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Knowledge Partnerships 1: What can knowledge partnerships offer agricultural industries? - Early learnings from the FutureDairy project

Ruth Nettle and Sean Kenny2

The University of Melbourne, Faculty of Land and Food Resources, Parkville, VIC, 3010, Email:
The University of Sydney, Private Bag 3, Camden, NSW, 2570. Email


As many agricultural industries face the challenge of increasing productivity to counter-balance negative terms of trade, a corresponding challenge is the increasing complexity of farming systems that increases the demand on the knowledge “system” surrounding farm decision making. Knowledge for improving farm and industry performance often resides in different disciplines and improving farm and advisory practices often relies on a suitable connection between these disciplines. What can formalised knowledge partnerships offer farmers, extension, researchers – and ultimately industries? This paper reviews concepts in knowledge systems for innovation and describes early learnings from social research located in a large multi-disciplinary research, development and extension (RD&E) project in the Australian dairy industry - FutureDairy. This project represents a formalised “knowledge partnership” between farmers, researchers and extension and is examining social, technological and scientific solutions to improved productivity. Social research is located in the Future Dairy project to look at the performance of the knowledge partnership and also how the social issues associated with productivity improvement for the farmer find a place in research results. Early findings of social research in the project are presented and form a basis for examining the relationship between knowledge “types”, key elements in the performance of a knowledge partnership and some insight into potential outcomes. The potential gains from knowledge partnerships depend on the management of the relationship between disciplines in an active way – which can be both a source of tension and a potential source of failure.

Three key learnings: (1) Formalised and managed knowledge partnerships: (1) offer the potential for synergy (i.e. greater outcomes for an industry than when disciplines work separately), (2) expand the boundary of each discipline (capacity) and, (3) fast-track research outcomes for the knowledge partners, including farmers.

Key words

Social research, disciplines, dairy industry, extension-research-farmer relationships


Ironically, at a time when increasing integration and learning between different disciplines (science, extension, community, policy, farming) is viewed as essential for sustainable agricultural development (Leeuwis, 2000; Nettle, 2000; Nettle, 2003) there remains separation of the disciplines at an organisational level1. Such disconnect between disciplines has resulted in an increased emphasis on projects as the mechanism for multi-disciplinary activity. This is not without its challenges. Such projects require new forms of collaboration between public and private sectors, disciplines and organisations and present new challenges for the internal working of projects. Also, the additional costs and resources involved with such projects means a corresponding increase in accountability and higher demands on attaining relevant outcomes for a broader audience, such as an entire industry or community; not just those directly involved with the project. Further, the professional practices of the disciplines involved in multidisciplinary projects come under pressure to change as traditional boundaries merge. Despite these considerable challenges, to date there has been only limited research examining the ways in which disciplines work together, the nature of the interface between different professions working towards similar project goals and the increased benefits for investors under such an approach. Given the current and increasing emphasis on disciplines working together within projects, it is crucial that conditions conducive to effective multidisciplinarity within projects are well understood.

Agricultural innovation projects involving technical and social researchers, extensionists and farmers offer a unique focus for understanding multidisciplinary performance. This paper looks at one such project – FutureDairy - a new multidisciplinary dairy RD&E project operating in Victoria and NSW. It commences with a brief discussion about knowledge, knowledge systems and partnerships, and presents relevant early findings from social research. Five key implications for extension practice in multidisciplinary projects are highlighted.

Why is “knowledge” important?

For this paper, knowledge is seen as the ordering and organisation of the perceptions of the world constituted by our experience. This ordering process is a type of “know-how” in itself. Individuals vary in their capacity to process information, but the systematisation provided by the scientific method has enhanced the capacities of societies to rapidly relearn the know-how of previous generations. Part of the reason for the prominence of science knowledge relates to its accessibility over other, relatively scarce “ways of knowing” (Paine, et al., 2004). Increasingly, authors are concerned that societies are failing to store tacit knowledge, or the knowledge of the practitioner (Schon, 1983), with suggestions that underestimating this form of knowledge as a resource for innovation is risky for society.

