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The CowTime Project: a rumination on the importance of extension and evaluation

Darold Klindworth1, Diana Carr1, Lee-Ann Monks2 , Robert Greenall3

1 Primary Industries Research Victoria (PIRVic), Department of Primary Industries, RMB 2460 Hazeldean Road, Ellinbank, Victoria 3821. Email:,
Monks Communication, PO Box 193, Bli Bli, Queensland, 4560
National Milk Harvesting Centre, The University of Melbourne, Faculty of Land and Food Resources, Parkville Victoria 3052


The CowTime Project is a national dairy extension project that began as a three-year project in 2001 in the middle of the worst drought in living memory. Owing to the drought and economic conditions the project outputs were substantially modified to meet the changing market conditions while still keeping to the original goals and measures of success. At the end of the first three years the funders decided to continue for a further three years based on the results of the evaluation studies.

This paper reflects on the results of the first phase of the project with a focus on the two main extension methods of delivery. These were the Shed Shake-up field day and the Milking Monitor, a web-based tool. These two methods were responsible for 58% of participating farmers making an on-farm practice change, with 14% planning to in the future. Why and how the project re-invented itself, the methods used to evaluate the delivery methods and the strategies used to communicate the impact of the project results are discussed.

Three key learnings: (1) A mixture of extension methods achieved a high level of practice change on farms. Face-to-face delivery and web-based interaction both achieved results. (2) Format of the Shed Shake-up day was structured to suit the dairy farmer’s day and proved to be a winner. (3). Evaluation results were essential to modify the extension methods used and to publicise the achievements of the project to the dairy farming public and to our funders.

Key words

Extension methods, web-based delivery, evaluation


This paper is a practitioner’s account of the first three years of the CowTime project from 2001 to 2004. The aim is to describe how the project coped and re-invented itself during a period of drought and economic uncertainty in the dairy industry.

The need for the project was identified following the development of a Milk Quality and Harvesting Prospectus (Mein and Smolenaars 2001) in 2001 on behalf of the National Dairy Alliance. The prospectus identified that two important goals were not being addressed – reducing the cost of milk harvesting and making milking easier and a more pleasant occupation. Following this, dairy farmers participated in five focus groups around the country where the concept of a program to address these goals received strong support. So CowTime became the national milk harvesting extension project with the aims of:

  • Increasing labour productivity of milk harvesting by 20% on participating dairy farms by June 2006
  • To make milking an easier, safer, more pleasant or more attractive occupation
  • To build awareness of the benefits of good stock handling
  • To ensure changes initiated by CowTime are continued beyond June 2004.

The project had a total of 22 different funders, with the main funder being Dairy Australia.

The project was designed to have four main extension outputs to satisfy different farmer needs. These were:

  • The Milking Monitor: a web-based milking productivity benchmarking tool
  • The CowTime Clinic: a free two-hour ‘checkup’ of milking performance
  • The CowTime Course: a fee-paying three-day course, where farmers planned changes to their milking systems
  • CowTime On-Farm Advisors: a fee for service network of advisers to help farmers implement their changes.

Early days

Initially it was thought that the main extension vehicle for the project would be a FarmBis subsidised three day intensive course where dairy farmers would analyse their current system, research the options available, and come up with a change plan for their new milk harvesting system. The CowTime Course was aimed at farmers wanting to make a major infrastructure change to their farms, either by modifications or building a new dairy. Clinic sessions and the Milking Monitor were designed to feed participants into the Courses. The Clinics could be delivered in the morning, afternoon or evening depending on regional circumstances. Supporting technical materials were developed for the Course and made freely available on the CowTime website.

The project was launched in October 2002 during the worst drought in living memory with the economic circumstances of many dairy farmers badly affected. Some 818 farmers attended the free Clinics across the country. However, they did not act as the feeder channel into the courses as originally planned. It became apparent farmers were unwilling to invest in a three-day course. Four fee-paying courses ran, but it became a difficult task to round up the 16 participants required by FarmBis. Rather than see the project struggle on using the same format for another year, the project team engaged a consultant to survey Clinic attendees [Down to Earth Research 2003] to discover why they didn’t do the course and what changes they had made after attending the Clinic.

