Journal of the NACAA
Volume 14, Issue 1 - June, 2021
Peer-Based Working Groups for Teaching Best Management Practices to Beef Producers
- Mullenix, M.K., Extension Beef Specialist/Associate Professor, Alabama Cooperative Extension System
Jacobs, J.L, Graduate Research Assistant, Auburn University
Thompson, G.L., Animal Science and Forages Regional Extension Agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System/Auburn University
Vining, T.P., Animal Science and Forages Regional Extension Agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System/Auburn University
Marks, M.L., Animal Science and Forages Regional Extension Agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System/Auburn University
Stanford, M.K., Extension Nutrient Management Specialist, Alabama Cooperative Extension System/Auburn University
Miller, D.S., County Extension Coordinator - Cherokee County, Alabama Cooperative Extension System/Auburn University
A peer-based study course entitled the Systems 360° Working Group Program was created for experienced beef cattle producers who desired to more in-depth learning about sustainable beef management practices in Alabama. Regional Extension agents coordinated planned visits to producer farms and university research centers that highlighted specific management practices and facilitated group discussion at those sites based on targeted curriculum to encourage peer-based learning. The use of a hands-on, peer-based learning model for beef cattle information delivery facilitated the adoption of best management practices. This model may serve as a framework for Extension educators who aim to provide challenging curriculum for experienced stakeholders.
Peer-to-peer learning networks offer a framework for facilitating shared knowledge, improving communication skills, developing reflective thinking skills, and providing a sense of togetherness in the development of a community of practice (Guldberg, 2008). Peer educator-based Extension programming may create a learning environment that fosters empathetic relationship building, similar rhetoric for explaining concepts, and trust among peer learners (Grudens-Schuck et al., 2003). Nonformal agricultural management education through peer learning groups can provide opportunities in experiential learning, which may help learners apply conceptual information through shared experiences, reflective observation, and experimentation (Parr and Trexler, 2011; Strong et al., 2012). For example, successful forage study groups in the United States have reported that primary drivers of success using this model include the use of a formal facilitator, technical topic discussions, and hands-on learning through shared pasture walks on farms and financial analysis (Lane et al., 2012). The objective of the Alabama Beef Systems 360 Working Group Program was to provide experiential learning opportunities for beef producers to help facilitate potential adoption of herd best management practices in Alabama operations through adoption of peer-to-peer learning.
Program Delivery Methodology
Utilizing a pre-screening application process, producers were selected for the program based on their relative years of experience in the beef industry and previous participation in beef Extension educational events. The application was designed to help select more experienced producers who were ready to engage in higher-level educational programming related to beef production systems.
Four groups were formed and met in various regions of Alabama between 2016 and 2019. Following the selection of participants (n = 50 statewide across four peer-learning groups; 8 to 25 per group), a series of five meetings were organized per group to highlight technologies and strategies for agronomic, animal, and economic best management practices in beef cattle operations. Topics included forage management, watering systems, value-added calf marketing, animal handling facilities, and general herd management practices such as identification, genetics, and animal selection metrics. Working group meetings were conducted on selected private producer farms, generally of participants within the working group, or at Auburn University affiliated research centers that best highlighted these specific topics. The five meetings for each peer-learning group were held periodically from August through May in each calendar year. An example of an individual meeting delivery format is described below using forage management as the topic of discussion:
- Upon arrival to the meeting location, the agent introduced the topic of forage management or the designated discussion leader(s) for the day. If the meeting was not led by the agent, meeting discussion leaders were either producers in the working group, or Extension personnel who had expertise in the area of forage management.
- Discussion leaders shared the learning objectives for the day with the group, and gave a brief overview of the activities the group would do as part of the meeting. Learning objectives for the forage management meeting included: 1) understanding forage management practices to extend the grazing season in beef cow-calf operations and 2) estimating nutrient returns from beef cattle grazing pastures under rotational stocking.
