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Ricecheck –Participatory farmer extension model in practice for 18 years

John Lacy1 and Felicity Steel2

1NSW Agriculture, Yanco Agricultural Institute, PMB, Yanco NSW 2703 Australia
2
NSW Agriculture, PO Box 108, Finley NSW 2713 Australia

Abstract

In the early 1980's a review of yield progress the rice industry in New South Wales indicated little if any improvement in yields. Most farmers could achieve high yields of 10t/ha in odd years, but could not consistently reproduce 10t/ha yields. There were big gaps between research yields and between "top" and "bottom" farmers. The transfer of technology extension diffusion model was failing to deliver improved yields. There was a need for a new model.

Ricecheck has led to great changes in rice management and extension delivery. Farmers now monitor and check crops, meet in groups (often with an agronomist) to discuss results to see how their crops compare to the benchmarks for high yields. Before Ricecheck farmers rarely ventured into the crop. Nor did they collect data for analysis or comparison. Components of the program are the Ricecheck Recommendations, the Crop Database and farmer discussion groups. Ricecheck has created a learning culture. Ricecheck has also led to closer collaboration between farmers and key stakeholders.

Key words

Ricecheck, rice, improve, yields, checking, farmers, participants, survey, adoption , key, check, recommendations, discussion, groups, data, forms, Cropcheck, software, analysis, feedback, profit, megalitre, new, environment, grain quality.

Introduction

The Ricecheck system

The new model was based on finding the answers for the high yields in high yielding farmer paddocks. It is called Ricecheck (Lacy 1994). The new model was already having success for increasing irrigated wheat yields (Lacy 1991). Ricecheck commenced in 1986 and continues to be the main extension delivery program for the Australian rice industry.

Ricecheck is a holistic crop management system and farmer participatory extension approach, which provides objective recommendations linked to crop checking to improve the yields, grain quality and profitability. It provides the best management practices for ricegrowing based on knowledge from the latest technology and on farm experience. The Ricecheck components are the key check recommendations, farmer discussion groups, crop data records and database which gives feedback to farmers on their crop results.

Since 1986 the average yields in the industry have increased by 31% from 6.3t/ha in the 5-year period ending 1984 to 9.1t/ha in the 5-year period ending in the 2003 harvest (Figure1.). Water use efficiency has increased 60%.

Figure 1Commercial Rice Yields in New South Wales Australia - t/ha

Key check recommendations

The checking and measuring of a range of farmer crops has identified 8 key recommendations or checks linked to high yields. Ricecheck is based on the principle the higher the adoption of the 8 key checks the higher the yield (Figure 2). Hence farmers strive to adopt all the checks. Surveys undertaken prior to the launch of Ricecheck showed most farmers were not adopting these key checks.

The key check recommendations (Lacy et al 2003) are, as far as possible, simple and objective. This reduces information overload and aids communication and understanding. The recommendations are the latest and the best with rice extension and research people working together to revise them each year.

Initially the key checks focussed only on yield. Environmental and grain quality checks have been added and water use efficiency targets have just been added. In addition to the agronomy, farmers meet together in small neighbourhood groups with an extension officer. Groups operate by farmers sharing and learning from their data and one another. Management actions are discussed with the agronomist playing a facilitating rather than an advisory role – hence the process is bottom-up not top-down (Dunn et al 1996).

Figure 2 Yield response to checks adopted 1994 - 2002

Using the learning steps

The most important feature of Ricecheck is to encourage farmers to monitor and

check their crops to see if they are adopting the checks. This is achieved through a

number of learning steps (Lacy 1994). These are:

Observing the crop measuring growth and management performance

recording measurements interpreting and comparing results

acting to overcome weaknesses in management ( non adopted checks)

The aim is to educate farmers to improve their learning and performance at each step as well as moving from step to step over time. The aim is to encourage as many farmers as possible to progress through all the steps. To assist crop measuring, simple learning aids are provided eg rice rings

Discussion groups

Farmer discussion groups have played a key part in the delivery of Ricecheck. About 40 discussion groups are run by 7 NSW Agriculture extension agronomists. The momentum for the success of Ricecheck and the discussion groups is from the focus on the key checks. At group meetings farmers are encouraged to learn from each other and give feedback on the check recommendations. This also allows them to influence changes to the Ricecheck management package and develop ownership of the program.