Not unexpectedly it turned out that:

  • three days was considered too long to be away from the farm,
  • farmers were happy with their milking performance,
  • there was general disillusionment with the dairy industry with farmers unwilling to invest in their farms or expecting to leave the industry if conditions didn’t improve.

However, the survey also showed that 24% of farmers had used the information at the Clinics to make practice change on the farm. So it was decided to develop a one-day event that would appeal to farmers and not to offer the courses in the dairy regions until conditions improved.

Evaluation methods

The evaluation plan was based on Bennett’s Hierachy as it is the framework for all Department of Primary Industries evaluation activities. The plan was developed in conjunction with the CowTime Advisory Committee and the project’s stakeholders. A variety of methods were used to collect evidence – exit questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, surveys. Evaluation results were used to monitor and change the project’s outputs on an on-going basis as well as to demonstrate the benefits and impact of the project.

Delivery methods

The Shed Shake-up Field Day Extension Method of Delivery

The one-day event became know as a Shed Shake-up “A field day with a difference”. The format was designed to replace the two-hour Clinic and to extend some of the information dealt within the Course. The content of the program addressed low cost options for change to suit the economic downturn being experienced. The evaluation results from the Clinic Exit Questionnaires were used to help plan the day. When asked, “How could we improve the Clinics?” suggestions included:

  • more discussion time
  • improvements to the video showing more types of dairies
  • new technologies
  • more practical information, and
  • more dairy visits.

The first topic chosen was cow behaviour and improving cow flow. The title of the Shed Shake-up was ‘Go With The Flow’. The day began at 10.30 am and ended at 3.00 p.m. to allow farmers to get back in time for the second milking of the day. An informal teaching session was held in the morning and concentrated on stock handling and people issues. A video produced by CowTime on stockhandling was shown and farmer discussion encouraged. Farmers were encouraged to assess how well they were performing by completing a Milking Monitor form. Dairy equipment dealers were invited to give a short presentation on low cost items that helped milking. They were limited to a five-minute presentation to the group but were able to set up a limited display and interact with participants over lunch. They were also welcome to share their knowledge and experience in the general discussions.

After a free lunch and lucky door prize, participants travelled to a nearby dairy for the afternoon session concentrating on design and facility issues in the context of the dairy. The host farmer was asked to give his story concerning his dairy and its progression to the present day.

The first Shed Shake-up was piloted in Terang in August 2003 and by June 2004 a total of 900 people attended 34 Shed Shake-ups held around Australia.

The Shed Shake-ups fit nicely with the programmed learning model described in Coutts (2003). It certainly is a specifically designed training workshop being delivered to a targeted group to increase understanding or skills in a defined area. Milk harvesting is the defined area in the case of a CowTime Shed Shake-up.

Success of the extension method

CowTime invested much time in the evaluation of piloted materials and programs to ensure the content had farmer and industry seal of approval before being launched. This formative evaluation led to fine-tuning of the content and also to the promotional messages. This proved to be a valuable exercise as the feedback on the new format was very positive.

CowTime exit questionnaire returns for the first round of Shed Shake-ups showed that 99% of farmers felt it was worthwhile attending the day. The impact of the day was exceptional with 71% intending to make a change to their milk harvesting system while 22% preferred to wait and see. [Greenall 2004]

In-depth phone interviews conducted by Down To Earth Research in June 2004 showed that 58% of participants had already implemented a change to their milk harvesting system as a direct result of attending a Shed Shake-up day. A further 14% had changes planned for the future. Table 1 describes the types of changes made.

