming systems advisory skills - the vortex framework

Nadine Markham1, Anne Crawford2, Joy Coulson, Geoff Drysdale, Kaye Hildebrand, Cecilia Mezenberg, Ashleigh Michael, Rob O’Connor, Mark Paine and David Shambrook

1Department of Primary Industries, 83 Gellibrand St., Colac, Vic 3250 Email
University of Melbourne, McMillan Campus, PO Box 353,Warragul, Vic, 3820 Email


Dairy farmers are operating increasingly complex businesses and require support as they address issues of resource allocation, the diversity of choices within on-farm operations, consumer and market expectations, and increased regulatory and policy demands - all within a deregulated environment.

A collaborative, action-research project between the University of Melbourne and the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) was established to document a systematic way of working through the decision-making process with farmers. Seven case study farms were selected from both dryland and irrigated dairying regions of Victoria, encompassing a variety of decision-making scenarios. The purpose of the project was to develop a documented process to fast track advisors’ understanding of farming systems and to record a more systematic way of working through the decision making process with farmers.

Advisors maintained a ‘learning log’ to record the interactions and reflections on these interactions with their case study farmers as farm management plans were developed and implemented over a 12 month period. As the project progressed and team members shared their experiences, a generic approach to providing advisory support was documented. This was conceptually represented as a ‘Vortex’. The Vortex framework captured the interactions, tools and processes described by the team.

The Vortex framework helped staff recognise the elements of the planning process as they worked with farmers to assess options and develop action plans. However the implementation phase of the action plan, involving the day to day decision making processes, was not adequately covered by the Vortex process itself. The steps of implementation, review, monitoring and adapting need to be seen as integral to the overall change process. Advisors also identified a need for access to sound whole farm analysis tools to confidently support farmers in assessing alternative farming strategies.

Further development of the Vortex will include assessing its applicability to group situations, focusing on the implementation process, and the strategic use of appropriate whole farm analysis tools.

Three key learnings: (1) The Vortex framework is effective in capacity building activities for advisors, (2) The Vortex framework has a potential role in guiding client/advisor interactions, and (3) The Vortex framework is valuable in understanding the importance of the ‘engagement’ and ‘implementation’ phases in the uptake of improved practices by farmers.

Key words

Vortex framework, engagement, options, action plans.


The future viability of Australian dairy farming will depend on the ability to develop and implement farming systems that deliver adequate returns on the capital invested, and that also enhance or maintain the status of our natural resources. Farmers are operating in an environment of uncertainty, requiring sound risk management and business skills. Dairy farming is a complex business, as farmers address issues of resource allocation and the diversity of choices within on-farm operations, meet consumer and market expectations around issues such as animal welfare and environmental stewardship, face increased regulatory and policy demands, and operate their businesses in a deregulated environment. These issues combine to increase uncertainty and risk in farming.

To be competitive, dairy farmers must continually improve productivity and profitability on farm, while complying with other requirements. Despite increases in farm outputs, productivity growth on Australian dairy farms has slowed over the last decade due to a concomitant increase in inputs.

Operating in this environment of uncertainty is demanding for dairy farmers, and requires sound risk management and business skills. Farmers will require improved farm management skills and a greater ability to manage risk, innovate and adapt. This enhanced capability relates to issues associated with increasing size and intensification of operation (eg. labour management, larger herds, more complex problem solving, training and development) and compliance with community expectations.

In turn, advisors need to understand and support farmer decision making processes within the context of the whole farm system. This skills development can come with both experience and industry-based learning. Decision making needs to be in context with an understanding of off-farm impacts and other influences, such as water regulation policy. Researchers also require new ways of thinking and operating to understand, integrate and apply new knowledge in a ‘whole-farm’ perspective.

In Victoria, public sector extension is delivered to the dairy industry through the state and industry funded programme, Target 10. In response to these emerging challenges, an internal Target 10 review identified the need to better incorporate a farming systems approach within the extension service. In parallel, there are a number of new dairy farming systems Research, Development and Extension (RD&E) projects being established (eg. 3030, FutureDairy) which will have distinct and evolving requirements for extension delivery.

We report here on the Target 10 Farming Systems Development Group, a project established in 2004 to develop advisors’ skills in understanding farming systems. In this study seven case studies were used to gain a better appreciation of the factors involved in implementing changes on farm, from a whole of farm perspective. Further insights following the thematic analysis of the seven case studies used here to identify the events, actions and reflections that underpin effective advisory practice, are reported elsewhere (see Paine et al. 2006).

