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Taking the reigns: farmer-driven learning, innovation and extension for profitable dairy pasture production in New South Wales

J. Jennings1, A. Andrews1, M. Friend2, M. Ison3, and N. Sriskandarajah4

1 Centre for Farming Systems Research, University of Western Sydney, Richmond, NSW
Farrer Centre, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, NSW
New South Wales Agriculture, Gloucester, NSW
Dept of Economics and Natural Resources, Royal Vet. and Agric University, Denmark


The Profitable Pastures Project (PPP) is an industry-funded project that aims to improve pasture-based feeding systems in the New South Wales dairy industry, and simultaneously raise farmers’ profile in formulating the industry’s agenda for research, development and extension. An Action Research methodology is being used to facilitate the establishment of farmer centred learning groups in six regions from Taree south to Bega and Wagga Wagga. Progress has varied across groups, but 18 months into the project, all groups have agreed on their learning priorities and started to implement their own programs, covering various technical aspects of pasture production. Issues relating to data collection and critical reflection are discussed.

Key Words

Action research, dairy, pasture, learning


The Profitable Pastures Project (PPP) is an industry funded project, which aims to improve the profitability of pasture-based feeding systems on New South Wales dairy farms. Farmers are involved in the institutional processes of generating and disseminating innovations through their active participation in local learning and research activities. By engaging the end-users of agricultural innovations, farmers, in the processes of investigation, invention, trialing and implementation it is hypothesised that more relevant learning and research outcomes can be reached than might otherwise be achieved through conventional processes (1). Since autumn 1999, the PPP team has worked with six Regional Dairy Groups (RDGs) in the dairying areas of Taree, Wauchope, Gloucester, Dungog, Camden, Forbes, Nowra, Robertson, Wagga Wagga, Tumut and Bega.


PPP incorporates an Action Research (AR) methodology (1). This method provides a democratic framework that facilitates multi-directional communication flows, and encourages critical reflection. The AR model is based upon a four-stage cyclical process involving observation, planning, action and critical reflection to generate knowledge, learning and research outcomes for all stakeholders. The implementation of PPP has involved facilitated focus group meetings, personal and telephone contact (including teleconferencing), transcription of data and qualitative analysis techniques including computer-aided methods (2).

PPP Structure

PPP is managed by a multi-institutional Leadership Team (LT) comprised of dairy farmers, Charles Sturt University (CSU), The University of Western Sydney - Hawkesbury (UWSH), New South Wales Agriculture, the Dairy Industry Development Company (DIDCO) and the Dairy Research and Development Corporation. The LT has also adopted an AR process in managing itself and the operationalisation of PPP.

The project consists of four stages: Stage One: Ask, Stage Two: Watch & Measure, Stage Three: Investigate, and Stage Four: Act, with the first two stages having been implemented over the past 18 months. Stage One: Ask involved regional focus group meetings with farmers, facilitated by PPP, to draw out issues of importance as perceived by dairy farmers. Jennings et al. (3) provides a summary of these findings. Stage Two: Watch & Measure similarly employed facilitated focus group meetings with dairy farmers to establish a prioritised agenda of pasture management issues and initiated the planning and action stages of farmer-driven learning activities. Stage Three: Investigate is partly underway with groups moving into full participation and pasture-based activity development to realise both group and individual goals established in the fist two stages of PPP. Stage Four: Act is expected to validate results and provide justification for their dissemination to the wider dairying community. Where justification is not found for further dissemination the AR cycle can be re-entered at an appropriate stage to pursue other issues or re-assess past experiences.


A variety of learning and research outputs mostly of a technical nature have been generated by the regional groups. In addition, there are learning and research1 outcomes for the LT that impact upon the future management of PPP and the underpinning methodology and theory. Some of the latter aspects are included in the discussion section.

PPP Summary Results

The farmer groups are investigating several major pasture production issues, including soil testing, pasture monitoring, pasture analysis, pasture utilisation, nutrient budgeting and fertiliser trials. In addition, joint-venture links with other major projects have been established, with expected benefits for both PPP and the co-project. Table 1 provides a summary of the progress of each group to spring 2000. Confidentiality for every group has been maintained for ethical reasons. Variation in progress across the groups was anticipated by the PPP LT and is expected to continue in future, due to group dynamic factors. Some of the causal factors limiting group development are discussed in Jennings and Packham (4).

Table 1: RDG results

Regional Dairy Group (RDG)

3/99 – 9/2000







PPP group forum est’d

Soil analysis day


Pasture monitoring


Pasture analysis


Species trials


Nutrient budgeting


Utilisation field days



Joint venture



Fertiliser trial


Every group is free to operate independently of other groups, but despite this, several similarities are evident (Table 1). For example, soil analysis sessions generally began with groups deciding to improve their knowledge and analysis of soils, followed by a range of farmers opting to conduct soil tests on their farms. These test results were then brought (and often tabulated for group viewing) to a farmer organised meeting at which relevant professionals, including government agronomists, extension and livestock officers, private consultants and representatives of agribusinesses were invited to discuss the test results and their implications for pasture management. Pasture monitoring and pasture analysis activities have also occurred with similar organisational paths being adopted by participating groups.

Group One results

The activities of Group One are described below to provide context for discussion of the technical, practical and emancipatory modes of AR that are occurring within PPP. Awareness of PPP was effectively raised within Group One at the initial Stage One: Ask focus group meeting in autumn 1999. Since then the group has formally identified and prioritised pasture-related issues; established desired group and individual goals; designed plans for achieving set goals and begun to implement their plans, as is consistent with PPP stages two and three.

