Ontario Focus Farm Groups Turn Knowledge into Action on Dairy Farms

A study led by Dr. Steven Roche at the University of Guelph has shown that peer learning groups, involving dairy producers and veterinarian facilitators, are effective at improving awareness, changing attitudes and motivating on-farm change to control disease.

The focus of their research was to develop, implement and evaluate an agricultural extension process to improve the adoption of on-farm management practices for the prevention and control of Johnes disease (JD) on Ontario dairy farms. Briefly, JD is a chronic wasting disease that affects dairy cows and other ruminants. It is a production-limiting disease and its causative agent, Mycobacteriumavium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP), has been implicated as playing a role in the cause of Crohns disease in genetically susceptible humans. However, this link has not been officially established as causal. Nonetheless, it is important that the Ontario dairy industry proactively take measures to prevent and control JD. Control of JD is primarily recommended through the use of periodic testing and making on-farm management changes to control the spread of MAP. However, adoption of on-farm recommendations for JD control has generally been poor in Canada, and many other countries around the world.

In an effort to improve adoption, they implemented a learner-centred extension process in Ontario, which uses an adult learning framework to facilitate behavioural change. The framework is supported by the use of experiential learning that is participatory and collaborative. This approach, called Ontario Focus Farms (FF), engages producers in a minimum of 4 full-day sessions over 12 months, where small groups discuss their on-farm problems and learn about JD control and calf health management using a variety of techniques (e.g. farm tours, risk assessments). The goal here is for producers to learn from one another on the farm and to address their perceptions, attitudes and assumptions about JD control. Between 2010 and 2013, over 200 producers, across 8 regions of Ontario, participated in FF.

A pre- and post-intervention evaluation was performed, using questionnaires, to measure producer knowledge, attitude, perceptions, and behaviour relating to JD control. Pre- and post-intervention JD risk assessments were also performed to assess the risk of MAP spread on each participant’s farm. In total, 70 producers from FF completed both questionnaires. A control group of Ontario dairy producers not actively participating in any extension program were also recruited for comparison; 62 control producers completed both questionnaires.

Overall, both FF and control producers had a moderate-good level of knowledge about JD control prior to any intervention. This suggests that the existing industry efforts to educate producers and make them aware of JD control are relatively effective. However, we still have issues with on-farm adoption, so clearly the level of knowledge about JD control is not the most significant driver of change. That being said, FF respondents showed significant increases in knowledge, while control respondents’ knowledge level did not change. This suggests that FF was effective in educating producers about JD control above and beyond what is currently being done.

Importantly, FF respondents reported significant changes in their perception of the importance of JD control and their attitude towards making changes. Interestingly, the majority of producers tended to have a positive attitude towards JD control, and felt pressure to make on-farm changes from numerous sources (e.g. other producers, veterinarians, industry organizations), yet they questioned their ability to effectively control JD by making on-farm changes. Therefore, it appears that we need to do a better job of highlighting the practicality and efficacy of the on-farm recommendations being made for JD control. In doing so, we can positively influence the perception that JD is in fact manageable.

Most importantly, the proportion of FF participants who reported making at least one on-farm change (81%) was significantly higher than that of control respondents (38%), with more than 50% of FF respondents implementing more than two on-farm changes relating to JD control. Furthermore, FF respondents significantly lowered their risk score for MAP transmission, while control respondent scores did not change. Therefore, FF not only influenced behaviour at a level well above non-participants, but the changes implemented were viewed by veterinarians conducting the risk assessments as effective in preventing the spread of MAP.

When producers were asked what their communication preferences were, they tended to be very mixed, suggesting there is not one communication method that is preferred by everyone. However, over 60% of producers did rank the veterinarian as their primary preference for receiving new information. Therefore, it is imperative that agricultural extension programs utilize the veterinarian, and other farm advisors, to achieve success. This information provides support for the success of FF, as it used peer learning groups that involve multiple learning activities and promote learning in a social environment with fellow producers and veterinarians.

It is important to mention that on the ground approaches with small producer groups is not always possible, as they are time consuming and can be costly if looking to reach the whole population. As a result, mass media approaches are also needed. Given the results from FF, Dr. Roche and his team set out to create something engaging, clear, concise and widely available. In particular, they wanted to highlight the practicality and efficacy of some of the most common on-farm management changes for JD control. The result was a series of videos that use a technique called whiteboard scribing. This technique aims to communicate effectively by presenting a series of whiteboard drawings that are sped up and cued to a narrated script. You can watch the first of these videos, called ‘Johne’s Disease in Canadian Dairy Herds: What it means for farmers’, on YouTube here:  bit.ly/HJhnjv (English), bit.ly/1vfkgEF (French). This is just one approach to reach producers through an innovative online format. Many others mass media communication tools exist, some more effective than others. Moving forward, we must place an emphasis on not only innovating communication approaches, but evaluating their efficacy.

In summary, effective agricultural extension starts with an understanding of end-user preferences and their attitudes, perceptions and opinions relating to the specific issue. Population level extension requires multi-platform approaches that engage farmers in a number of different ways – support from veterinarians and on-farm advisors is key! It all starts by communicating with the key stakeholders and having open dialogue about the issues from each of their perspectives.