Extension needs for the dairy industry

Target 10 had its origins in the early 90s when it was conceived as an extension program for the Gippsland region, focusing on educating farmers about the benefits of maximizing pasture consumption per hectare. Since then, the project has expanded and now operates Victoria-wide, delivering programs dedicated to improving management practices in the areas of strategic planning, cow nutrition, fertiliser use and pasture management (Boomsma et al. 1999).

After a decade of success in course delivery and farmer group work, there is now an expectation of continued success and innovation. This led the Target 10 group to diversify their approach to extension, and incorporate a learning culture, looking to extend their capacity and performance. A recent ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ between DPI Victoria and the industry RD&E funding organisation, Dairy Australia, articulated a series of principles to guide their future investment in dairy extension. The four key projects within the dairy program are designed to support dairy communities to be better equipped to anticipate and rapidly respond to economic, technological, ecological and social change.

Across Australian agricultural industries, a more professional approach to extension is being implemented, which recognises the need for extension research, to question and assess the effectiveness of different extension tools and approaches, and to develop new methodology (eg. Nettle et al. 2003, Fulton et al. 2003, Macadam et al. 2003).

Capacity building involves an explicit focus on processes designed to help individuals or groups build skills to manage their changing circumstances (Macadam et al. 2003). Although the term appears to be at risk of becoming a catch-all concept, we view capacity building as the development of new ways to act, conceptualise, envision and problem-solve in a specified area of work (eg. a professional practice like farming, advising or researching). These improved processes enable individuals and groups to manage the way they go about their work - improvement that is increasingly important because of the growing complexity of farming systems.

A key aim of this project was to assist advisors to develop skills which enabled them to fast-track their understanding of individual farm businesses’ farming systems. It was anticipated that this would increase the value of the advisors’ contribution to the farmer – advisor learning relationship.

Understanding Farming Systems

The purpose of understanding a particular farming system is to allow the advisor to better tailor any advice to a particular situation. This includes developing the advisor-farmer relationship to understand the farmer’s specific decision-making process and decision outcomes. Decision-making is choosing between alternative courses of action (Paine 1997).

Given the complexity of modern farming systems, farmers often make decisions based on ‘intuition’ which draws upon their wealth of unique experience and familiarity with their farm, including site-specific information (Fountas et al. 2005).

When assessing a change to their farming system, farmers assess the available options using a number of filters. Constraints to adoption (and adaptation) of technologies and innovations are considered to include “the extent to which farmers find the new technology complex and difficult to comprehend; the ‘observability’ of outcomes of the technology; their financial cost; the farmer’s level of motivation; the farmer’s perception of the relevance of the new technology; and the farmer’s attitudes towards risk and change” (Guerin and Guerin 1994 p. 549). It is a challenge to advisors to understand how these filters are influencing the farmer’s course of action, and then to tailor their response appropriately.

Farmers engage in practices at various levels of a farm, and in order to operate successfully these practices must be coordinated carefully, often instinctively. Changes around one aspect of the farm are likely to have implications for other aspects. There is a ‘level’ aspect to this, indicating complexity and impact across the production, economic and social domains of the farm business (eg. a change in seed variety compared with a new cropping system), as well as a time dimension (Leeuwis 2004). Decisions can also be classified as ‘operational’, ‘tactical’ or ‘strategic’, which line up with short-term, medium-term or long-term consequences respectively.

An ability to ‘fast-track’ understanding of a specific farming system will assist advisors to quickly ‘come up to speed’ when working with individual farmers, and hence rapidly get to the issues on which the farmer is looking support. A more systematic approach for working through decision making with farmers would better place advisors to understand the farming system and provide the most appropriate level and form of support to their farming clients. In essence this could mean a more rewarding working relationship for farmers and advisors.


A group of Target 10 advisors (DPI – Victoria), representing all Victorian dairying regions, convened in mid-2004. This team included Nadine Markham (Project Leader), Joy Coulson, Cecilia Mezenberg, Kaye Hildebrand, David Shambrook, Ashleigh Michael and Rob O’Connor. Mark Paine and Anne Crawford (both University of Melbourne) also joined the team, providing skills in social science research and strong links to the Dairy Australia funded National Dairy Farming Systems project. Geoff Drysdale provided evaluation support and guidance, as well as a link back to the Target 10 Executive Management Team.