Millar and Curtis (1999) suggest knowledge is a continuum in which tacit and scientific knowledge are in constant interplay, rather than knowledge residing in contrasting or opposing systems. Using farmer knowledge as an example, they suggest that such knowledge (experiential, diverse, socially constructed and serving a livelihood purpose) needs to be revealed, shared and valued. They champion the need for collaborative programs to be based on experiential activities that apply to whole farm systems and that facilitate ongoing learning between researchers, extension agents (public and private) and farmers. They caution that farmer participation in research and extension does not guarantee farmer knowledge is used and valued, thereby rendering it dormant.

Of particular relevance for the activities associated with farmer-research-extension relationships, is the view that knowledge is more than an intellectual pursuit – it is part of practice –incorporated in what people do. Authors suggest that “practice” (eg. the practice of research, the practice of extension and the practice of farming) is a social domain of action where doing, rather than knowledge is central (Gremmen, 1993). Central to the call for multi-disciplinary work is the view that practices can be improved through working together, as opposed to simply sharing information and that through this “working together”, each practice is enhanced in ways that would be impossible if working in isolation. Knowledge for improving farm and industry performance often resides in different disciplines, requiring a suitable connection between disciplines and knowledge types if working together effectively is to become a reality. Precisely what constitutes this ‘suitable connection’ is not well understood, but is important to understand and define.

Knowledge partnerships – isn’t it enough to have farmers involved in research projects?

Disciplines working together for rural innovation and formalised relationships between farmers-extension and technical research are not new (Langeveld and Proost, 2004; numerous RD&E projects around rural Australia and overseas). Such relationships have taken various forms such as; on-farm research trials, commercial scale research farms; farmer led research; demonstration farms; and a suite of commercial farms collaborating with research and/or extension projects. For instance there are five different models of farm-extension or farm- research-extension relationships in the Australian dairy industry alone (Paine, 2005). These facilitated networks and relationships with farmers are seen as assisting in effective feedback and interaction for research and extension outcomes and are platforms for data exchange (Langeveld and Proost, 2004).

Typically, the criteria to include commercial farms in research programs are driven by the recognition of issues to do with relevance of research-site-produced information and results for decision making at a commercial scale. First, methodologies are needed to extend knowledge relevance beyond the “local”, and engaging with commercial farms is seen as a mechanism for this. Secondly there are issues related to the applicability of research results given issues of scale and the specific physical characteristics of a research site. Having commercial farms involved is seen to improve understanding on the part of researchers, farmers and extension regarding commercial scale implementation of research knowledge. Thirdly, commercial farms play a demonstration role in that they assist in understanding the risk, management requirements and ease of adaptation of research as well as the decision making context of farmers. This particularly involves understanding how differences between expected and actual performance is resolved at the farm level. In addition, most projects document the value researchers and farmers place in learning from each other. For instance, Millar and Curtis (1999) noted that researchers valued interaction with farmers because it gave them insights into farming systems and offered new ideas and innovations that could be investigated further using on-farm research. Further, the authors suggest that such interaction often transformed scientific thinking and changed the way scientists approached their subject and methods. These benefits underlie the current large investments in farmer-researcher collaborative projects and multidisciplinary projects. However, Millar and Curtis (1999) also found that science often de-valued farmer knowledge because, for example, it lacked a basis for understanding cause and effect, offered limited reasons why a particular response was recorded and was not based on “controlled” comparisons.

This has implications for the performance of multidisciplinary projects and for the outcomes desired and /or expected from such projects, particularly involving farmers. Although Leeuwis (2000) advocates for more extensive co-operation between farmers, extension and researchers, Millar and Curtis (1999) believe that the professional and social distance between farmers and scientists and changing institutional priorities make it difficult to bring farmers and scientists together for long term knowledge and information exchange and learning. In this paper, we go further to suggest that simple knowledge and information exchange and learning may not be enough for the demands of rural innovation – but transformation of farming, extension and science practice needs to be supported through such interactions. There is a need to learn more about the conditions under which knowledge partnerships (here between farming, technical and social science and extension) contribute to industry innovation.

Future Dairy – A multi-disciplinary knowledge partnership

FutureDairy is a new initiative developed to help Australia’s dairy farmers manage the challenges they are expected to face over the next 20 years, namely, the availability and cost of land, water and labour. FutureDairy is investigating technical issues of increasing forage production/ha, increasing productivity through different production pathways and new technologies aimed at improving labour efficiency and lifestyle (Kenny and Nettle, 2005). The project is designed around the creation of partnerships between researchers, both technical and social, extension agents and “partner” commercial farmers. This partnership is aimed at the joint development of the knowledge and practices involved in managing technologies to meet industry challenges.

