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Knowledge partnerships 2: extension juggling multidisciplinarity in the field – early learning’s from the FutureDairy project

Sean Kenny1 and Ruth Nettle2

1 The University of Sydney, Private Bag 3, Camden, NSW, 2570. Email
The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Vic, 3333. Email


FutureDairy is a multidisciplinary project designed to help address the issues the dairy industry is expected to face over the next 20 years. A unique aspect of FutureDairy is the way in which knowledge partnerships are being used to generate knowledge around these issues – namely the availability and cost of land, water and labour. The role of extension thus far in the project has been to establish and manage these knowledge partnerships, which centre on five commercial dairy farms, in four vastly different dairying landscapes.

The purpose of this paper is to describe the early learning’s from the practice of extension within FutureDairy to date. It will focus on the activities of establishing knowledge partnerships and facilitating effective planning within them.

Three key learnings: (1) extension needs to tailor the establishment of knowledge partnerships to regional needs be competent in managing a new power dynamic for RD&E; 3) need to recognise the role of crisis in establishing effective partnerships and; 4) the need for extension to understand and manage both formal and informal approaches to management planning with farmers.

Key Words

Systems, extension, multidisciplinary, FutureDairy, planning.


The terms of trade for the Australian dairy industry have fallen by 1.8% per year over the past decade (ABARE 2004). Despite a four fold increase in production per farm since the early 80’s (Dairy Australia, 2005), productivity growth has been modest at 1.2% over the same period (ABARE 2004). Such figures suggest that increased farm production is almost being matched by the inputs required to achieve this production and that new technology is providing little in the way of improved farm efficiency. With pressure on the terms of trade for Australian dairy farmers likely to continue, many are questioning what the most efficient future production systems will look like (Garcia and Fulkerson, 2005). The availability and cost of labour along with the challenges associated with efficiently feeding dairy cows are seen as the key issues of concern for dairy systems of the future.

FutureDairy is a new, multidisciplinary, RD and E project that has been designed specifically to help address these challenges. Investors come from a diverse group, all of which have unique and specific interests in the body of work. These include industry bodies (Dairy Australia, Dairy Industry Development Corporation), government departments (New South Wales and Victorian Department of Primary Industries), academia (Universities of Sydney and Melbourne) and private industry (DeLaval, C-DAX, Kahn). The project is unique in that it has been developed and managed by a group comprising technical researchers, extension agents, social researchers and farmers, all who are co-developing knowledge around opportunities for productivity improvements.

The work of FutureDairy is structured around three key modules – forages, feeding and innovations (Garcia 2006). A unique element of the project relates to the way in which knowledge partnerships are being developed to enable the findings of our work to be more robust. By ‘robust’ we are referring to the fact that insights gained from this work will not only comprise of quality science, but will also be grounded in the practical reality of commercial farms and consider the social implications of adopting the technologies under analysis. Knowledge partnerships are at the heart of effective farming systems approaches, an approach which the FutureDairy has elected to pursue.

Farming Systems RD and E

As discussed previously the decade from 1992-93 was characterized by rapid expansion in farm production, declining terms of trade and low productivity improvement, despite an annual investment of over $30 million of farmer and tax payer funds into RD and E. Part of the reason for this seemingly minimal return on investment in RD and E relates to the complexity of the issues limiting productivity as outlined by Garcia and Fulkerson (2005). To satisfactorily address issues around land, water and labour availability and cost requires more than good science, as these issues are heavily influenced by individual world views, culture and wider societal expectations and concerns. One way to manage complex issues is to pursue a ‘farming systems approach’. Crawford et al. (2003) defines a farming systems approach to RD and E as:

“… approach to research and extension that focuses on the farm business and the key interactions that determine the performance of that business. In its ideal form, farming systems RD and E is multi-disciplinary, addresses the social, economic, production and environmental dimensions of the issue under analysis, embraces the use of modelling and innovative learning approaches, and emphasises co-learning for researchers, advisors, investors and farmers.”

The need for a farming systems approach to RD and E as outlined above has been identified for some time. Paine et al (2004) highlighted the fact that advisors Australia-wide recognise the need to build stronger linkages with research and development in areas of learning, change and professionalism in extension. Nettle (2003) also identified that effective extension systems require the development of skills that enable the integration of research and extension practices more readily whilst Crawford et al. (2003) noted that the effectiveness of farming systems projects was dependant upon the relevance of research station activities to the farming sector (locally, regionally and nationally).

The challenge for FutureDairy therefore is not only to develop scientific questions that will shed new light on how best to manage the issues outlined previously, but to ensure that any response to these questions is developed in the context of the ‘farming system’. There also has to be a contribution to the overall knowledge system both technically around specific issues, and geographically and socially around particular farms and regions. Finally, the work of a genuine systems project must build the capacity of those involved to more effectively address the complex issues driving the research .

