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Charting the Unknowns in the Northern Territory: keeping the crocs at bay

Richard F Fell

Tropical Savannas CRC, Northern Territory University, Darwin NT 0909

The process Charting Unknowns was used with a meeting of the North Australia Beef Research Council (NABRC) to examine the research, development and extension needs for the pastoral industry in north Australia. It was followed up with a Charting Unknowns meeting with the Katherine Pastoral Industry Advisory Committee (KPIAC) to look at the same needs for the Katherine district. The process and outcomes are described and discussed. The process was to be taken up by other Regional Beef Research Committees to look at their local needs.

As a result of the process the NABRC has a clear idea of specific and broad research needs for the beef industry. They will be able to deal with these in a positive way, rather than 'fighting the crocs' as they emerge from the waters of the northern Australia beef industry.

Introducing the groups and the process

The North Australia Beef Research Council aims to provide the beef industry, its service providers and funders a comprehensive, representative and strategic view of industry needs for research, development and extension, as well as education and training (Stockwell 2000).

The NABRC meeting in Darwin had up to two producer representatives from the 10 Regional Beef Research Committees (RBRCs) across northern Australia, as well as researchers from various departments of primary industries or agriculture in Queensland, Northern Territory and West Australia. In addition there were researchers from CSIRO and Tropical Savannas CRC at the meeting and representatives from producer organisations like the Northern Territory Cattleman's Association and also from Meat and Livestock, Australia.

Charting Unknowns is a process that is designed to explore the gaps in knowledge for future needs and to decide on actions that might be taken to close the gaps. The process is described by Norcott (Pers com 1995) and this was modified to meet the need of the NABRC to look at the research, development and extension needs of the beef industry in the north of Australia into the 21st Century.

The Charting Unknowns process explores future needs from the viewpoint of the individual within their organisational context and allows for a wide range of ideas to be canvassed. It does this by asking participants to list as questions areas where they feel there are still no answers. These are then categorised and prioritised and developed to enable people to take appropriate action.

Charting Unknowns — checking for crocs

The process that was used with the NABRC and the KPIAC group is set out step by step below. There was a need for the NABRC group to have a follow up to develop a more definite action plan and the results are presented for the NABRC meetings only. The comments in parentheses and italics are reflections on what actually happened during the process on the day.

Step 1 As individuals could you please could you please think about research areas or topics for the beef industry that you consider still need answers, make these as specific as possible and frame them as questions still to be answered. List up to 5 of these questions without consulting your neighbours. (Individuals were able to list more than 5 questions in some cases and in other cases they were not able to frame their topics as questions - but the group was able to do so as the topic was listed, with the persons consent).

Step 2 The questions will be listed (were listed) on the board in a round - robin fashion (butchers paper was used) until all the questions are on the board. (The questions were then numbered).

Step 3 Each question will be looked at briefly to ensure that everyone understands the question - a clarification of each of the issues (this was accompanied by brief explanations of the questions by their originator as necessary).

Step 4 The questions will now be categorised into broad categories that are relevant to the group, as well as designating them as research, development or extension questions.

  • Research - an area that needs new or continued research work as the question has not been answered.
  • Development - an area where the research has largely been completed that needs modification for use on the ground.
  • Extension - an area where the research has been completed and the necessary development is also complete, it now requires an extension effort to promulgate the information to users.

(The categories that were selected by the group were: Big Picture, Productivity, Finance, Information, Marketing, Human Resource, Resource Management and Miscellaneous Threats. As the questions were categorised into these 8 categories they were also described in terms of Research, Development, Extension or Education and in addition Policy. As you can see from the tables of results some questions were placed in more than one category).

Step 5 Each participant will vote for the questions of highest priority, using their 10 votes across the whole list in any way they choose, 1 vote per item or up to 10 votes per item.

(The group was given 10 coloured sticky dots that they then placed on the butchers paper alongside the question of their choice - the results of this voting were quickly added and the highest priority questions easily identified).

Step 6 The questions receiving the highest votes — top priority issues will be chosen and the following questions asked by small groups of interested participants (self-selected into the group).

  • Where can information be sought for this question — source of information?
  • How can this information be accessed — access to information?
  • What do we need to do next to make progress with tis question — action?