Target 10 staff were allocated to the project on a 40 days per person basis. This time allocation was committed to training, application of work on farm and social research (including sharing of information and evaluation). There was an additional 10 days allocated to the leadership role undertaken by Nadine Markham. This project was viewed as a small scale investment in building capacity.

To achieve the purpose of fast-tracking advisors’ understanding of farming systems, the Target 10 advisors selected (seven) case study farms with which to work closely through the duration of the project. In addition, the group of advisors would meet on an approximately monthly basis (usually in Melbourne), together with Mark Paine, Anne Crawford and Geoff Drysdale to compare progress, document and refine the process of working with the case study farmers, and identify learning outcomes. This included testing whether the documented process for understanding a farmer’s specific farming system was applicable, valuable and sound at all levels of decision making. This approach is outlined in Figure 1.

The seven selected dairy farm case studies spanned a variety of decision making scenarios. These included whole of feedbase decisions, water use efficiency with whole farm implications, longer-term farm directions and farm expansion and labour issues. Advisors maintained a learning log to record their interactions, using a Focused Discussion Method Flow approach otherwise referred to as ‘ORID’ (Objective, Reflective, Interpretative and Decisional) (Institute of Cultural Affairs Australia, 2006).

Figure 1: Diagram of the action research approach used by the Target 10 Farming Systems Project Team

Individually the extension officers documented the process they had gone through when working with their case study farmers. The components of these plans were grouped together under common headings to build the team’s generic process; and the overall process that emerged was named ‘The Vortex’.


The Vortex Framework

The Vortex (see Figure 2) is a logic framework that represents the interactions, tools and processes used to develop a professional client / advisor relationship. The main areas are engagement, issue identification, options and action planning. There are a number of components under each of these headings, that do not occur in a linear stepwise process but as swirling interactions within the Vortex. The word Vortex was chosen to describe how different parts of the process occur at different times, while the relationship with the farmer is developing and building towards practice change on farm. In the beginning a small investment is required from the advisor and the farm management team. As the relationship progresses to tackle issues of greater complexity, greater investment is required from both parties. The greater the personal investment and support, the higher would seem the potential level for practice change.

Positioned at either side of the Vortex framework are the terms ‘implementation, monitor, review and adapt’. These terms ‘describe’ the process of making the action plan a reality, through tailoring it to fit changing or emerging situations. The Vortex concept provided a framework for interaction, firstly between the extension officer and the farm management team, and secondly among the farming systems team members. It was a way to reflect on experiences from the case study work and assisted with critical reflection in the group. The vortex framework also allowed individual team members to identify and understand the strengths and weaknesses of their approach in working with their case study farms.

Figure 2: The ‘Vortex’ framework describing the extension pathway to successful practice change

Application of the Vortex framework to farming


The engagement phase of the Vortex occurs during the entire learning partnership and covers the period from the first point of contact with a farmer, to the planning and implementation phase of a farm decision. Team members recognised the need to engage with all members involved in the business operation, particularly when high level decisions were considered, because of the follow on implications.

After a learning partnership was initiated, thorough preparation and a flexible approach to meetings were seen as important elements of building credibility with the farmer. Preparation allowed extension staff to establish a clear purpose of the meeting and anticipate the need for technical information.

The application of technical information and ability to assist the farmer to manage the unexpected is explicitly linked to the engagement phase of the relationship by allowing farmers to develop confidence and trust in the dairy extension officer abilities. Once confidence and trust had developed in the advisor, farmers presented issues for discussion with higher levels of impact on the farming operation and included other members of the farm business in planning meetings.

Issue identification and options

Defining the boundaries under which a business must operate is a key role of issue identification. Once these boundaries are clear the ‘design specification’ for exploring potential options and strategies are defined.

All extension staff involved in the project expressed a need for the use of whole farm analysis tools during this phase. In particular staff identified a role for whole farm analysis tools in gaining a better insight into the current operation of the farm business, in investigating the impact of proposed changes on the farm business and in assessing risk management strategies.

The issue identification phase of the Vortex therefore extends beyond the analysis of the strengths and weakness of the physical farming operation. Gaining a thorough understanding of farmer attitudes, beliefs and values together with their skill level and capability is also paramount.

Developing a clear understanding of both farmers’ ‘world views’ and their skill level allowed advisors to identify relevant options, provide appropriate tailoring of information and level of support required for the desired ‘practice change’. Investigation into the role and appropriate use of whole farm analysis tools would greatly assist the advisor working through the issue identification and options phases of the Vortex.

