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Australian dairy research farmlets making the transition into farming systems research and extension: the challenges for extension

Jane Weatherley1 , Amabel Fulton1, Mark Paine2, Scott Champion1 and Anne Crawford3

1 School of Agricultural Science, University of Tasmania, GPO Box 252-54, Hobart, Tasmania 7001
Institute of Land and Food Resources, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010
Institute of Land and Food Resources, University of Melbourne, PO Box 353, Warragul Victoria 3820


The aim of this paper is to provide an introduction into farming systems research and extension (FSRE), which is now a new dimension to Australian dairy farmlet research and extension. Following a discussion of FSRE, this paper will explore the possibilities and challenges that the literature suggests accompanies the implementation of a farming systems research framework into a traditionally component research arena of Australian dairy farmlets. The benefits of implementation are discussed and then paper will conclude with what the main challenges are for Australian dairy farmlets that are moving into the FSRE paradigm.

There is a lack of agreement in the literature on the definition of farming systems research and extension. Waugh et. al (1989) who describes farming systems research and extension (FSRE) as applied, farmer-orientated, agrobiological research, supported by the socioeconomic sciences in a team effort that includes extension possibilities. He states that the principle product is technology and the primary clients are farmers.

But a widely cited definition of farming systems research and extension is that of Shaner, et al (1982) which states that “farming systems research and extension is an approach to agricultural research and development that views the whole farm system and focuses on 1) the interdependencies between the components under the control of members of the farm household and 2) how these components interact with the physical, biological and socio-economic factors not under the household’s control. Farming systems are defined by their physical, biological and socioeconomic setting and by the farm families’ goals and other attributes, access to resources, choices of productive enterprises and management practices” (Shaner et al, 1982).

This long winded interpretation stems from an anthropologist perspective, emphasising the sociocultural factors as salient features of farming systems. But even in the choir of advocates, there has long been controversy on the terminology in farming systems research and extension (Collinson, 2000). Bawden (1995) describes the definition by Shaner et al, 1982) as being an important insight into the matter of what the systems dimension of farming systems research, as it represents a prime example of what Checkland (1988) refers to as the confusion in the word system.

Farming systems research and extension has been around for decades and its development is the product of agronomists, animal scientists, agricultural economists, sociologists, anthropologists as well as other agricultural scientists (van Willigen, 1992). Its origin has been implied to have been from researchers acknowledging that farmer management strategies and decisions could only be understood in the context of the whole farm system, and that ideal management in any specific enterprise is not feasible in the small farm situation (Merrill Sands, 1985 cited in van Willigen et al, 1992).

Australian dairy farmlets and farming systems research and extension

Australian dairy farmlets are now moving towards and FSRE approach, away from component production research which focussed on specific aspects of the dairy system. The purpose for this shift in research framework may be similar to that of international organisations that made the move towards an FSR approach decades ago. For a number of reasons, the socially uncontextualised high technology agricultural innovations developed at these international institutions came to be questioned, as did many of the top down approaches to development (van Willigen, 1992).

Despite dairy farmlets being located within various locations around Australia, new technology has in the past, been developed with limited reference to local conditions of farms, nor within the region of farms which may be a few hundred kilometers away, and has not worked effectively. Local researchers may lack the techniques and facilities to adapt the technology to local needs and conditions. New innovations didn’t make sense within the framework of the constraints faced by farmers, and for this reason, much of the investment in agricultural research has been fruitless (van Willigen, 1992). FSRE grew out of the need to deal with this failure by creating a flow of reliable information to researchers about farmers’ needs and frustrations to increase the probability that the new technology can be used and meet that need (van Willigen, 1992). The introduction of farming systems research to Australia has seen the evolution of a holistic approach involving farmers, specialists and policy makers (Petheram and Clark, 1998).

The institutional structure of Australian dairy farmlets has traditionally been lead by a farmlet leader, usually a scientist with other scientific staff to conduct research. Each farmlet has their own Regional Development Program committee, which consists of local dairy farmers, scientists from the farmlet and independent members, which act to guide research and provide research priorities. Extension is usually conducted by the State department of, with each state having varied levels of resources allocated. For example, in some States there may be one extension officer per eighty farmers compared to others, which may have one extension officer per two hundred and fifty farmers.

The possibilities for extension from dairy farmlets currently consist mainly through the use of discussion groups, research station farm walks and field days, newsletters and farmer participation in various programs such as InCalf, a program focussed on improving herd reproduction. Again, the extent to which any of the activities are conducted is dependent on the resources available.

Extension in some states may be located at the district department of Agriculture office as opposed to being located on the research farm. Linking research with extension has its challenges, with limited collaboration on each of the two disciplined activities. Extension rarely contributes to designing and conducting research projects, however researcher can be involved in extension activities, contributing to newsletters and presenting research results at field days.

This institutional structure and traditional method of research and extension poses considerable challenges to implementing a farming systems research and extension framework. This is discussed below.

Limitations and challenges to implementing a farming systems research and extension framework

Whist the impression may have been given that the FSRE approach is an answer to all our prayers for a research approach that gives relevance to the final research outcomes to all dairy farmers, this approach has been recognised to have its limitations and challenges to implementation. There is a theme among papers of the need to go beyond FSRE’s traditional focus on technology adaptation at the plot and farm level. Berdegue (1992) points out that the generation, adaptation and transfer of technology was the only means FSRE used to tackle a farmer situation characterised by constraints which, in fact, were much wider and included unfavourable environments, weak local organisations, discriminatory policies and poor market development. From this context, it can be said that FSRE has had only limited impact on farmer welfare and productivity (Bebbington, 1992).

Incorporating a FSRE approach into the traditionally component research theatre of Australian dairy farmlets will be a challenge for both research and extension. Implementing a FSR framework requires the current operating system to change dramatically.