Leeuwis (2000) suggests that creating the conditions for the “right” interaction between technology collaborators becomes just as important as the technology itself. Innovation becomes an emergent property of a relationship system operating between technology-workers. Uncertainty can be used as an opportunity for interaction rather than as a problem to be controlled. It is therefore more important for investors and innovators to focus their efforts on the way people are organized around technological innovations to enhance the performance of the system being managed. He suggests a need for appropriate methodologies to encourage a form of interaction between researchers, farmers, extension and even society that enhances the adaptation and use of information and technology. Within FutureDairy, these “knowledge partnerships” are viewed as such a methodology, both attempting to “fast-track” learning about the adaptation of technologies and develop a methodology that more effectively supports innovation.

In FutureDairy, technical research is predominantly conducted at a research site in Western Sydney at Camden NSW. The 5 commercial partner farmers (located in NSW and Victoria) are regarded as co-developers of knowledge around the key areas of investigation within FutureDairy (Kenny and Nettle, 2005). Extension creates, facilitates and supports the co-learning relationships between technical researchers, farmers and extension.

Extension therefore provides a structural and relational capacity building “interface” between the technical elements of the FutureDairy project, farmers, other extension providers and social research. In its ideal form, this learning and negotiation activity around technology development requires experienced facilitation of innovation in both technical and social-organisational domains simultaneously. Insight and proficiency in the fields of social interaction, negotiation and communication, with sufficient understanding to tap into the relevant scientific expertise is also required (Leeuwis, 2000). This mediating role is aimed at:

  • supporting learning between the project, commercial farms and service providers that leads to sustainable farming systems change,
  • fostering relevance of the projects work to other dairy regions,
  • developing management guidelines for supporting farming systems change in the dairy industry

For more detail about the role and experience of extension in Future Dairy, please see the accompanying paper to these proceedings (Kenny and Nettle, 2005). The project is managed by a project leader (technical scientist) with a management committee consisting of leaders of the extension, social research and technical project elements. This team reports to a steering committee of stakeholders.

Social research in Future Dairy

Social research was established in the FutureDairy project to understand effective functioning of multidisciplinary teams and to address particular social questions such as labour and lifestyle implications and perceptions of new technologies among dairy farmers and the industry more broadly. As such, social research has the role of identifying, examining and documenting the knowledge partnership process and the lessons learned as the project unfolds.

Each partner farm and its relationship with extension and science are seen to be able to offer insight into general principles of change and represent discreet cases of knowledge partnerships. Social research is using a combination of semi-structured interviewing with participants and observations at key points of interaction to collect data to inform the tracking of knowledge partnerships. Along with this the project management committee and project team, through their interactions with partner farmers represent a platform for mutual discourse2, and the development of a shared vocabulary (Jeffrey, 2003) between the practices of science, social science, farming and extension. Social research documents and tracks this development to learn more about knowledge partnerships for dairy industry RD&E outcomes. The interactions between the technical research group, partner farmers, extension and associated regional extension activities are studied by social research working within the project team using action research methodology3. This research methodology allows for ongoing learning and adaptation within the project to continuously improve project relevance. The findings from this work will offer frameworks for improved interaction between technical research, extension and farmers.

Knowledge partnerships in practice – a case from FutureDairy

Although still early in the research process, an example of learnings from the development of knowledge partnerships is provided using one of the forage partner farms4 as a case study of the RD&E relationship.

The partner farmer and their local support group (farmers, service providers) were interested in the role of crops for improving total DM production per hectare. This fitted well with the research site, where researchers had trialled a complementary forage rotation (CFR) in the previous 12 months, attaining 40t DM/ha5 with significantly greater nutrient and water efficiencies compared to pasture only systems. The CFR comprised maize (bulk crop), brassica (break crop) and legume/clover (N fixation). The district (and the farmer) had experience growing maize, generally followed by short rotation ryegrass and most often under flood irrigation rather than spray.