Knowledge Partnerships and FutureDairy

A detailed description of knowledge partnerships and their potential application in agricultural RD and E has been discussed in a partner paper (Nettle and Kenny, 2006). In summary, knowledge partnerships refer to a process of co-developing knowledge around key issues of investigation. Those involved in the knowledge partnership of FutureDairy are technical researchers, social researchers, extension practitioners, technical support staff and farmers (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 – The FutureDairy Knowledge Partnership

For each module of FutureDairy partner farms have been established, which are commercial farms committed to exploring the same questions being examined at our technical research site, the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute at Camden on the outskirts of Sydney. There are two farms aligned with the forages module, each attempting to integrate a complementary forage rotation into their farm. There are also two farms aligned with the feeding module, with each pursuing a 30% - 50% increase in milk production per hectare. For the innovations module the project has partnered with Max and Evelyn Warren at Maffra, the only commercial farm using AMS technology in Australia. Each farm effectively provides a site for researching the ‘non-technical’ aspects of the questions under exploration. They also provide 5 unique and varied knowledge systems, of which FutureDairy project members have recently become a new part of.

Challenges for extension in knowledge partnerships – early learning’s from FutureDairy

The remainder of this paper will explore two challenging areas for extension that have proven fertile for learning about knowledge partnerships. The first area relates to establishing the partnerships and will explore some of the issues and responses to managing regional variation and a new way of doing RD and E. The second area will focus on the actual activity with the partner farm and the challenges to extension in this area.

Establishing Partnerships

Within FutureDairy, the task of establishing the partner farm network was that of extension. Two primary challenges that were and are still being faced in establishing the network relate to handling the regional variation of knowledge and support systems around each farm and articulating and managing a new power dynamic between researchers, farmers and extension.

Regional Variation

Within FutureDairy, partner farms have been established in four vastly different farming landscapes, across two states that have significantly different dairying histories and cultures. As such, one approach to establishing partner farms would not be effective as each region presents its unique resource challenges. Taking a tailored approach has its own risks, primarily that of losing continuity and cohesiveness within the wider network. A critical step in being flexible to regional needs yet maintaining the whole of project integrity, was engaging regional gatekeepers.

Regional gatekeepers were seen as a way to overcome the reality that a centrally controlled project, based in central NSW, would struggle to understand the regional intricacies of each dairy area. Gatekeepers provided the capacity to work through existing networks and knowledge systems in each region so as to fast track the credibility and standing of the project. They also provided a key role in ensuring the project was tailored to the needs of a region and not seen as lacking relevance. These people were extension staff in each region that had good farmer and service provider contacts. Time was spent detailing the project, its unique approach and requirements of potential partner farmers so that they effectively became champions of FutureDairy. Through discussions with the gatekeeper potential farmers that fitted the project requirements were identified and invited to forums that had been organized to give farmers and service providers in the region a greater awareness of the project. At the end of these forums expressions of interest from farmers interested in finding out more about being a partner farmer were called for. The day following the forum those farmers that showed interest (generally the ones previously identified as being suitable) were visited and a shortlist of potential farms developed.

Without the regional gatekeeper it would have been difficult not only to find the right farm but also validate our work in the region. Interacting with respected local people ensured that we as a project understood what the regional challenges in specific topic areas were. It also meant that the region could see through the gatekeepers validation of the project that here was an opportunity for addressing these challenges. The main issue highlighted by taking such an approach relates to the time taken to finalise the farms. For each region multiple meetings and discussions were required to build the gatekeepers understanding of the project, plan and facilitate the regional forums, and visit and shortlist prospective farms. The whole process, from engaging the gatekeeper and short listing farmers took around two months for each farm and six months from the project starting the search for farms and the steering group selecting each farm.

New Power Relations

For a large part of its history, agricultural RD and E in Australia has operated through a diffusion of innovations or transfer of technology paradigm, best described by Rodgers (1983). This approach assumes that technical scientists develop new knowledge and technology that addresses particular questions, new technology is better than what exists, innovators will adopt new technology and transfer information about its use to later adopters (Teixeira et al. 2004). The focus of extension within this paradigm is the understanding and communication of varied ways in which a technology might operate within diverse biological systems. During the 90’s, the espoused focus of extension shifted more toward working and learning together with farmers through developing an understanding of their unique context and building effective responses from this position (Hamilton, 1995; Paine, 1997; Kenny, 2002). Although this shift in focus has no doubt taken place in the minds of many extension agents, our experience with partner farmers would suggest there is still some way to go to develop such an understanding amongst the farming community.

