Science-led experimental farms

Better ewe/lamb performance on herb-mix pastures – an example of ‘Science-led experimental farms’.

This approach differs from the Farmer-led partner farms approach by involving science-led experimentation with farmers participating to ensure practices developed are fit-for-purpose.

Inspecting sheepIn 2012, Massey University set up a three-year pilot learning project using experimental farmlets to explore how to help farmers to best manage herb-mix pastures and to look at the effects of these farm management practices on lamb carcass weight. The investigation involved an initial group of 18 farmers, which increased to 26 in 2013. From the university side, researchers included animal and pasture scientists along with educationalists and social scientists who were investigating farmer learning and evaluating this approach as an extension model.

Farmers involved in the project attended a number of learning group sessions (some residential) at a Massey university farm, during which they:

  • observed growth of experimental herb-mix pastures and discussed principles of effective herb pasture establishment and management with the pasture scientists
  • participated in group discussions led by researchers about the experiments, and to explore principles of effective herb pasture establishment and management.
  • attended talks from experts to learn about weed control, how to manage pastures and parasites, and how to conduct feed budgets, as well as meat quality of lambs grown on the plantain and chicory pastures and its intra-muscular fat content and flavour differences
  • observed results from glasshouse experiments on herb to learn about the capability of herb pastures under controlled levels of stress
  • attended autopsies conducted by a veterinarian, to better understand particular animal health problems
  • visited farms that integrate herb pasture, so participant farmers could learn from other farmers who had already changed their herb pasture practices
  • built relationships through shared informal social times for project participants – leading to a stronger farmer-scientist learning community.

Between learning sessions, the Massey team:

  • held post-workshop focus groups to identify ways to improve communication and learning amongst the group
  • sent out newsletters to the participating farmers to provide updates on lamb growth data as well as to make arrangements for their next learning session.

‘Science-led experimental farms’ as an extension approach worked well in this situation because:

  • the complex farming practices being shared were difficult to test on-farm and didn’t necessarily present farmers with immediately observable impacts 
  • farmers and scientists were able to work together to collaboratively develop their shared knowledge base, rather than restricting farmers to the role of consumers of researchers’ knowledge
  • the intention was to develop a trusting learning community, where the science team valued farmers’ practical and diverse experience, and the farmers valued greater insight into the scientists’ thinking behind management decisions.