Action planning

Once the change to the farming operation had been agreed by all parties, the next phase involved the development of an action plan. The role of action plans appeared to be two fold. Firstly they provided a solid guide for the current operation of the farm business. Secondly, documented action plans provided a foundation to review the outcomes of management changes and the base for subsequent changes to future plans. The need for action plans was found to be as important to dairy farmers as to the dairy extension officers themselves.

Action plans formed an important frame of reference, governing the progress of the implementation of the agreed changes. Unforseen climatic conditions and events occurred on most farms. However the action plan provided a solid platform to assess the feasibility of further strategies. The higher the level of planning involved in the development of the action plans, the smoother the implementation phase seemed to be, and the greater the likelihood of successful goal attainment by the farmer.

Summary of steps in the Vortex concept

The key components of the Vortex are summarised in Figure 3 for each of the four sections; engagement, issue identification, options and action plan. These steps were derived from the reflective practice and action research methodology used by the project team and the documented experience of the project extension staff working with their case study farms.

1. Engagement

1.1 Developing the relationship and building trust
1.2 Clarify the issue at first contact
1.3 Get to know their background
1.4 Preparation prior to visit
1.5 Quick wins to boost confidence and trust

2. Issue Identification

2.1 Goal clarification of key decision makers
2.2 Clarification of values that motivate behaviour
2.3 Agreement of farm business goals
2.4 Farm resources
2.5 Skills and abilities of farm manager and staff
2.6 Overall assessment of farm performance

3. Options

3.1 Clarify issue in relation to observations
3.2 Agreement on issues to be tackled
3.3 Agree on what a successful outcome will be
3.4 Brainstorm and explore potential solutions
3.5 Assess feasibility of solutions
3.6 Set immediate next steps

4. Action Plan

4.1 Clarify solution
4.2 Set immediate next steps
4.3 DEO Role clarification
4.4 Referrals where appropriate
4.5 Development of key milestones
4.6 DEO follow up

Figure 3. Summary of Steps within the Vortex Framework

In addition to the four key steps of the Vortex involved in planning a change, the implementation phase of a planned change to a farming system involves another area of skill development; and hence implementation support is also considered here.

The Vortex in supporting planning for change

The Vortex was developed and tested while working with the seven case study farmers across a range of different levels of decision making and contexts. For example, some decisions were high level and related to potential changes to the farming system, while other decisions were of a lower order and focussed on components of the farm such as grazing, or interactions between components like grazing and feeding.

During this project we liased with a small group of recognised dairy industry ‘systems experts’ with whom we shared our experiences of working with our case study farms. Based on the experiences of our project team and those of our invited industry experts, it was agreed that whole farm analysis tools, such as commonly available dairy financial analysis and feed planning tools, were needed – to avoid judgements and recommendations being based on only circumstantial evidence. . In the absence of whole farm analysis tools, the ability to accurately prioritise the various areas to address on farm could be compromised.

More work is required on linking the use of whole farm analysis tools to the more practical aspects of managing a farm business, before we can be completely satisfied with the ‘Vortex’ as a framework for a planning process. In particular there is scope to gain a greater understanding of:

1. The role and the use of tools and benchmarks in exploring the impact of potential options on the farming systems; and

2. The associated steps required to accommodate the successful adoption and integration of selected options.

It was also recognised that the implementation phase of the action plan is integral to the overall change management process and was not well covered during this first stage of the project. The lack of a focus on the implementation phase has detracted from our ability to conclusively determine the soundness of the generic planning process.

The function of the Vortex in supporting change

While the planning function of the Vortex is highly important, we found the implementation phase of those plans and the associated day to day decision making processes to be equally vital. We have highlighted this point by placing the broad headings such as implementation, review, monitoring and adapting outside of the Vortex as a means of illustrating their importance in maintaining the momentum necessary for practice change to occur.

The implementation of significant changes to the farm business can therefore be seen to involve two broad areas; that of ‘planning change’ and another of ‘managing change’.

To effectively plan and manage change at the whole farm level, new operational procedures and behaviours will probably be required. For the farmer, changing a well established farming system is one of the most difficult and challenging decisions. Advisors need to be able to support these challenges, and consequently need appropriate knowledge, skills, tools and processes. Practice change is arguably one of the most challenging and expensive areas in which to invest, but developing a clearer understanding of the mechanisms involved in changing farming practice may hold great potential to significantly influence positive change in the dairy industry.