- Why should we do something?

- What needs to be done next?

- Who should do it?

- When should it be done?

(As time was short the first workshop was taken through the way that this could be done as a single group to demonstrate the step - two examples were used - see the results below. A follow up session was organised at a later date to do this step more comprehensively- results from this are also presented below).

Results from NABRC meeting in Darwin

There was a list of 79 questions raised at the initial Darwin meeting and these were categorised as shown in the first table below. The second table outlines the results of the two examples going through Step 6.

Table 1 . Questions listed and categorised and the group votes at Darwin — top 20 issues only

Broad Category


Questions that the group felt still needed answering or further work

Type of work



Is there a tick issue not being addressed?




Are live exporters going to continue to grow?




How many export meatworks do we need north of the 26th parallel?




How efficient is solar energy eg: cost and maintenance?




What are the key drivers of profitability in my region?




What are the risks in using the Meteorology Bureau charts? How accurate are they?




What gear needs to be developed to reduce the cost of mustering and handling?




What are the R & D requirements of our customers to develop new markets?




How can market signals for the live export market be improved?




What financial packages are available for use on-farm?




Developing an in-paddock plant testing kit – protein?




B & E of later maturing genotype to meet market specifications?




When will CSIRO approve GMO for the Gidgee Pod Bug (GMAC)?




How can I decide stocking rate today to ensure sustainability tomorrow?




Is there a biological control for the weeds Gamba, Bellyache Bush and Devil’s Claw etc?




What will the northern industry look like in 15 years?




How can we better manage our land environmentally?




How do we develop new promotion and products to increase consumer consumption?




What is the most cost-effective way to develop water points?




How can we increase the size of the northern industry to meet possible demand?


Broad category

Type of work

B = Big picture issues

R = Research - new or more needed

F = Financial matters

D = Development or modify current work

I = Information issues

E = extension or education

R = Resource management

P = Policy or regulation

M = Marketing issues


P = Productivity issues


T = Miscellaneous threats


Table 1 shows that there are a wide range of questions that were put forward by the group as needing answers, although the inference is that for those marked D & E, the answers were already there and needed to be part of the development or extension process from here on.

There were some clear issues needing further or new research that were listed - broad questions like "How can we manage our land environmentally? and others marked in the right hand column with R and D.

Clearly, there were some issues that required extension only - "What financial packages are available for use on-farm?

In Table 2 the results of the two examples used in Step 6 are set out, showing that it is possible to list action for even the most tricky of topics and that someone will take the responsibility to do the 'research'.

Table 2. Sources of information, access to information and action to be taken for two issues

Category -Threats

Source of information

Access to information

Action to be taken

Policy (P) No. 19
Native Title and Land Tenure

  • Lands Department
  • Legal Department
  • Federal politicians
  • Lawyers
  • Producers/Organisations
  • Internet - 4 or 5 people
  • Qld Country life
  • Hansards
  • Reports etc from ILC etc
  • Yarning on Friday

Why: Prepare a case on land security.


  • Consultant
  • NFF/QFF/etc


• Send to NFF to hire a consultant to do a report.

Development (D), Extension (E) & Policy (P) No. 20 Exotic Diseases
- risk assessment
- genuine threats
- northern beef
plants and animals

  • AFFA
  • AQIS
  • AAHC
  • State Departments
  • Similar organisations overseas
  • Universities
  • Technical information directly from organisations.
  • Producer surveys.
  • Risk assessment.


  • get information to understand
  • develop steps from information
  • plan of action in an emergency

Who/Does What?

  • Tom to write to MLA, QDPI etc

RBRCs - get briefing speaker
Peter Ridley to follow up

Charting Unknowns follow up workshop — Brisbane

The results of small group discussion at the second workshop are presented below. There was a second vote on the list of questions, as there were some additions made to the list by this group. The groups then self-selected into three groups:

  • Group one – producers tending towards the less extensive beef production
  • Group two – tending towards the more extensive beef production
  • Group three – researchers providers and funders.

Group one – action plan




Why? Who? What? When?

How can I convince the people of Australia that I care for my cattle and the landscape, clean and chemical free?