Table 1: On-farm changes made after attending a Shed Shake-up

Alterations made to milk harvesting system as a result of attending Shed Shake-up day

Base: all Shed Shake-up in-depth interview respondents (n = 50)

In the dairy:

Let cows come in themselves / not rushed


Workers are quieter


Lights remain on


Don’t squeeze cows in / give them space


Installed / planning to install stall gates


Grooved / scoured concrete


Yard entry:

Changing entrance to yard from side to rear entrance


Narrowed the entrance to dairy


Paddock to yard:

Let cows walk to dairy themselves


Cleaning up:

Using exfoliation gloves


Down to Earth Research (2004) CowTime survey

The survey also showed that there was overwhelming support for the new format. Farmers were able to take time off between milkings and learn something practical to improve their milk harvesting system. Participants strongly supported a single day training session, particularly one that included a farm visit and the opportunity to discuss matters with other dairy farmers as well as experts. Almost all (94%) of the dairy farmers surveyed claimed they would recommend the Shed Shake-up to others.

Common statements recorded on the CowTime exit questionnaire where farmers were asked what they most enjoyed included:

  • the practical information on cow handling and cow flow
  • easy to understand information
  • the video
  • helped to understand own farm set-up and how to make improvements
  • good presentation, friendly and informal
  • the in-depth knowledge of presenters
  • the opportunity for discussion with other farmers and the sharing of ideas.

The following case study (Monks, 2004a) illustrates the power of the Shed Shake-up - the farmer in the case study attended the Bega NSW event and ended up saving time in the dairy and making his milking easier and more pleasant – a perfect example of CowTime’s aims in practice.

Case study Bevan Alcock: Stress buster, beer buster, (by Lee-Ann Monks)

CowTime’s Shed Shake-up not only helped Bevan Alcock and his mother to save a day’s work a week, it also proved to be a stress buster and a beer buster.

Bevan farms in partnership with his mother, Julie, cousin, Rowan and aunt, Robyn. They run a 250-cow year round calving herd, Crystal Brook, located near Bega on NSW’s south coast.

Bevan and Julie do the lion’s share of the milking in a 14-unit double up herringbone, built two years ago, which is set up for two milkers. Although they’ve been happy with the dairy design, cow flow was an underlying source of frustration.

“Not only did we have to chase the cows into the dairy, we also had to chase them on their way after exiting.” said Bevan, who has always loved cows and enjoyed milking.

Julie and Bevan share the same attitude towards milking. “We have always aimed to treat our cows gently. Our goal isn’t to milk as fast as possible because that’s when things slip through the cracks. You only have to miss one case of mastitis or a few heats, and the time saved was a false economy.”

After attending CowTime’s Shed Shake-up Bevan made two simple changes that dramatically improved cow flow and virtually eliminated frustration in the dairy. “I can’t believe what a difference it has made; and it didn’t cost me a cent,” he said.

All Bevan did was turn on a light at the dairy exit each morning milking and shut a gate on the dairy yard.

The Shed Shake-up focussed on cow behaviour and how it affects cow flow. “Basically it was about cow psychology and how we can use it to make milking easier. “

Bevan realised that having two gates for the cows to enter the dairy yard meant the herd’s pecking order was mixed up.

By keeping the first gate shut, the cows now enter the yard in the order they prefer to enter the shed. This has improved cow flow into the dairy.

At the Shed Shake-up, Bevan heard that cows are very sensitive to changes in light and will avoid crossing a shadow. “In our case, that’s what was stopping the cows wanting to leave the dairy. By turning on the light the shadow is gone, and the cows are happy to move away,” he said.

Each milking now takes about 20 minutes less, which for two people, adds up to seven hours a week, or a day’s labour. CowTime’s Milking Monitor Report shows the Alcocks have improved labour efficiency by 13%, for no cost or effort.

But Bevan says the big difference is ‘about three beers a night.’

“After a stressful milking, I used to need a few beers to wind down but these days I’m much more relaxed when I leave the dairy each evening. And you just can’t measure the value of that!,” he said.

