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Farmers, extension and science – working together

Mike Bramley1, Denise Bewsell2

1 Dexcel Limited, Private Bag 3221, Hamilton, New Zealand. Email

2 AgResearch Ltd, East Street, Private Bag 3123, Hamilton, New Zealand. Email


The Toenepi catchment in the Waikato region of New Zealand is one of five dairy catchments where best practices to address environmental issues in dairying are being evaluated. In the Toenepi catchment the aim is to integrate practices that protect the environment against possible adverse effects from dairy farming, given a background of intensification, dairy industry environmental and animal welfare guidelines and industry policy to increase productivity by 4% per annum. This means that efforts are being made to develop new management practices, and to foster adoption of practices that meet industry and regulatory authority requirements. Measures that address local issues are encouraged, changes in farm practice are monitored and the results of the study are publicised to demonstrate industry commitment to sustainable management.

In the Toenepi catchment none of this would be possible without the active cooperation of researchers, farmers and extension officers. Over the last two years the Toenepi project team has worked to try to improve cooperation between these groups. For example, initially some scientists were unaware of each others’ work in the same catchment. Now there is genuine desire to work together to achieve the aims of individual projects. An important issue is that until now, farmers have not been directly involved with the Toenepi project team. Addressing this is the next step to ensure that the aims of the project are met.

Extension aims to facilitate the process of cooperation among different groups. The Toenepi catchment project provides evidence that this approach produces results as the water quality in the stream has improved over the life of the project while farming has intensified.

Three key learnings: (1) Collaboration can work! (2) Communication amongst all parties involved in collaborative projects is critical. (3) Adoption of environmental best practice occurs slowly.

Key Words

Catchment management, dairy farming, environment.


Adoption of environmental best practice on dairy farms is becoming increasingly important in New Zealand as water quality in streams declines (Wilcock et al., 1999). In order to begin addressing this issue five dairy based catchments across New Zealand were selected to trial best practices designed to address environmental issues. Two of these catchments are in the North Island of New Zealand; the Toenepi in the Waikato, and the Waiokura in Taranaki. The remaining catchments are in the South Island, the Waikakahi in South Canterbury, Inchbonnie on the West Coast and Bog Burn in Southland. In this paper our focus is on the Toenepi catchment in the Waikato.

The Toenepi stream is a tributary of the Piako River in the Waikato region. There are twenty-two farms in the catchment, two thirds of which are dairy farms. For a detailed description of the catchment see (Wilcock et al., 1999). The Toenepi stream and catchment was initially chosen to be representative of the Waikato area, for the purpose of characterising the effects of dairying on stream quality and investigating methods of mitigating adverse effects. Several agencies are working on a number of projects within the catchment. These include research institutes or providers and those with an extension role in the catchment.

In 2003 an extension-based project was developed to work in conjunction with researchers in the catchment. The aim of the project was to facilitate the development of science and implement improved environmental practices on dairy farms in the catchment to address the issue of poor water quality. The project scope included practical demonstrations of good farm practice.


The Toenepi stream

Data gathered by one of the research institutes working in the project indicated that the Toenepi stream was in poor condition (Wilcock et al., 1999). In 1995-97 the stream had poor water quality, a murky appearance and high faecal matter, nitrogen and phosphorus (see Table 1 for data). There were substantial inputs from effluent ponds. All of this resulted in poor habitat quality and indicated that riparian protection was needed.

Drawing separate projects together

One of the first issues facing extension practitioners was the number of projects underway in the Toenepi catchment. For example, amongst the research work were studies concerned with mitigation techniques that covered Advance Pond Systems (APS), drain management and wetlands. Monitoring to investigate pathways and processes for pollutant transport in groundwater and runoff was also being undertaken.

Some co-ordination amongst extension providers was also needed. Regional Council representatives were working in the catchment to increase adoption of stream fencing, riparian planting and to ensure that effluent systems were compliant. In addition to this list of ‘players’ there were a number of funders with a particular interest in seeing change occur on farms.

In order to develop a co-ordinated approach to work within the Toenepi catchment it was necessary to draw together all the people involved in work in the catchment. One of the extension officers took on the role of co-ordinator. The group of scientists and extension officers that met formed the ‘Toenepi project team’.

One of the first tasks of the Toenepi project team was to share and discuss the work that was underway in the catchment. A list was complied of who was doing the work, individual project titles and aims and the focus of the project.

The next task was to decide what the overarching aim was for all the projects focussed on the Toenepi catchment. After extensive discussion, the following became the aim of the Toenepi project team;

Aim for all projects carried out in the Toenepi catchment:

“To integrate practices that protects the environment into dairy farming, against a background of intensification, dairy industry environmental and animal welfare guidelines and the industry policy to increase productivity by 4% per annum.”

