A new report has found the intended on-farm gains associated with the sheep and wool industry's levy-funded bodies' research, development and extension projects have not been achieved.
The Sheep Reproduction RD&E Impact Assessment, an independent impact assessment of sheep reproduction research, development and extension in Australia since 2012, has just been released, which reviewed the success of 120 industry projects and initiatives of the Sheep Reproduction RD&E Investment Plan 2012-2017 (SRRIP).
In that time, Australian Wool Innovation and Meat & Livestock Australia invested $20.71 million in sheep reproduction RD&E projects, which was 16 per cent less than the $24.70 million recommended in the SRRIP.
Relative to what was recommended in the SRRIP, the review found the proportion of total expenditure on sheep reproduction had been 83pc higher on applied research, 40pc lower on development and extension, and 55pc lower on strategic research.
The overall objective of the SRRIP was to achieve an average annual gain of 2pc in sheep reproduction rates over the five-year planning period, yet the assessment found the average annual rate of gain was between 0.6pc and 1.5pc during that period.
While the report found the rate of gain was highly likely to have been negatively influenced by below average seasonal conditions in that period, it also found there were problems in relation to investment priorities and application.
"It was the general view of stakeholders that research to date has provided answers to a large number of sheep reproduction issues, however that knowledge has not been well applied and adapted to different systems and zones to facilitate broad industry adoption," the report stated.
"It was also considered by many that investment priorities change too quickly, and that a longer-term approach to sheep reproduction R&D is required."
Another finding was that consultants who worked directly with producer clients were an underutilised resource in the R&D process.
"There is an opportunity to increase [consultants'] involvement in the generation of research ideas, 'ground truthing' research ideas and in modifying and adapting adoption products and extension messages for more successful and broader industry application," the report stated.
"It appears that R&D into sheep reproduction has been overly focussed on identifying and filling knowledge gaps rather than clearly defining problems at the farm level that need to be solved, and identifying what the best opportunities are for practically (and profitably) solving those issues."
It also found a range of current gaps in sheep reproduction extension relating to producer awareness of R&D outcomes, effective producer engagement to facilitate participation in programs, capacity and capability of service providers to extend sheep reproduction messages, adoption of best practice management strategies for sheep reproduction by producers, translation of R&D outcomes to practical extension messages and adoptable changes on farms, repeatability of best practice management outcomes on farms and producer dis-adoption.
WoolProducers Australia (WPA) chief executive Jo Hall said WPA had initiated development of the proposal for a review, following evidence that there was a significant spend of grower levies on sheep reproduction RD&E over recent years, yet the national average lamb survival rate had not increased.
"It was important to understand why this may have been the case, and the review provides insights into challenges that can be addressed to achieve improved reproduction outcomes and survival rates," Ms Hall said.
"WPA is very supportive of the next iteration of this work, as an industry collective, to deliver practical RD&E solutions to increase survival rates and deliver maximum return on grower levies expended on this important R&D portfolio."
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The assessment also found that since 2012, the Lifetime Ewe Management program, supported by Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), has had the most influence on sheep reproduction efficiency, impacting the management of around six million ewes over six years.
The BredWell FedWell program, supported by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), also influenced the management of around 1.6 million ewes over the same period.
MLA research, development and adoption general manager Michael Crowley said the findings would help inform the next steps and priorities for a new Sheep Reproduction Strategic Partnership (SRSP).
"MLA is establishing the SRSP together with industry partners to help producers profitably and sustainably increase lamb production through increasing weaning rates and lamb survival," Mr Crowley said.
"The major priority of the SRSP is to lift lamb survival in the Australian sheep industry through the increased adoption of proven management practices which have been developed through key research projects over the years.
"It will involve industry organisations working collaboratively to develop larger, long-term research, development and adoption initiatives that focus on lamb survival and address a common goal of delivering greater benefits and impacts for the industry.
"The aim is to move away from stand-alone, ad-hoc projects, and work towards an agreed vision that develops an investable program of work, ensuring producers can successfully implement practical R&D solutions for their farm businesses to decrease mortality and boost weaning rates."
AWI research general manager Jane Littlejohn said they were pleased to see further evidence of the importance of the Lifetime Ewe Management investment on practice change by producers and growers.
"The review highlights adoption and AWI will continue to work with MLA to convert past collaborative R&D into extension for the benefit of our common levy payers," Ms Littlejohn said.
The review was conducted by Beattie Consulting Services and Inspiring Excellence and was driven by MLA on behalf of project partners AWI and Animal Health Australia (AHA), with input from peak industry councils, WPA and Sheep Producers Australia (SPA).
AHA biosecurity and product integrity executive manager Simon Humphrys said the assessment reinforced the relationship between good health and husbandry of sheep and reproductive outcomes each breeding season.
"We are confident the SRSP will make a difference on the ground to producer profitability and through that industry sustainability, as well as adjacent industry sustainability (transporters and processors) at a time where we need to reverse the prevailing trend of fewer sheep," Mr Humphrys said.
SPA sheep health and welfare policy manager William Oldfield said improving sheep reproductive performance had consistently been identified as a high priority from producers, and was recognised as both a major potential opportunity and risk to social licence.
"While there has been a longstanding focus on generating new R&D, moving forward it is essential this knowledge is effectively translated into adoptable products for producers," Mr Oldfield said.
"Importantly, findings from this report will provide the foundation for a strategic long-term program of work with a clear focus on fostering collaborative partnerships and delivering for sheep producers across Australia."
The full report can be read here.
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