Figure 1: Bevan Alcock

Web-based delivery: The Milking Monitor

A key goal of the project was to ensure changes initiated by CowTime were continued beyond June 2004. Project materials were developed and freely published on the CowTime website ( These included a technical resource manual (the CowTime Guidelines), a series of technical information sheets (Quick Notes) and a benchmarking tool called the Milking Monitor.

The Milking Monitor consists of an online and faxable form that asks the farmer 14 questions about their milk harvesting system including cow numbers, production, dairy characteristics and time taken for milking tasks. When completed, a report is generated that gives a snapshot of how well they are performing compared to benchmarks based on survey work conducted by the National Milk Harvesting Centre. The report also indicates areas that need improvement by a series of traffic lights. A red light indicates an area of the milk harvesting system that needs attention and a short amount of advice is given on how to make improvements.

Figure 2: Example page of the Milking Monitor report

When the Milking Monitor was first being developed it was assumed that many farmers would be more comfortable filling in paper forms and faxing them to the project office. In fact over half the users of this service have accessed the website themselves. By the end of the first 3 years of the project 1,400 farmers had received a report on their dairy system.

Being on the web and free the Milking Monitor has also attracted overseas farmers with users from China, Israel, USA, UK, New Zealand and Ireland.

Success of this extension method

The Milking Monitor has proved to be a most cost-effective way of reaching a large audience and has also proved to be a motivator of on-farm change. A surprising find in the Down To Earth 2003 survey showed that 21% of farmers had made changes on the basis of their Milking Monitor report, without attending a CowTime activity in person and a further 26% intended to make changes in the future. This model of interaction fits comfortably with Coutts (2003) “Information Access Model” of extension.

Farmers who had made changes on their farm were invited to re-do their Milking Monitor forms. This way empirical evidence of improvements in labour productivity was recorded as evidence for the project’s main goal.

The case study of Ken Bryant and Ann Hogden (Monks, 2004b) shows how the Milking Monitor report motivated these farmers to make changes and save 45 minutes from their daily routine.

Case Study: Ken Bryant and Ann Hogden: Saved a Day a Week (by Lee-Ann Monks)

Ken Bryant spent just 15 minutes and less than $100 to save more than an hour and a quarter a day, every day. That’s a saving of more than a ‘standard’ working day each week.

With his partner Ann Hodgen, Ken manages Miami Jerseys, a 350-cow herd at Finley in NSW’s Riverina district.

Ken ran the milking routine for their 50-unit rotary through the Milking Monitor Report on CowTime’s website.

“The report showed very clearly that we were spending too much time bringing the cows in from the paddock and cleaning up after milking,” said Ken.

The Milking Monitor motivated Ken to make some simple changes.

When it came to bringing the cows up to the dairy for the afternoon milking, he simply stopped following the cows home.

“Our original routine involved opening the paddock gate at lunch time and spending up to 45 minutes following the cows up to the feed pad. Just before milking, we’d go down to the feed pad and bring the cows home. These days we just open the gate at lunch time and let the cows wander up to the feed pad at their leisure,” he said.

The feed pad is close to the dairy so it’s a quick task to bring the cows up to the shed from the feed pad.

“By just not doing what we’ve always done, we’ve cut 45 minutes from our daily routine, and a lot of frustration,” said Ken.

To shorten the time involved in yard wash up, a new nozzle ($45) was purchased for the hose, which is used before the flood washer.

“The new nozzle is so much better that I wonder why we put up with the old one for so long. We’ve bought another for the other yard hose. It saves 15 minutes every milking,” he said

Figure 3: Ken Bryant and Ann Hogden


The CowTime project employed the action research model (Zuber-Skerritt (2000) in responding to the changing circumstances in the dairy industry. The original plan of interaction with dairy farmers was seen to be not working. Using evaluation and reflection the project team modified the plan and a more successful model was developed.

