Successful ag extension programs driving positive change in farming systems

Gregor Heard
By Gregor Heard
Updated May 6 2022 - 2:04am, first published 2:00am
Mary O'Brien, Mary O'Brien Rural, Adam Kay, Cotton Australia and Peter Newman, Weedsmart, have all been involved in projects successfully pushing for farm best practice.

AUSTRALIAN farmers have a reputation globally as being early adapters of technology and agronomic advances.

The harsh climate in the world's driest populated continent has meant farmers have had to constantly overhaul their systems to remain viable.

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The swift transition to no-till, widespread uptake of GPS systems and the use of variable rate technology are just some of the areas where Australian croppers have embraced change over the course of the 21st century.

However, ag research and development teams have also found some topics have been a hard sell and have not been picked up as well.

Much of this has been put down to the way extension programs have been run, getting that critical message translated from the theoretical into the practical.

While there have been some programs and messages that have struggled to catch on among growers, others have become very popular, primarily due to the messaging.

So what gets a message to work and what doesn't among Australia's farmers?

Spray drift

Mary O'Brien, Mary O'Brien Rural, whose #getmydrift program has been at the forefront of helping growers reduce off-target spray drift in northern cropping regions, said understanding how an audience learnt was critical.

"In the beginning farmers were handed a heap of leaflets and written information and things were just not getting through to them as well as they could," Ms O'Brien said.

"You have to understand that a lot of farmers are very visual learners, you show them what they need to do rather than provide a booklet to read.

She gave the example of explaining how inversions, where the air near the soil surface becomes colder and denser than the air above it, work.

"I use smoke to illustrate how air can move and how it is not just like water and a very complicated matter becomes much easier for them to understand."

"These are really good people in their field, to help them learn best it is important to present information in a way that makes sense to them in terms of what they do day to day."

Herbicide resistance and weed management has been something the industry has been looking at for years, but there were concerns messaging was not getting through to growers who were using a dangerous small amount of herbicides in their rotations leading to elevated risk of herbicide resistance.

Weedsmart

In 2013 the Weedsmart program was launched in Western Australia to help promote the messaging of strong herbicide rotations.

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Peter Newman has been involved with Weedsmart since its inception and said it had evolved into a valuable means of conveying information to growers.

"Concepts like our Big 6 set of chemical and non-chemical tactics to help control weeds are now well known by growers and this helps keep resistance in check," Mr Newman said.

He said the Weedsmart team had to continually evolve to reflect industry best practice.

"In the beginning the focus was very much on chemical rotations, but now we see the great results you can get with herbicide mixes and that is something we need to be conveying.

"Jess Strauss (Weedsmart communications lead) and the entire team are doing a great job to ensure up to date information is being fed through to growers."

Mr Newman said a decision had been made to keep messaging simple to help growers digest it better.

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"We have to understand farmers are dealing with a range of complexities and weed management is just one piece of that puzzle.

"You also have the costs involved, there are weed seed destructor options out there but farmers will have other things on the shopping list, we have to understand that we are just one of a number of things farmers are looking to manage."

Mr Newman attributed a large part of Weedsmart's success to its team of agronomists.

"We've got a team of agronomists on the ground right around the country and they know exactly what farmers are talking about and what they want to know."

"The information is tweaked across different parts of the country, so we've got separate advice in the north where there is summer cropping to consider compared to what we do in Western Australia, although the overall message is very similar."

Cotton

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One of the earliest projects to get farmers to embrace best practice management strategies came in cotton.

The My BMP (best management practice) program has been running for 25 years.

Cotton Australia chief executive Adam Kay said the project provided growers with a tangible incentive to aspire for best practice.

"We're seeing premiums for certified My BMP cotton, around $5 a bale, which means the certification project has added around $7.5 million to the industry this year along based on current yield estimates," Mr Kay said.

He said brands were increasingly showing willingness to market Australian cotton and talk about its sustainability credentials.

"We use some of the lowest levels of pesticides and water in the world, our cotton is of a top quality so the brands are starting to market that."

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He said Australian cotton growers had a head start in that they can demonstrate their sustainability credential over a long period of time via My BMP.

"Global demand is growing for sustainable cotton as more and more consumers ask questions about where their clothes come from and

Mr Kay said My BMP had played a key role in attracting new customers when China stopped buying Australian cotton.

"A fair proportion of that new international interest was due to My BMP."

Mr Kay said the accreditation was not just a box-ticking exercise for growers but added they saw the value in it.

"It is run by independent environmental auditors, there are clear requirements but farmers understand what they get out of it not just as a marketing tool but also a real means to improve their farm's sustainability."

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He said the program was constantly evolving.

"When we set it up in 1997 a major focus was minimising pesticide use."

"Now, with improved varieties and techniques we have really cut that pesticide use so a lot of work goes into water use efficiency, biodiversity and cutting greenhouse gas emissions."

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Gregor Heard

Gregor Heard

National Grains Industry Reporter

Gregor Heard is Fairfax Ag Media's national grains industry reporter, based in Horsham, Victoria. He has a wealth of knowledge surrounding the cropping sector through his ten years in the role. Prior to that he was with the Fairfax network as a reporter with Stock & Land. Some of the major issues he has reported on during his time with the company include the deregulation of the export wheat market, the introduction of genetically modified crops and the fight to protect growers better from grain trader insolvencies. Still involved with the family farm he is passionate about rural Australia and its people and hopes to use his role to act as an advocate for those involved in the grain sector. Away from work, he is a keen traveller, having spent his long service leave last year in Spain learning the language.

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