Crop data analysis

Usually 500 to 800 crop records are received from farmers each year. Records are entered into the Cropcheck internet based database. It can also be used for other crops.

The total number of crops in the Ricecheck Database is 6123crops for the 1994 to 2003 harvest years.

The crop data is analysed to show comparisons of management practices between crops and to explain how high yields were achieved. The Ricecheck Crop Evaluation Report provides feedback to each participating farmer showing how their crop practices compare to the Ricecheck key checks, other farmers and to high yields. Adoption of the checks is automatically evaluated. Poorly adopted recommendations or checks can be quickly identified providing timely signals to extension, research and the rice industry.

Analysis of yields

The database has the ability to compare any of the crop parameters with yield and produce graphs of the results. Figure 3 is an example of one of the graphs comparing yield with sowing date for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA). The use of graphs at farmer meetings is an excellent tool for promoting discussion and farmer learning and motivating farmers to improve practices.

Figure 3 Effect of sowing date on yield for MIA / CIA 1994 - 1999

Adoption of the checks

One of the aims of Ricecheck is to improve the adoption of the key checks since the higher the adoption the higher the yields. Figure 4 shows the trends in adoption for the variety Amaroo over the period 1998 to 2002. The checks where adoption has generally improved over the past 5 years are bank height, establishment plant number, nitrogen uptake and early pollen microspore water depth. The exceptions are sowing date, panicle initiation date and nitrogen topdressing checks. Drought and late water allocation announcements were barriers to sowing date and panicle initiation adoption.

Figure 4 Adoption of key checks 1998 - 2002

Conclusions

Ricecheck has provided the framework for collaboration between farmers, research and extension. It recognises farmer learning and knowledge is as important as research and extension knowledge. As an extension method it is bottom-up, small group driven and requires superior facilitation skills.

Before Ricecheck farmers used to pinpoint single factors. Extension focussed on single technologies and a top-down one way communication approach. Ricecheck uses a whole farm systems approach that recognises the centrality of people’s knowledge and goals. It has demonstrated there are many factors to get right for yields to increase.

Importantly Ricecheck has changed the culture and management of ricegrowing from managing from a distance to checking the crop. Farmers learn by critically observing and measuring their crops. The discussion groups have provided an ideal learning environment for extension delivery. An independent evaluation of Ricecheck in 1997 based on random interviews with 124 farmers found that 83% farmers said Ricecheck was useful in producing higher yields. Discussion groups rated highly at 76%, the Crop Evaluation Reports next highest at 63% and Ricecheck Recommendation booklet at 54%. Ricecheck continues to change to meet client demands with environmental and grain quality checks already been added. Water use efficiency targets have recently been added.The check model can be adapted for any crop or pasture (Lacy1998). The new Cropcheck database will allow crop checking and recording of non rice crops.

References

Dunn,T., Humphreys,L., Muirhead,W., Plunkett,M., Croker,N. and Nickl,M1996.Changing Paridigms for Farmer-Researcher-Extensionist Relationships: Exploring Methods and Theories of Farmer Participation in Research. Europ.J.Agric.Educ.and Extension.

Lacy, J 1991 Finley Irrigated Wheat Five Tonne Club 1991 Technical Publication.

Lacy, J 1994 Ricecheck-A Collaborative Learning Approach for Increasing Productivity. In: Proceedings of the Temperate Rice Conference: 21-24 Feb.1994:Leeton New South Wales Australia P247-254

Lacy, J 1998 Learning from Farmers - the Check Approach. Proceedings 9th Australian Agronomy Conference Wagga Wagga NSW Australia P58-65.

Lacy, J et al (2003) 2003Ricecheck Recommendations NSW Agriculture and the RIRDC Rice Research and Development Committee Booklet. 20p

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