Getting the message right to help farmers through drought

20 June 2023
A herd of cream and light brown cows in a paddock lined with trees and with a mountain in the background
Cows in a paddock

New behavioural science research from the Decide and Thrive drought preparedness project has revealed differences between the types of information and support required by livestock producers in the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

The Decide and Thrive project is being delivered by the University of New England (UNE), CQUniversity (CQU) and CSIRO through funding from the Australian Government’s Future Drought Fund.

It aims to develop innovative and regionally-relevant livestock ranking strategies that secure farm businesses into, during and out of drought, and improve natural capital in agricultural landscapes.

An early investigation into producer needs by CQU has revealed that the types of objective stock ranking tools, and the motivations to use them, vary between states, stock types (sheep versus cattle), and the age and debt levels of producers.

“Too often new tools and technologies are developed with brilliant science and amazing capabilities, but they are not what farmers actually first want to make a difference in their business,” Decide and Thrive project leader Professor Lewis Kahn of UNE said.

“This is why this project commenced with an investigation into the decision-making processes and management strategies of livestock producers, so that we can develop breeding stock selection systems that meet their needs and make a difference to their farm business and environment.”

CQU researcher Dr Cathy O’Mullan said the insights gained from 30 in-depth interviews with producers and advisors from the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, would not only assist technology developers, but also farm consultants in approaching how they offer support and provide information designed to improve drought management strategies.

“It appears clear that most producers are receptive to the message to ‘decide early’ and ‘not look back’, but it will be important for advisers to show how stock ranking tools can help make this decision easier as to which animals to keep or cull,” Dr O’Mullan said.

“The messaging also needs to tap into both objective and subjective information processing by producers – nearly all producers still rely on some level of local knowledge and experience to inform decision making.

“This local knowledge needs to be respected, especially given there is an inherent mistrust of advice from scientists if they are not familiar with the local environments. Gut feeling, intuition and history are important and must be part of a balanced message that a rankings tool/system is just part of a suite of information sources that producers should consider when decision making.”

There were significant differences in attitudes between the states, with little interest in the NT for selection tools operating at the individual animal level because the size of the herds and the scale of the properties dictate a mob-based approach.

“In Queensland, mob-based decision making also dominates, but there is a stronger focus on profit as opposed to the family and lifestyle factors that strongly influence decision making in the Northern Territory,” Dr O’Mullan said.

“Prolonged drought in some areas of Queensland has already shifted behaviours, with culling firstly based on reproductive performance and a strong lesson learned to cull early. There was also a difference in attitude between younger, debt-heavy producers, and those of older and more financially comfortable producers, with the former more willing to embrace objective tools and new practices.”

In New South Wales and Vicgtoria there was strong support from producers and mixed support from advisors to the concept of an individual animal level rankings tool for keep or cull decisions.

“A tool that adds economic value to specific genetic traits was perceived to have relevance, especially in wool businesses as producers with smaller properties were focussed on working smarter and with more precision,” Dr O’Mullan said.

The insights are now informing ongoing research by the Decide and Thrive team into herd/flock measurement technologies and culling decisions of breeding stock, with a key message to developers to keep stock selection tools simple and to provide users with support during the adoption phase.

The Decide and Thrive team is also developing communications and training tools for extension providers, farm consultants and the Commonwealth-funded Drought Resilience, Adoption and Innovation Hubs to assist them in driving adoption of objective stock selection tools.