Scientists need to learn how to make research accessible

21:12, Jul 11 2014
Retiring scientist Tom Fraser
LIFE'S WORK: Retiring scientist Tom Fraser is nationally recognised for his work and leadership in developing and promoting pastoral grazing systems for sheep and beef farmers.

A huge amount of science with the potential to lift New Zealand's agricultural performance is sitting in computers or on office bookshelves not being used by farmers, says retiring AgResearch farm systems scientist Tom Fraser.

Presenting research in a way that can be adopted by farmers remains a dilemma for scientists, said Fraser, who retired from AgResearch, Lincoln, on Monday after 40 years' involvement in forage research and pastoral grazing systems for sheep and beef farmers.

"A farmer has to farm a whole system, not just a plant, animal or soil. That is what a component scientist can't get their head around. They can come up with great science such as a forage plant, but don't understand why it is not taken up by farmers.

"For example, hogget lambing can be a great thing, but it doesn't work for everyone as it has an impact on other stock classes at other times of the year.

"My biggest concern for the pastoral industry is the growing imbalance between farming systems. In Canterbury we used to have a balance of dairy, sheep and beef, cropping and horticulture. So if one sector was in downturn, others were achieving good prices. Now we have a heavy reliance on the dairy industry.

"I hope the funders of research realise we need a balance of agriculture and don't put all of the research dollars in one basket.


"Most of the low-hanging fruit is already picked and most future advances will be small, particularly in forages, without going to genetic engineering.

"In sheep and beef and dairy the best-performing farmers are still producing twice as much as their poorer-performing counterparts.

"Of the science done, only 20 per cent is taken up by farmers within five years, so it takes a lot of time to get it out there.

"For example, coopworth sheep were bred in the 1960s and 1970s for higher production traits, particularly lambing percentage, and it has taken a long time for other sheep breeds to match this.

"A lot of science is not being utilised. Much of that is science's fault as it is not put out in a form that is usable or can be readily adopted. A lot of science is good science, but it ends up as a scientific paper. It needs to be interpreted into a form where it can be applied into a farming system.

"Technical transfer is easy - put a fact sheet on a desk. But does any of that get adopted? The best way is for some farmers to adopt new technology and get other farmers to follow, but that takes time.

"Or legislate, so farmers will have to change.

"It can be confusing with so many forage varieties now available. Farmers are getting much more educated and the good farmers are able to sift through that information. New Zealand pastures are ryegrass-white clover dominant and will continue to be as that is where the money is. Plant breeders concentrate on this area as they know they will make a return.

"The shift in land-use to dairy is obvious. But one of the biggest changes in pastoral agriculture in the last 40 years is the improved performance of the sheep industry. Previously it was one ewe and one lamb at 13kg carcass weight; now it is one ewe and two lambs at 18 to 20kg carcass weight and on more marginal land.

"The sheep industry beats itself up, but should take a lot of credit for what it has achieved in animal performance through improved genetics and better feeding and management. Some of that is science driven, but a lot is farmer driven."

Fraser estimated he had conducted at least 1000 workshops for sheep, beef, dairy and deer farmers on topics including pasture quality, forage establishment and species selection, sheep efficiency, brassica management, feed planning and more recently climate change and greenhouse gas topics.

"I've never been to a field day where I haven't learnt something as farmers have the biggest research laboratory and are always trying something. And I will hear about the successes, if not always the failures."

Fraser first worked for DSIR Grasslands before this became part of the Crown Research Institute AgResearch 20 years ago.

"Through a lot of restructures I've managed to stay in there."

Originally from a Southland hill country farm, he managed a farm for four years before joining DSIR and a lifetime of research. In 2012, he was awarded the New Zealand Grassland Trust Ray Brougham Trophy.

Fraser said he would continue to work with farmer groups.

"I'm not going to go out and set myself up as a consultant. I always enjoyed the farmer contact and working with farmers. That is the satisfying bit."

The Press