One persistent challenge that requires ongoing work is shifting the focus of people within the knowledge partnership 1 away from technical science as the primary discourse 2, to seeing each discourse within the partnership as equally legitimate. Through every interaction with our partner farmers the idea of developing a genuine partnership was communicated either verbally or in writing. Emphasis was also given to the fact that we were attempting to elevate farmer knowledge to the same status as technical research in the project. However, as we progressed it became increasingly clear that in the farmers mind, the major influence in the project was to come from the technical scientists, through the provision of new technology to improve their farm business.

For one farmer and their support group this expectation led to frustration when it became apparent that there were no major new and applicable insights from the technical research on the horizon. Issues around the timing of farmer involvement in the project were raised, along with the feeling that we, as extension officers, were unorganized. Primarily these concerns arose because the expectation of new technology was not, and seemed unlikely to be, fulfilled. What was happening here was a failure of the knowledge system to fully grasp the notion of partnership and its implications for the power relationship between farmers, extension officers and technical research. This failure was due to a number of factors. The first of these relates to the way in which large elements of the dairy farming community has been conditioned to view science as providing the answers. Any shift in this normative expectation would undoubtedly create tension. As the project team was operating with a more egalitarian partnership model in mind, but the farm members of the partnerships were expecting a more traditional relationship, frustration arose on the part of the farmers due to a perceived lack of relevance and a failure to deliver on the normative social ‘contract’.

Secondly, the concerns relate to communication and the critical role that crisis plays in this. As stated previously the model of partnership that was to be applied within FutureDairy was repeatedly articulated both verbally and in writing. This was clearly insufficient, as the project teams understanding of partnership was not being shared by the farmers involved in the project. It was only when the frustrations were aired at a meeting called to revisit the nature of farmer input to the project that a shared understanding of the knowledge partnership began to emerge. Upon being challenged by the farmers to give some clarity about their involvement, a discussion around the limitations of technical science to address whole farm system issues was facilitated. In essence this discussion was centered on the multi factorial nature of profitably increasing milk production per hectare. Change in this area requires analysis, reflection and improvements of multiple skill sets and farmer worldviews. Scientific facts present only one element of the decision validation criteria, with others such as resource capability, labour structure, lifestyle objectives and farming philosophy all influencing the extent and nature of change. By discussing that the key to improved production performance, both for them as individuals and the industry more broadly, lay not only in new scientific facts, but an understanding of how farmers adapted and applied them to their unique situation (an understanding that they were contributing to), the farmers began to appreciate that the knowledge they possessed was as valid as any scientific fact. Without the crisis and the need to resolve it, the knowledge partnership would have progressed with less cohesion and divergent expectations. At this point it was felt that a genuine knowledge partnership had begun.

Activity Within Partnerships

The primary activity with partner farmers has centered around a management planning process. This process has varied in function on all the farms but the generic approach is described in Figure 2. The first step, engaging the farmers, has been discussed previously. The modelling activity involved fitting the physical farm model Udder 3 to each farm to provide a basis for scenario testing around possible strategies for improved production per hectare and incorporating a CFR into existing farming systems.

Figure 2: Activities and inputs of knowledge partners around partner farms.

At this stage whole farm economic analysis using the farm financial packages Red Sky 4 and Milk Biz 5 were also undertaken. Feed back sessions were held with the farmers where the models were used to describe the current situation of the farm business. For the feeding module farms, the farmer and support group were then used to brainstorm opportunities for change, based on the current farm situation, and explore potential strategies to achieve this. For the forage module farms, the models were used to build scenarios about the optimal area for planting the CFR that would best support its effective integration into the system. With the support groups, plans were then developed around how best to manage the risks associated with sowing the three crops in the coming year. We are now into the implementation, tracking and review stage of these plans.


The planning process yielded two significant insights on the place and nature of planning in strategy formation. The first of these relates to the timing of planning. Plans are generally understood as a way of formalizing intention, most often via documentation. Hence you have building plans and action plans that document what will take place in the future. There is however a distinct lack of literature, and hence understanding, that sees planning as a dynamic act combining reflection and every day action in such a way that this process becomes the plan itself (Paine and Kenny, 2002). On discussing potential strategies and plans with one partner farmer and support group, several farmers suggested that we were attempting to plan at the wrong time of the year. This view related to the fact we were developing plans in September, when the perceived time for planning was in February/March in preparation for the coming growing season. Such a view is correct if planning is viewed as a process of formalizing and documenting intention. From the projects perspective however, we viewed the planning process as being a socially constructed phenomenon, firmly entrenched within the function of action itself (Paine and Townsley,1994; Leeuwis, 1995; Bardram, 1997). Planning from this position has no preferred timing with effective planning imbedded within the act of farming which is ongoing. Delineation would occur along the lines of tactical and strategic plans.