Waugh et al. (1989) briefly discusses implementation of such as system and suggested that implementation of FSR/E may imply change in organisation, in strategies, and in methodologies. He suggests that in the cases where research and extension are poorly organised, major changes are likely to be required. Although the systems approach does not necessitate major changes, Waugh et. al (1989) suggests the changes which are likely are (1) the philosophy, strategy, and methodologies; (2) the development of interdisciplinary activities, which can only be done by including these disciplines within the research and extension organisations; and (3) the establishment of on-farm research teams.

The interdisciplinary requirement

Since the FSRE approach is based on the premise that biological, physical, social and economic disciplines can produce more relevant technology as a coordinated effort than they can separately it is important to have a consensus of objectives and strategies, and to the same degree methodologies. The process of defining team objectives and strategy involves not only coordination of the four disciplinary teams, but multi disciplinary action should produce an interdisciplinary result (Waugh et al 1989).

General lack of understanding of the FSRE approach may be cause for resistance, especially if it is viewed as a substitution for current programs rather than as a new dimension favourable to current programs. Since research personnel have been trained in commodities and disciplines they may have little interest in understanding cultural-economic aspects of farming and see little reason for change (Waugh et al, 1989).

The government agencies' position

It is essential that if a FSRE approach is to be implemented successfully, there must be an assessment of the government and their agencies to discern possible problems and devise approaches that would overcome any constraints (Waugh et al, 1983; Norman, 1983). Government institutions may have constraints to the implementation of a farming systems research and extension approach (Norman, 1983 cited in Waugh et al, 1989). Bureaucratic systems of government may be more interested in perpetuating bureaucracy than instituting changes to serve clientele. Some of theses systems may be highly resistant to change. Organisational structure may have placed much of the power and leadership and control of budgets and physical resources at major research stations that dominate the pattern of research. Theses stations may not only resist change but foil collaboration even when such would further their commodity and discipline research. (Waugh et al, 1989).

Evaluation requirement

Periodic review and planning are central to the systems approach that means that updating, analysing and interpreting information and developing recommendations and plans of work. This process requires direction and management and is a management mechanism. (Waugh et al, 1989).

Benefits to moving into an FSRE framework

The contribution from an FSRE framework that the Australin dairy industry may benefit from been summarised by Collinson and Lightfoot, (2000).

FSRE provides:

  • links to the target audience outside the farmlet to identify improvement/change opportunities
  • links for informing and influencing higher level decisions
  • framework for priority setting, programming and resource allocation
  • understanding of through a replicable analytical process for farm families' priorities
  • resource constraints and evaluation criteria
  • whole farm system modelling and analysis
  • more relevant and appropriate menus for farm improvement; identification of relevant appropriate solutions; guidance in shaping solutions for acceptability
  • building trust between communities and outsiders
  • identification of articulated problems
  • participatory methods
  • new dimensions to diagnosis and evaluation
  • ownership for community stakeholders
  • empowerment and scope to improvement

Challenges to extension and Australian dairy research farmlets

The extension dimension to Australian dairy farmlets in most cases has a relatively close link to the scientific realm, working together to create the linkage of knowledge to be extended but neither contributing to the others discipline in any other way. If a farming systems research and extension framework was to be implemented, this is an interdisciplinary requirement. However, although one of the justifications fro FSR has been to forge better links between research and extension, there are very few examples of effective collaboration (Tripp et al, 1991). Many FSRE efforts are dominated by the either social or biological scientists. In some geographical regions, the major impetus for the development of the FSRE concept came from the social sciences and there fore being “ a social scientist’s invention” (Chambers and Jiggins, 1986). For Australian dairy farmlets, those now entering FSRE it has been largely driven by the farmlet leaders, usually scientists and encouraged by extension.

There are many cases where extension has not yet accepted that effective technology often begins with a better understanding of client's needs. Thus there remains much room for improvement here (Tripp et al, 1991). One place to start with this challenge is to involve extension staff in the technology generation process. Mechanisms may include joint planning sessions or staff rotation. Tripp et al (1991) reports though, that in a review of FSRE showed that in no case was there significant adoption of new technology developed FSRE without an extension effort of some kind, in some cases organised by the researcher themselves.

In summary, the challenges for dairy farmlets to move successfully into FSRE framework for research and extension that need to be recognised are:

  • the shift away from traditional component research mindset
  • the move towards an interdisciplinary approach
  • the involvement extension in all phases of research development
  • that extension will need to improve or being collecting data on clients systems so that research can be better targeted
  • that extension will need to develop more sophisticated evaluation techniques to understand why positive change occurred not just where and when
  • overcoming the stigma of conducting research which is irrelevant, inappropriate and not rigorous
  • that extension needs to provide relevance to the dispersed wider community
  • overcoming the stigma of science versus farming systems research and extension
  • creating an awareness of the purpose farming systems research and reasons for entering into such a framework


Extension is challenged by FSRE to be integrated into the research process and to initiate the interdisciplinary coordination process. Extension needs to build credibility and provide relevance to those farmers who have considered that research farms provide inappropriate knowledge and are irrelevant to their systems. Extension will need to be more focussed on evaluation, and build the profile of FSRE so that the research output becomes renown for rigorous and value adding research created through an interdisciplineary approach.

As the Australian dairy industry enters the farming systems research and extension paradigm, it is a good time to take stock of accomplishments and to plan how FSR can make a more substantial contribution to improving practice through positive change. FSR in its beginning became a fashionable theme, but in recent times has attracted scepticism. However there is a solid base of experience developed, and there is the opportunity for the Australian dairy industry to make a substantial refreshing contribution to farming systems research.


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