The Shed Shake-ups proved to be an effective way of engaging farmers, imparting new learnings about milk harvesting and acting as a motivator for improvements. Participants noted in the evaluations that they valued the practical knowledge gained, simple messages conveyed and simple low cost suggestions to be tried at home. The immediate feedback on the success or failure of their efforts is one of the strengths of the Shed Shake-up program. Each session provided the farmers with simple take-home ideas that could be put into practice on the farm the next day. Immediate benefits could be seen and assessed quickly by the farmer and on-farm practices altered. For example Bevan Alcock, the case study farmer discussed before, shut off a gate to allow cows to enter the yard in their pecking order. Many programs have quite large lead times before participants are able to see a benefit if any for their efforts.

Rogers’ (1995) Theory of Perceived Attributes as explained by Surry (1997) provides a model to predict the program’s success. The attributes are listed as Trialability; Observability; Relative Advantage; Complexity and Compatibility. The Shed Shake-ups suggest options that can be trialed on a limited basis, offers clearly observable results, has an advantage for the participants, is simple and is compatible with their existing values and desired ways of working.

Rogers’ (1995) Innovation Decision Process theory also applies to the Shed Shakeups. The time at the Shed Shake-up is devoted to presenting new knowledge and attempting to convince the participants to see the value in the change and to make the decision to at least test the ideas presented. Most ideas are simple to implement. Many participants have seen positive results fairly quickly so they get confirmation of value of the change very quickly.

The importance of evaluation for this project cannot be underestimated. Firstly, the project used evaluation results from the Clinics to change the extension delivery method, taking into account the farmer’s suggestions for improvements. Evaluation from the Shed Shake-ups enabled even more fine-tuning to be done on the Shed Shake-up format.

The evaluation results also were used to demonstrate the impact of the project and ultimately persuade the project’s stakeholders to continue funding for another three years. One of the Advisory Committee members stated that until he heard the evaluation report results he was going to vote against the proposal to continue.

The results also yielded a number of interesting stories about what farmers did with the knowledge gained from the Shed Shake-ups and these in turn were compiled into case studies from each of the eight dairy regions and have been used to promote the achievements of the project. All case studies were incorporated into the project’s final report and have been re-used as feature articles in the Australian Dairyfarmer journal throughout 2004/5, helping to increase the profile of the project. Individual regional reports were prepared for funders containing a statistical summary of all CowTime activities in the region with the regional case study on the back. Whenever possible the case studies have been used in press releases and publicity in general as farmers like to read about what other farmers have done.

The case studies have been so well received and used that it has been decided to adapt the Most Significant Change (Dart 2005) approach to qualitative evaluation to the next phase of the project.

The web based extension delivery method has also proved to be successful as a motivational tool for on farm practice change based on the Down To Earth 2003 survey. Getting 21% of farmers to make changes on the basis of their Milking Monitor report alone is pretty impressive. When you consider that it happened without attending a CowTime activity in person and a further 26% intended to make changes in the future it is all the more remarkable.


The economic impact of the drought forced the project team to re-assess the extension methods used. By using the results from a survey of participants who had not gone on to enrol in a course and taking on board the suggestions for improvement that came from farmers who had attended a Clinic, the project re-shaped an event that suited the farmer’s information needs.

The future

CowTime received approval for another three years continuation in 2004 with similar project goals. A new topic ‘Pits and People’ was conducted in 2004-2005. Plans are underway for another round of Shed Shake-ups in 2005-2005, this time the topic will be energy savings in the dairy.

The CowTime Course is also being revived in a new format. There were always some farmers willing to attend the course, but never enough to make the quota of 16 participants. These farmers were often in remote areas. So it was decided to put the course onto a CD-ROM and package it into a user-friendly format. This product is currently being developed.


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Down To Earth Research (2003). CowTime survey. Melbourne.

Down To Earth Research (2004). CowTime survey. Melbourne.

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