- The discussion leader facilitated hands-on learning related to forage management by conducting a pasture walk to assess forage production and farm fencing infrastructure for rotational stocking of beef cow-calf pairs and creep-grazing. Participants had the opportunity to visually evaluate stand productivity pre- and post-grazing at the meeting location. In pastures that had recently been rotationally grazed, participants counted manure piles, weighed a subset of piles using a small field scale, and did a rough calculation of nutrient return from the manure to the pasture as a way to demonstrate potential nutrient distribution under rotational stocking. These activities were designed to use on-farm examples to highlight management concepts to program participants.
- In the field, participants were prompted to generate discussion regarding their experiences with practices being showcased. Prompts generally started with encouraging the audience to share experiences with forage management practices that have worked for extending the grazing season, followed by failures and areas where individuals would like to learn more.
- At the conclusion of the field component, the day closed with final question prompts led by the Extension agent. Producers were asked to share what information they planned to apply from the meeting, and any opportunities or challenges they anticipated encountering in their operation related to the forage management practices that had been discussed at the meeting.
Figure 1. Working Group Participants Engaged in Selected Hands-On Learning Opportunities Related to Beef Production Systems Management
Initial Reactions and Program Satisfaction Data
A post-program survey provided immediately at the end of the last group meeting (n = 50 respondents; 100% response rate) indicated that 100% of participants felt this program met expectations and given the opportunity they would join another working group. Overall, 94% of respondents indicated that they planned to adopt one or more of the management practices discussed in the group in the subsequent 12 months. Top practices that producers planned to implement included improved winter grazing strategies, rotational stocking, water resource management and testing, and facilities design/animal handling. Producers indicated that they learned the most from visits to their peers’ farms (29%) and from speakers/discussion leaders from Extension and allied industry partners (21%). Survey respondents were asked to estimate the dollars per head of beef cattle in savings realized through participation in the program. An economic impact per farm was calculated by multiplying the average savings per head of cattle owned/managed and the number of head per operation. Participants reported that knowledge gained from this program could potentially lead to a total farm economic impact averaging $6,095 of savings per operation. Mean herd and farm sizes represented by the program were 103 head of beef cattle and 191 ac per farm. The survey indicated a statewide cumulative economic impact of the program of $304,750 in reported potential savings.
Producer Adoption of Best Management Practices
A follow-up survey was conducted using Qualtrics with participants from one working group in north central Alabama one year after completion of the program to assess adoption of management practices covered in the program (n = 25 participants; 60% response rate). Table 1 reports the percentage increase in adoption of specific practices related to forage systems management, facilities improvements, and general herd management strategies.
Table 1. Beef Systems Management Practices Adopted by Participants from a North Central Alabama Working Group.
Adoption Rate (% Increase)a
Use of a Watering System
Planting of Cool-Season Annual Forages
Use of Electric Fencing
Improvements to Cattle Handling Facilities
Herd Management and Marketing
Change in Calf Marketing Strategy
Implementation of a Vaccination Protocol for Calves
aPercentage increase in number of participants implementing the practice on farm following participation in the working group discussion.
Participants surveyed had a mean 17 years (± 6) of experience in the beef business. Facilities management improvements (cattle processing facilities, grazing management tools/techniques, etc.) were the most widely-adopted practices among participants in this group (Table 1). This survey indicates that producers had a greater level of adoption of land or facilities improvements as a result of attending this educational series than other herd management applications. This could be in part due to a greater level of familiarity and satisfaction with their current herd health management and calf marketing program, whereas nutrition, forages, and animal facilities design were ranked as the top three topics of interest in closing surveys across all Systems Working Groups. Producer adoption of on-farm improved management practices demonstrates that producers were willing to move from the “knowledge gained” to the “actual application” phase after participating in the program.
Conclusions and Future Directions
This program provides an innovative and well-received approach to training stakeholders in the area of beef cattle management through an interactive, discussion-based educational model with Extension educators as facilitators for experiential learning opportunities. The program model may provide a framework for ongoing educational strategies with experienced stakeholders, and serve as an example for engaging with producers with “next-level” management concepts. Results of this program indicate that a peer-to-peer working group is an effective method for improving the understanding of beef production systems and enhancing actual on-farm adoption of beef operational management practices.
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