Group One aims to improve pasture profitability through the investigation and improvement of pasture monitoring techniques, pasture quality analysis, soil analysis and fertiliser application. To meet these ends the group has assessed the soil characteristics on participating farms, purchased and learnt to use pasture meters for improved monitoring of growth and utilisation rates, and is regularly collecting pasture samples for laboratory analysis (ME, protein, fibre and minerals).

The data for pasture analysis is collected monthly on five dairy farms and are currently available for the period from September 1999 to June 2000. Preliminary analysis of the data indicates that the pasture forage typically has adequate protein and fibre for cows producing 25–30 litres/milk/day. Potassium levels are high and the likely limiting nutrients are energy and some minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and possibly zinc. At their meetings, the group discuss the implications of these results for their supplementary feeding strategies, with technical analysis and advice requested from NSW Agriculture and NSW Dairy Farmers. Feed on offer and utilisation data has been tabulated but these data need to be evaluated further.


The Profitable Pastures Project involves interacting with diverse groups who are widely separated geographically, and whose members have been greatly concerned by the deregulation of their industry. Given those circumstances, it is a significant result that all groups have in fact agreed on their learning priorities and started to implement their own program.

One clear issue emerging from the activities undertaken by Group One is the level of commitment and time required to generate consistent and reliable data. When the farmers are also the researchers, it is inevitable that sometimes the requirements of the research will clash with their farming operations and it is natural for farmers to give first priority to their farming operations.

If data collection is poorly managed there is significant risk that ensuing results and analysis will be compromised, and may result in misleading or false information being inappropriately adopted into farmers’ decision-making and management practices. Farmer autonomy in project design and implementation clearly requires an adequate level of monitoring and evaluation to ensure quality standards are maintained, but based on experiences of PPP it is not ‘natural’ for groups to self monitor. One possible solution is for the groups to use some of their research funds to employ a facilitator for this purpose.

At the other end of the AR spectrum is the realm of emancipation, with implications for farmers’ confidence to contribute to their own learning and research forums. Raising farmers’ profile as equal and worthy stakeholders throughout the lengthy process of technology generation, rather than treating them as passive recipients at the end of the process, is central to obtaining increasingly relevant and practical innovations for on-farm adoption.

Consequently, a conundrum arises. Farmers provided with the autonomy to self-direct and implement learning and research activities run the risk of producing sub-optimal results, while improved farmer confidence and participation in technology generation and extension cannot develop without facilitating a significant degree of farmer-autonomy. Solutions may involve the groups cooperating with research personnel, provided the farmers are active in the decision making process.

Evidently there is a need for a clearly articulated vision about where, when and how farmers can contribute to innovation. PPP promotes both local level (on-farm) learning and peer assessed research that may be of benefit to a broader community, or, generalisable into theory. Furthermore, it hypothesised that rigorous critical reflection within farmers’ learning and research activities will generate emancipatory, practical and technical achievements that are original.

Considering the above examples of farmer-driven activities (which are not yet complete) it would seem reasonable to make some tentative assumptions in order to construct the vision for greater integration of farmers into the domain of research.

  • Assumption one: farmers are not adequately resourced in skills, time, or finances to independently conduct technical scientific research.
  • Assumption two: farmers’ knowledge of their own farming systems is valuable to the innovation generation process, particularly in terms of increasing the relevance of innovations to the farming system, as well as the on-farm applicability and successful adoption of innovations.
  • Assumption three: the extent to which farmers actively contribute to research, development and on-farm learning could be increased.

The third assumption provides justification for forming a union between the first two, but does not answer the critical question of how?

Based on PPP experience, farmers have demonstrated a capacity to comprehend the nature of technical scientific research work without necessarily understanding the intrinsic moments and concepts at work within the research process, or other relevant issues, such as the epistemological, philosophical or ethical framework within which such research is conducted. Similarly, it is worth noting technical scientists do not readily comprehend the complexity and dynamic behaviour of elements that constitute a whole farming system, into which their technical research is so often destined.

PPP has in part facilitated a union between the domains of the farming system and technical research. This is demonstrated by Group One activities in which farmers and technicians have come together to improve their respective situations. Of importance is how are these two realms interacting and what relationships and protocols for communication and mutually beneficial development are occurring? Unlike traditional linear extension methods, PPP has witnessed the involvement of farmers throughout group activities. Significantly, farmers have driven the critical process of setting their own agenda for learning and research activities, with relevant professionals being invited to contribute as required. In this way farmers are maintaining their presence and a degree of ownership of learning and research activities, the results of which are ultimately expected to be adopted by them.


It is important for farmers to contribute to setting the agenda of learning and research activities that affect or influence them. This does not necessarily imply that farmers’ should control the research process or even understand every intrinsic detail within the stages of research. PPP has been effectively involving farmers in forming their own learning and research agenda, while simultaneously integrating them into the existing community of technical scientific research agents.


The PPP project is funded by the Dairy Research and Development Corporation (DRDC) , and is carried out under the umbrella of the Dairy Industry Development Company , NSW (DIDCO).


1. Greenwood, D. J. and M. Levin (1998). Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change. Sage Publications, London.

2. Gahan, C. and Hannibal, M. (1998). Doing Qualitative Research Using QSR NUD*IST. Sage Publications London.

3. Jennings, J., Ison, M., Friend, M., Sriskandarajah, N. and Andrews, A. (2000). Proceedings Twenty-third Biennial Conference of the Australian Society of Animal Production, Sydney.

4. Jennings, J. and Packham, R. (2000). Proceedings 5th World Congress on Action Learning, Action Research & Process Management, Ballarat.


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