ISO 14 000
International standards
Green Badge accreditation

* There is a bit of a hole in standardisation international and nationally

Cattle Care (DPI) is an example of a first step
Producer pays for access
Processors (?)
*needs to be a shift toward producer ownership and investment

Why? Retain market share, market price. Care for the environment
? Independent audit – national and international. Public relations program (machine?) continual and positive
? No welfare issues. High compliance rate.

Group two – action plan

Group two dealt thoroughly with a number of issues, three of these are presented here.




Why? Who? What? When?

How do best producers put their operations together?

• National data centre.
Private Consultants
Producer Groups – DPI

Time management.
Business training
Interpretation of data
QA Facilitator
Production cost comparisons across industry

How? Producers need to be prepared to pay for information.

How do we develop new products and promotion

• Retail sales and survey

Woolworths retail alliance
Cooking shows.

Why: Profitable income for beef producers.
MLA/Marketing/ Supermarket alliance
: Speed/quality eg: corned beef fritters, beef nugget.

How can we best identify future market needs?

• Futuring on data collation

General Alliance

Why: Direct production and remain flexible.

Group three — Research & Development group

The R&D group amalgamated some of the questions to form four main groups of research:

  • Questions: 13 + 36 + 50 = 10 - Sustainable development
  • Questions: 15 + 7 = 10 - Meeting market specifications
  • Questions: 59 + 28 = 6 - Key profit drivers
  • Question: 12 = 3 - Herd fertility

Some examples of work in progress to address these issues are:

  • Grazing Land Management package – sustainable development
  • Nutrition package – meeting market specifications
  • BSBP (Edge Network) – Key Profit Drivers
  • Reproduction and genetics – NAP1/2/3

One example of an issue taken to action is presented below.




Why? Who? What? When?

How can we better understand the nutritional value of our pastures and the effect on nutrition?

CSIRO, MLA, DPIs, Universities, producers, private consultants, nutritionists, Internet – USA, companies like Ridleys

Internet, letters, telephones, conferences, communications with other researchers

Why? – profit and sustainability of the environment
– continued funding for completion of projects and dissemination of user friendly information

Reflections on the process of Charting Unknowns

I had used Charting Unknowns with various other groups as a training exercise in participatory process workshops and Rural Extension Centre training and had been struck by the power of the process to come up with the widest range of ideas. It seemed also that the process could lead to specified and motivated action by groups and individuals as part of an on-going action plan.

Using the process in a real situation with the NABRC and KPIAC groups proved that the process does enable a wide range of ideas to be canvassed - 79 questions were raised at the first Darwin meeting and 49 questions at the KPIAC meeting. The questions covered topics from the very specific - "Do cattle drink less when using water medicators?" to the broad - "How do we know if we have achieved a sustainable development?"

The first categorisation helped to hone in on those areas where NABRC itself could have an effect and as a result there were areas of research that were identified as of higher priority to NABRC. As the groups worked on Big Picture items compared to the Productivity items the need for change in potential action was underlined.

The second categorisation process, which may not be needed if the subject chosen for exploration were different, underlined the contention that not all issues raised are in fact new, needing research. There are issues that the answers to are understood and what is needed is for the information to get to the producer. That individuals have different perceptions is an obvious statement, however this categorisation allowed for people with more knowledge to hone in on what is new, as well as consigning other questions to a more appropriate 'home' for action.

Getting to action needed more time than was allowed at the Darwin meeting, thus a second session was scheduled. The actions suggested by the three groups at this second meeting has been taken up by the NABRC and is now in progress. Apart from KPIAC other RBRCs have used Charting Unknowns to look at local research needs.

Thus, I believe Charting Unknowns will provide positive research issues for the future, as well as leading to action to deal with priority issues now. As such it fits into any extension officers kitbag and can be used to expose the crocs in the water way before crossing to the other side.


  1. Carmen, C. and Keith, K. (1994) Community Consultation Techniques: purposes, Processes and Pitfalls. Department of Primary Industries, Information Series, Brisbane.
  2. Norcott, J.E (1995) Internal report on tools and techniques - personal communication.
  3. Stockwell, T.R. (2000) The bright future for beef. Report of a workshop facilitated by the North Australia Beef Research Council, Brisbane, March, 2000.

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