Under the aim was a set of objectives. These were:

1. Encourage adoption of practices that meet industry and regulatory authority requirements and address local issues.

2. Monitor changes in farm practice, adoption of new practices and waterway condition to establish the success of the project and identify areas where the system is not responding as expected.

3. Publicise the results of the study as it progresses to demonstrate industry commitment to change and sustainable management, and to encourage other farmers to consider these issues and adopt improved management practices.

4. To increase farmers understanding of what represents healthy streams and then apply scientific principles to develop new management practices that have the potential to improve water quality.

In addition to the aims and objectives the Toenepi project team needed to articulate what was needed from the farmers in the catchment, and what the scientists’ role was. The following was agreed to.

Initially the Toenepi project team expected that farmers would:

1. Offer support for the focus catchment idea.

2. Make an undertaking to adopt key mitigation practices of permanent stock exclusion by fencing off the stream, nutrient budgets, compliance with consents, wetlands and crossings;

3. Contribute to new practices that lead to improved stream quality and consider their adoption.

Then commitment to action:

4. Participaton by all farmers in identification of key source (of pollutants) and adoption of appropriate BMPs – this may involve individual farm plans.

5. Assistance with developing a plan for the Toenepi Stream and catchment, aimed at implementing BMPs.

The scientists involved in the catchment would:

1. Provide information and advice to the farmers to help develop an action plan for each farm.

2. Provide ongoing updates on research and monitoring results and inform policy development.

Results and discussion

Initial social research

One of the research projects centred on the catchment was some social research investigating the adoption of best management practices. Social researchers undertook individual interviews with farmers to determine their experiences with particular farm practices and in particular the barriers to change. This work highlighted the importance of understanding context and found that concern for the environment may not influence farmers’ decision making (Bewsell and Kaine, 2005). At the same time a farm survey was being undertaken by one of the project partners to determine a baseline of practices that were being undertaken in the catchment.

Farmer meetings

Since the formation of the Toenepi project team three farmer meetings have been held. The first was in March 2004. The meeting was designed to report to farmers on the project background and purpose, some of the research work that had been going on in the catchment and results of survey work. At the same time we sought feedback on the projects and work going on in the catchment. This included communication and the way in which scientists interacted with individual farmers whose properties they were working on. We then facilitated a session inviting farmers to be involved in the project process. Farmers had not been involved earlier as the initial phases of the project was focused on ensuring all the project partners were working in the catchment together. Farmers were asked about their preferences for feedback on the project and their response to the water quality data presented.

The second meeting held not long after the first in June 2004, was less successful. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the poor attendance was due to farmers not having the time or interest in having more than one catchment update a year. However one key question emerged from this meeting: what is the water quality target the project was aiming for?

The third catchment meeting was designed to be a reporting back on the condition of the catchment and work underway, particularly on the individual farm plans and catchment plan. There was good farmer attendance. However one of the realisations was that there was no farmer representation on the Toenepi project team.

Addressing the question of a target

The outcome of the second catchment meeting prompted the Toenepi project team to discuss the aim of the projects again. This generated useful discussion about what was possible in the catchment. A water quality target of recreation standard water (i.e. water of a quality suitable for swimming) was agreed on by the Toenepi project team (see Table 1). This target came from the Regional Council. However it was clear that if this target was to be adopted farmers in the catchment would need to agree that it was feasible.

Social researchers working in the catchment made appointments to discuss the proposed target with each farmer. They explained the water quality target, and provided information on the current status of the Toenepi stream. Feedback from this process indicated that farmers were generally supportive of the proposed target. An internal report on this work was produced for the Toenepi project team.

Together with researchers a poster was developed. The target for water quality in the Toenepi stream was explicitly spelt out, and links made to farm practices. This has become an extension tool for the Toenepi project team.

Change on-farm

The next step was to determine what needed to change on farms to meet this target. This included farm planning and nutrient budgeting. The Toenepi project team co-ordinator set up a process where each farmer in the catchment had a nutrient budget done. The local fertiliser company reps were drawn into this process. Anecdotal feedback on the nutrient budgets was mixed with some farmers indicating that they were useful while others did not feel they were of much use.

In conjunction with the Regional Council, farm plans were developed for each farm in the catchment. Our work involved developing a process and template to undertake the individual plans and training people to do them. This included costing out the proposed changes. A catchment plan is now being produced. This is providing a means to capture the changes that farmers said they will make. Researchers will also be able to use this information alongside monitoring data to determine whether the changes have had an impact on the water quality goal.

Changes in the stream

Over the life of the project the Toenepi Stream water quality has improved. The current situation, contrasted with the situation in 1995-1997 is outlined in Table 1 (Data provided by Dr B. Wilcock, NIWA). The data provided are the median figures for the time period indicated. Generally the stream water quality has improved over the time the project has been underway especially given that during this time farms in the catchment have intensified in terms of increased stocking rates, fertiliser inputs and production levels. While all the improvement cannot all be attributed to the project, some credit can be taken for initiating change within the catchment.