Developing a shared position on this issue is ongoing and will involve a process of reflecting back to farmers the nature of their planning activity. This relates to the second insight gained from the planning process thus far, namely the iterative and ongoing nature of farm planning. The way in which the link between virtual and lived reality is facilitated is seen as an important characteristic of planning (Attonaty et al. 1999), as is its ability to support the emergent element of strategy formation (Attonaty et al. 1999, Kennedy et al. 2001). For many farmers this is an intuitive and subliminal process. Whilst working through the planning process with one of our feeding partner farmers and their support groups, frustration arose, this time on the part of the extension operatives, when the process began to break down. The causes of the breakdown related to the failure of extensions perceptions around the planning behavior of the farmer materializing. The planning process being used was very logical, starting with the current position of the business, exploring limitations and opportunities then working toward strategy. The assumption of extension was that through the process the farmer and his support group would have a more clearly defined plan for action over the coming months. However, as we began brainstorming potential strategies it became apparent that the farmer had already worked through these potential options, possible risks and appropriate responses to develop a plan that was to be implemented in the coming months. We were attempting to formalize what had already occurred in the farmers mind in a way that was completely foreign to the planning behavior of the farmer. By describing what occurred at this meeting and reflecting back to the farmer the way in which he developed plans, we managed to highlight the fact that planning is an ongoing and dynamic activity, not limited by the stages of a season.

The planning process also raised some interesting questions about the nature of each knowledge partners involvement in planning and the role extension plays in brokering this. For our forage partner farms, it was far easier to broker the partnership given the time sequenced events associated with implementation of a CFR. Key decision points are clear, as are the times when input from knowledge partners will be required. For the feeding farms, given the multi-factorial nature of the change central to this module of work, key decision points are many and varied. As such it is difficult to isolate the priority areas where knowledge partners might best contribute. This is not to say that input of knowledge partners is not beneficial to the achievement of production per hectare objectives. Rather the involvement is simply not structured around a specific set of requirements associated with a shared technology of interest (ie: CFR). This variation in knowledge partnership type will be analyzed further as the project progresses.


Knowledge partnerships provide a means by which the varied aspects of productivity improvement and technology adaptation can be analysed. FutureDairy has been operating for twelve months, with the knowledge partnerships established for six, so it is early days with regards to concluding as to their potential as an alternative model for RD and E. However insights around the challenges for extension in managing knowledge partnerships, something central to the practice of extension, can be gained from our work thus far. These are:

1. The need to tailor the establishment of knowledge partnerships to regional requirements so as to fast track the credibility and perceived relevance of the work amongst local farmers and service providers

2. Having the capacity to manage a new power dynamic around research topics. There are three key roles for extension in this area: 1) continually reinforcing the equal role of farmer knowledge in contributing to the overall project objectives; 2) positioning the role of technical research appropriately via either de-emphasising or re-emphasisng its relative importance, depending on the area of analysis. This places extension is a uniquely powerful position, with the capacity to either thwart or enhance the development of the knowledge partnership in exercising this power; and 3) reflecting back to the farmers evidence of their contribution to addressing the research questions.

3. Utilising inevitable crisis in the lifecycle of group activities to reinforce new ways of operating. The danger when crisis occurs is to flee it rather than work to resolve it. It would have been easy when the questions were being raised around the perceived relevance of the project to either revert to the normative position centered on technical research findings, or give up on this particular knowledge partnership. However such junctures often serve a greater purpose through providing an opportunity to realign objectives and expectations among participants.

4. Facilitating relevant and effective planning. There are two elements to this: 1) viewing planning as a dynamic and ongoing process imbedded in action, and; 2) reflect back to the farmers their intuitive planning activity to help reinforce planning’s embedded and iterative nature. Something this will inevitably raise is the question of who is the planning for. In some cases planning exercises are for the benefit of everyone but the farmer as they articulate what is plain to the person living and breathing the life of the farm. Understanding why such activities are being undertaken will help to alleviate some of the tension around facilitating processes that attempt to formalize that which is informal.


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1 Primarily this relates to people outside of the project management group. Those within the management group have a more developed understanding of multidisciplnarity and what it means for power sharing in knowledge partnerships.

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 UDDER is a whole farm system model best described by Larcombe (1989). It incorporates feeding strategies and pasture growth and management variables, proving effective for exploring relationships between management inputs, milk production and gross margins for pasture based systems.

4 Red Sky is a privately developed farm financial analysis and benchmarking program.

5 Milk Biz is the NSW Department of Primary Industries dairy farm financial performance analysis tool

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