The implementation of change involves a combination of both ‘hard/technical’ and ’soft/social’ farming systems approaches. The role of technical farming systems RD&E is to assist with the identification and development of the more effective operational farming practices. Equally important though is the role of ‘soft/social systems research’ to identify the best way to engage and motivate people to adopt a new operational procedure and establish new work habits.

Through the documentation of the engagement stage of the Vortex framework the research identified important social elements, such as the creation of a trusting relationship, confidence of the extension officer in the provision of advice, and the technical knowledge (hard evidence) on which they base their advice.

Another important area of skill development necessary to support the implementation of change on farm is decision making. The implementation phase of the Vortex includes ‘monitoring, reviewing and adapting’ and appears to be especially important during the transition phase between the old and new farming system until a new ’steady state’ is established. Resources are often seriously challenged and stretched during the transitional period, when significant changes are introduced to a farming operation. Specialised monitoring tools, support and feedback processes are therefore important in supporting farm businesses implementing significant change.

Examples of the type of things that could be monitored during implementation of an action plan include; assessing the priority of tasks, evaluating the product choice options, reviewing the timing of the farm operation, analysing the method of task execution, cash flow, timing and allocation of feed resources. Therefore supporting farming businesses as they implement change involves a sound understanding of the decision making process inherent in the ‘monitoring, reviewing and adapting’ phase of the ‘Vortex’ process.

It was also apparent from our case studies that decisions, options, plans and implementation are all influenced by risk, particularly weather. Climate was a key determinant of whether a decision was a success or failure, so the potential impact of climatic conditions should be considered in all forms of risk assessments and associated contingency plans.


The Vortex concept developed in this action research project has shown considerable utility in helping staff to recognise the elements of the planing process in a whole farm context, and guiding farmers through a process to assess options and actions for change. However, the implementation phase of the action plan, involving the day to day decision making processes, was not adequately covered by the Vortex process itself. The steps of implementation, review, monitoring and adapting need to be seen as integral to the overall change process.

The next phase of farming systems action research will therefore focus on the implementation process in addition to refinement of the planning steps with the use of appropriate whole farm analysis tools. There is also a need to test the versatility, transferability and role of the Vortex framework in a range of different operating environments. During the second stage of the farming systems project the versatility and role of these frameworks will be explored, by working with farmers in a group environment.


Boomsma J., Walton M., & Drysdale G. (1999) Target 10 Final Report, Dept Natural Resources and Environment.

Fountas, S., Wulfsohn, D., Blackmore, B. S., Jacobsen, H. L., and Pedersen, S. M. A model of decision-making and information flows for information-intensive agriculture. Agricultural Systems, In Press, Corrected Proof.

Fulton, A., Fulton, D., Tabart, T., Ball, P., Champion, S., Weatherley, J. and Heinjus, D. (2003). Agricultural Extension, Learning and Change. A report to the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. RIRDC Publication No 03/032. May 2003.

Guerin, L.J. and Guerin, T.F. (1994). Constraints to the adoption of innovations in agricultural research and environmental management: a review. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture. 34, 549-71.

Institute of Cultural Affairs Australia (ICA) – Focused Discussion Method Flow or ‘ ORID’ Accessed 31 January 2006.

Leeuwis, C. (2004) Communication for Rural Innovation. Rethinking Agricultural Extension. Third Edition. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 412.

Macadam R, Drinan J, Inall N and McKenzie B (2003). Growing the Capital of Rural Australia - the task of capacity building. A report for the Rural Industry Research and Development Corporation.

Nettle, R., Weatherley, J. and Paine, M. (2003). Groups or one to one? Rethinking extension delivery – learnings from the dairy industry. In "Extending extension: Beyond traditional boundaries, methods and ways of thinking!" Proceedings of the 2003 APEN National Forum, 26 - 28 November 2003, Hobart.

Paine, M.S. (1997) Doing It Together – Technology as Practice in the Dairy Sector, pub. PhD Thesis, Wageningen, The Netherlands.

Paine, M., Shambrook, D., O’Connor, R., Michael, A., Mezenberg, C., Markham, N., Hildebrand, K., Drysdale, G. Crawford, A. and Coulson, J. (2006). Show me the tool and I will give you the advisor? In "Practice change for sustainable communities: Exploring footprint, pathways and possibilities". Proceedings of the 2006 APEN International Conference, 3 - 6 March 2006, Beechworth, Victoria. (This Conference).

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page