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Accelerating Change at the Australian Dairy Conference

Accelerating Change was a finalist in the Young Scientist Award held at the Australian Dairy Conference in Adelaide on the 15th and 16th of February, 2017. Project Manager, Amy Fay, and Project Officer, Harriet Bawden, were invited to present some of Accelerating Change's project findings to the conference audience, consisting of dairy farmers, service providers and producers, from Australia and overseas.

Accelerating Change is comprised of three components that, together, are designed to provide information that supports the development of resilient and profitable feedbase systems in the Murray Dairy region: 1. The project has a monitoring and measurement program which collects and analyses data to measure on-farm performance of different forage types, irrigation or water efficiency strategies and feedbase management. 2. It has an extension arm which develops and pilots new extension and learning activities to assist farmers to identify and implement changes to their feedbase to drive efficiency and profitability. We work with participating farmers, the service sector, other RD&E organisations and the wider industry to identify what these regional changes are.

3. The project also undertakes significant analysis on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges of the operating environment for farmers in the Murray Dairy region (many that also seem to be relevant to other regions). The project looks at the operating environment from an industry perspective, but also from a farm-to-farm perspective, recognising the variability in resources, climate and market conditions and farm systems across the region or in different seasons.

Learnings from undertaking these three components of the project have highlighted that the development of resilient and profitable feedbase systems requires both, the development of technical information to support best management practice for diverse forage types, as well strategic business planning and development unique to each business.

The Australian Dairy Conference presentation focused on some key factors common to the region's most resilient businesses, to be incorporated into strategic business planning and development. Here's a transcript of the presentation: AF: Variability & volatility in climate, markets and resource availability- particularly water- is driving systems change in the Murray Dairy region.

In order to drive profitability and to manage risk in a changing environment, farm businesses are reviewing their feedbase system. Flexibility to cater to different growing conditions, water availability and cost is emerging as a priority. For many, this means moving from a low input, perennial-pasture based system to one that incorporates the use of several different forage types or crops, and the strategic use of bought in or conserved feed.

Accelerating Change is project whose aim is to look at what resilient and profitability dairy systems will look like in the future.

Dairy farms in the region are becoming increasingly heterogeneous due to differences in equity and debt levels, water ownership, locations and access to resources, farm size and production, and the different aspirations of business stakeholders. As result Accelerating Change has found that there is a huge diversity in our feedbase systems. From low input perennial pasture based systems, to intensive TMRs to every type of PMR in between, farmers are putting together their feedbase system in many different and complex ways. What this suggests is there is no one clear farm system that is profitable and sustainable for everyone.

This, coupled with an operating environment that is changing rapidly, and affecting farm businesses in many different ways, means that supporting good decision making and strategic planning is as important, if not more so, than delivering technical feedbase information. The project has found that there are characteristics common to businesses in the region that improve decision making and set up farmers to manage change effectively; they set goals, gather a wealth of information, use expertise to support their management, build capability within the business and review their system regularly.

HB: Goals help to maintain focus in a changing environment. Setting goals can assist with decision-making when resources are limited and when decision-makers are faced with competing priorities. Such goals can range from an increase in home grown feed, to better use of water, or from business ownership, to business expansion, or to greater return on investment. Goals ensure that all stakeholders are on the same page when it comes to understanding where the business is going and how it's going to get there. Gathering information, using varied mechanisms and sources, is critical to support decision-making. Without it, farmers tend to revert to habit or gut-feel (which is not always wrong, but you never know!) Information can help to identify opportunities and constraints in a farm system - and, in doing so, assists in planning and management. Through the Monitoring and Measurement component of the project, for example, we have collected data from our partner farms on the yield and quality of different forage types, and with records of management and grazing, inputs and production, we have been able to determine the value of each forage type to the overall system.

It takes a team to navigate change. Increased complexity in farming systems requires specialised knowledge in different areas of the business - from animal health and nutrition, to forage agronomy, and financial strategy. It is difficult for farmers to be experts in every field - using people with strengths in the relevant area can help to find those 1%ers across the board. Using specialised knowledge can also serve as a risk management strategy, as farmers are able to share decision-making, which can help in times of stress, fatigue or busyness. As businessess evolve, so too much the skills of the people within it. We have seen many changes in our region - whether that be in technological advancement, the introduction of water trading, or changes to feedbase - and we expect to see more. Businesses that upskill or bring skills into their operation are best prepared for these changes, and able to optimise on new industry opportunities. Finally, a process of review and evaluation is critical to ensure that business strategy continues to meet goals. Business strategies or models may need to evolve to respond to the changing operating environment, or to personal circumstances.

Experiences from the Accelerating Change Project highlight that as our operating environment continues to change, businesses that integrate these characteristics are best placed to harness the opportunities and withstand the challenges ahead. With dairy businesses finding varied and innovative ways to manage change, the project aims to capture these successes and to develop RD&E programs that meet their needs. If you'd like to hear about what we're doing in this space, please visit us at our stand for more information.

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