“We were going to do something like this anyway…maize plus something else. This [the partnership with research] has given us something more solid to pick the positives and the negatives as we go”. Forage partner farmer

The farmer and support group were interested in comparing dry matter production options such as maize and ryegrass with a CFR system. The farmer and associates viewed their involvement as one which widened the research agenda in dairying:

The partner farm opportunity for us is terrific because in our district there has been so much focus on pasture and grass ever since I’ve been part of it – for 20 years and they are still – saying we are learning how to grow grass and we are still not doing 17 tonnes [in our district]!” Forage partner farmer

Production of 40tDM/ha on farm captured the imagination of this farmer. They, like the researchers, wanted to see if it was possible to achieve, whether or not it would fit realistically within the farm system and if it was sustainable long-term (environmentally and economically).

In order to support the farmers in making a decision regarding the amount of area they would put under a CFR in the first year, extension “modelled” the farm and how it might respond under different areas of crop and the implications for feed budgeting and herd requirements. From initial analysis both research and extension recommended a smaller area of CFR on the farm in order to minimise production risk. The farmer disagreed, being more interested in putting one of their pivot irrigator areas under the CFR system (21ha). They felt this would a) be more meaningful for the district, b) be a better opportunity to achieve the target yield, c) be a manageable risk – with the aid of extension (for planning and risk management) and research (with expertise in crop growth). The researchers and extension were cautious about the amount of area planned for the CFR. This was primarily because of the Brassica component of the forage rotation. Brassica’s had not been extensively used in the area and there was some questions about its utility in an agronomic sense. Also concerns were held as to the level of management needed to graze Brassicas given the farmers unique management requirements and the size of the scale of farm operation (700 cows). This was not to question the capacity of the partner farmer in managing their system, rather it was more an issue of risk management and attempting to minimise the managerial complications in the first year. However, the partner farmer was determined – not wanting to compromise the bold target of 40t DM/ha, by what was considered to be “lesser” options.

A week later, as a decision on crop area had to be made, the research and extension team met with the partner farmer and support group (including a trusted adviser) to discuss the uncertainty and potential risks that were assessed around the amount of Brassica to be grown - primarily around the ability to cope with 21 ha of Brassica in the grazing rotation and diet of the cows. The partner farmer decided to lower expectations for the first year and to sow half the area under maize to Brassica – with the remainder being a point of comparison to the more “standard” district system of a maize-ryegrass rotation. This decision process is summarised in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The area a partner farm puts under a CFR - The decision process involving farmers, extension, research and advisers in FutureDairy.

The project team has been able to harness the learnings about CFR’s application in a commercial setting quickly through understanding farmer experience in adapting CFR to their farm. For instance, from paddock scale experimentation to whole farm system implications the team has found that it is the Brassica component of CFR that limits the proportion of a farm that can be put into a CFR system. This is because Brassica can only be grazed and not conserved as surplus, can only be grazed at 2.5-3kg/DM/cow/day and there is a requirement for a fibre source at the time of grazing Brassica. Further, alternatives to maize or Brassica are required if considering the system on prime dairy land close to the dairy, or alternatively a fully conservable crop system is needed to harvest feed not accessible to milkers. The process of farm decision making on a crop area with the farmer highlighted that researchers and extension can often be quite conservative in their recommendations or approach, therefore when considering implications of a CFR system to an industry, recommendations need to account for the varying risk profiles of farmers, the attitudes and motivations for high dry matter production as well as the physical and technical limitations of attaining desired yields. At the time of writing, these learnings have occurred in a short time of involvement with partner farms (first year of a CFR on-farm, first of three crops planted).

This small example of the farmer-research-extension relationship yields useful insight. Despite examining the same research question, farmers, extension and researchers differed in the way they perceived risk in managing a new crop system. Important differences exist in the ways in which research and extension view issues for farmers surrounding the technical research (eg. in terms of risk and planning) and the expectations of the farmer as to the roles of research and extension in the process. The planning requirement around a new crop system is high and potentially different to standard practice, requiring feed budgets, grazing plans and risk assessments. This has implications for the role of extension or an adviser as well as how research handles the explanation of new systems. Further, the decision processes to enter into such a system involve not just productivity goals but aspirational elements (desire to grow 40tDM/ha) and these need to be understood. Because risk is assessed differently by research, extension and farming this reveals a key area in which variation in farmer knowledge needs to be accounted for in research offerings. How does research participate in risk management and risk decisions at a farm level? How does extension draw the farmer and the researcher closer together? What can farmers expect from research and extension in adapting CFR for their system?