Table 1: Stream water quality as measured against agreed targets







E. Coli

Median 126 per 100 millilitres

336 (measured as 420 faecal coliforms – multiply by 0.8)

Median of 305 – failed on this target

Water clarity

Black Disc

Minimum 1.6 metre

0.57 m

1.5 m – improving


Dissolved Oxygen

Minimum 40% of saturation concentration all year


71%, but summer lows 0-40% – mixed result


Maximum 20C

Seasonal, mostly below maximum

Mostly well below – good result

Ammonia N

Maximum 0.9 grams N per cubic metre d/s from Kiwitahi Road Bridge


Median is 0.02, but has spikes – mixed result

Lessons from the farm planning exercise

Discussion amongst extension staff working in the catchment led to the documentation of lessons learnt from the farm planning exercise in particular. Some of the lessons are applicable to the wider project as well.

  • Quality control should be spelt out from the start and monitored
  • Reduce number of people doing plans. Aim for quality rather than quantity. A consistent approach is critical
  • One contact for each farmer maximum. There were multiple contacts in some cases and this was not appropriate. One to two people co-ordinating the effort is adequate
  • A process for dealing with issues not associated with meeting the water quality target was needed
  • Not everyone can do a farm plan – choose appropriate personnel with the right mix of skills and experience
  • Specialists need to be available so that questions can be answered promptly
  • Plan with realistic timelines in mind
  • A communication plan promoting the work is required to raise awareness of the work amongst farmers in the catchment. This can also be used to communicate progress on the project.
  • Follow-up and more farm visits will be required, so plan for it
  • The checklist/template needed to be refined, so the processes could be streamlined
  • A team to do the “behind the scenes” work is essential (e.g. admin) to get efficient use of people’s skills and time


Communication on the project needed to be considered on three levels. The first level was for farmers within the catchment, the second level for the project team, and the third level for the wider community. Farmers within the catchment made it clear that one meeting a year was sufficient, and they did not want extra paperwork. However they appreciated feedback on the research work particularly when it was taking place on their farm. This has proved to be a challenge as research results are usually designed to be interpreted by scientists and some work has been needed to make sure that appropriate reporting back is undertaken. As a result science communication to date has been via the farmer meetings only.

The project team was kept up to date by circulation of meeting minutes and emails. For the wider community newsletters and presentations outlining the work within the catchment have been important. The project team has also recognised the need for promotion of the catchment and has developed a road sign that will be placed in the catchment. The road sign has a caption reflecting the work being carried out and lists the participants in the project.

Next steps

Involving farmers in the project team is one of the next steps for the project. Farmers’ voices have been heard through social research and through the catchment meetings and farm planning process. However formally inviting farmers to take part in the project team will be important. Understandably there have been no volunteers to date. It was felt that as initially we were trying to understand what work was being done in the project by the project partners and how the project was going to evolve, farmer participation wasn’t appropriate in the early stages. The social research, surveys and farmer meetings provided a lot of input into the evolution of the project.

In addition two catchment based activities are planned during the next six months. These comprise a farm discussion group meeting focused on effluent management and a day on planting riparian strips. There will be time at the second meeting to discuss progress on farm plans and identify any specific issues that need addressing. This will also be an opportunity to discuss changes in the catchment and results from the monitoring data.


In the early stages of the project work in the Toenepi catchment was disjointed. A number of different partners were undertaking research however there was little co-ordination and little feedback to farmers. Much of the early work in the project was establishing what was happening; building communication and relationships between project partners as well as gaining farmer buy in to the project. All of this was led by extension officers. The Toenepi project team has worked together for nearly three years now. To date the result has been a remarkably well co-ordinated approach to work being undertaken in the Toenepi catchment.

More importantly extension work in the catchment has meant that the link between water quality and on-farm practice has been highlighted. Farmers are now more aware of the research work underway and have an appreciation of the stream water quality. Researchers are actively contributing to on-farm activities. There are still considerable challenges to be overcome however the Toenepi catchment project provides evidence that an extension led approach can achieve co-operation and change amongst both researchers and farmers. Stream water quality has improved over the life of the project which is partly due to the research and extension activity in the catchment. However, it is important to note that this project has not yet reached a conclusion and ongoing improvements can be expected.


Bewsell, D., and G. Kaine. 2005. Adoption of environmental best practice amongst dairy farmers Practice change for sustainable communities: Exploring footprint, pathways and possibilities. Proceedings of the 2006 APEN International Conference, Beechworth, Victoria.

Wilcock, R.J., J.W. Nagels, H.J.E. Rodda, M.B. O'Connor, B.S. Thorrold, and J.W. Barnett. 1999. Water quality of a lowland stream in a New Zealand dairy farming catchment. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 33:683-696.

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