This experience has required researchers, extension and farming to understand differences, find shared concerns, divide labour in the team and build on strengths. This requires a type of working together that is different to how RD&E may have operated in the past, particularly in relation to commercial farms in research and extension. In this way, commercial partner farmers and their knowledge are important for a more complete understanding of the implications of new farm management options. However aligning the research questions of the farmer and the technical research team is a source of tension and learning between research, extension and farming.

Overall, the partner farmers are acting as a platform for an RD&E relationship to develop. This extends beyond the role of farmer knowledge finding a place in research and beyond a “testing” of technology in commercial situations. The partnership also:

a) Increases understanding of the risks associated with technology and change and farmers’ approaches to risk assessment; this in turn highlights how perceptions of risk by farmers, extension and researchers can be very different.

b) Provides opportunity to participate in the planning process on-farm that creates a responsibility for research and extension to understand the position of the farmer.

c) Is an opportunity to develop a shared language and shared monitoring that allows for the co-development of research parameters.

d) Offers an expanded suite of possibilities for the technical options. (e.g. Complementary Forage rotations different to that at EMAI)

e) Provides understanding of the social context of farmers and how this is influencing the positioning of technical options.

Implications for extension in multi-disciplinary teams

These early learnings from FutureDairy have wider relevance to extension operating in multidisciplinary teams. Despite the increased involvement of extension in research projects and researchers working with farmers, extension practitioners normally operate by themselves in a region and with their own groups of farmers. Also, farmers are not regularly in touch with research work and researchers generally operate in isolation from the issues of extension. Multi-disciplinary projects like FutureDairy challenge the experience and boundaries of “normal” extension, farming and research practice. Boundaries are therefore “tricky”. Disciplinary boundaries can be expanded (eg. researchers participating in a management planning process for the farmer) or contracted (eg. technical outputs not viewed as useful or necessary by extension). This increases and challenges the demands/expectations on each discipline (by each other). This has the potential to enhance research outcomes but may also be viewed as a burden, outside the “job” of a particular discipline, or trigger disengagement of a discipline.

Negotiating ‘tricky boundaries’ and supporting effective disciplinary relationships is particularly pertinent for extension. Extension performing well in this role means there is no room for “as long as I do my job all is OK” approach. In the above example, either technical or social research could have been shut out and viewed as not having a role to play in the decision making process. However, through the interaction, a greater appreciation of the decision making criteria and practical aspects of integrating CFR’s into farming systems was gained.

Therefore, as partner farms provide the platform for the RD&E relationship to develop, the knowledge partnership requires extension to:

  • Work to manage risk, as well as communicate this process with all disciplinary partners
  • Understand that it is in a more powerful position in this model, either thwarting or enhancing the possibilities for partnership.
  • Encourage the working together of research and farmers to develop a shared language that allows for the co-development of knowledge.
  • Ensure the voice of the farm/farmer is actually taken seriously at the research level (For example, the expanded suite of possibilities for CFR from the practical “reality check” of the farmer)
  • Be able to draw on and use both social and technical analysis of a problem area.


Documenting and tracking development of knowledge partnerships in RD&E projects is suggested as a key element for answering questions concerning the way to incorporate farmer knowledge in research, how to effectively connect different knowledge types and how to fast-track innovation for rural industries. The FutureDairy project is an incredibly rich area for progress on these questions.


Thankyou to Bill Fulkerson and Carolyn Kabore (FutureDairy) for their comments and suggestions on the draft of this paper.


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1 Research and extension functions are separate in most Australian state departments of primary industries. Also, development and delivery functions are often separated along public and private sector lines. Such a situation lends itself to increased privatisation of knowledge (Marsh and Panell, 2000).

2 The term ‘discourse’ refers to the way ideas, concepts, and categorizations are produced and transformed by people to make sense of their world (Hajer 1995 : 44). Discourses are embedded within social activities and interactions, and articulate the interests of the groups utilising them. Discourses therefore reflect the balance of power in society, and the ability of different groups to have their voices heard

3 Action research is a methodology in the social sciences whereby action (change) and research (explanation, understanding) are integrated within a planned intervention or project.

4 FutureDairy’s partner farms are aligned with the three core modules of the project – feeding, forages and innovations. For more detail on these modules see Kenny and Nettle (2005)

5 To put this into context, the average pasture harvest per hectare n Australia is approximately 7t DM/ha (Garcia and Fulkerson, 2005)

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