Opinion: MLA’s fresh approach to producer consultation

04 December 2015

There has been much discussion over the past couple of years about how Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) prioritises its research, development and adoption (RD&A) efforts. MLA’s General Manager – On-farm Innovation and Adoption, Matt McDonagh talks through MLA’s fresh approach to producer consultation.

Levy payers have rightly asked: where do the ideas for projects come from and what is the process by which research initiatives are identified and deemed sufficiently beneficial to warrant investing funds?

For almost 20 years, MLA has been a driving force for RD&A within the red meat sector, consistently delivering work that has translated to real gains in profitability for producers. 

Examples of this work include:

  • Meat Standards Australia (MSA) providing producers with a premium of up to 33 c/kg in 2015, and consumers with reliable data on eating quality by which they can make informed purchasing decisions. 
  • Improved productivity through genetics over the past 10 years of R&D investment, creating $2.88 billion in benefits to sheepmeat producers and $2.3 billion to southern beef producers.
  • Improved productivity through better legume species such as Leucaena has created a $68 million/yr net increase in the value of beef production in the north.
  • Integrating native plants in pastures and feeding red macro-algae as a supplement have been identified as two of a number of ways to substantially reduce methane emissions from livestock while increasing productivity

And there are some exciting projects in the pipeline.  For example, the investment in ruminant nutrition and rumen modulation through the National Livestock Methane Program has changed the way we are thinking about improving feed efficiency in sheep and cattle. We have learnt more about the science of rumen function in the past 3 years than we have over the previous 30 years.  We now understand energy pathways in the rumen through which we can capture up to 12 per cent more energy from feed.

However, this research and development work is high risk – for every successful program, there are also those that don’t make the grade. We need to be clear that this is the reality.

Grass roots consultation

The message from Australian grass-roots producers is clear – levy payers want more transparency around how R&D funds are invested and a greater opportunity to put forward their opinion on what R&D projects would be most beneficial to improving their businesses.

Following an independent review of MLA’s levy-investment systems for on-farm R&D, commissioned in early 2013, MLA has changed the way we set R&D priorities.  We have recognised the need for a more effective and broader reaching way of tapping into the valuable and important insights of producers and have sought to engage more directly with them around RD&A requirements.

This has led to the development and implementation of a new regional consultation model.

Producers can feed their ideas about R&D projects into about 20 different producer committees located across Australia’s pastoral industries.

These producer committees then feed into regionally-based industry research councils: 

the existing North Australian Beef Research Council (NABRC), the revived Southern Australia Meat Research Council (SAMRC) and the newly formed Western Australia Livestock Research Council (WALRC).

While each group varies slightly in its structure and composition, the foundations are consistent: each group is comprised of grass-roots producers, geographically spread across the country, who will collect the insights and views of producers in their local area on R&D priorities. The northern, western and southern councils will collect and prioritise these insights, and elevate them to the Peak Industry Councils for consideration in setting the direction of future R&D investments.

On farm efficiencies

Over the past two decades, gains in improving on-farm efficiencies have been a key driver in beef and sheepmeat producers’ bottom lines.    However, there is large variability across industry in adoption of technologies that can improve efficiency.  For example, the leading 20 per cent of Australian producers, who can earn up to 2.5 times more profit than the national average, are doing so because they understand the major profit drivers in their business, run highly efficient operations and have a high level of R&D adoption. 

These top producers are able to identify value in adopting aspects of the R&D outcomes that are made available to them, be it through genetics, natural resource and grazing management, or health and welfare and they are extracting more profit through their efforts.

We also know that there are more gains to be made, but this will require very focused and strategic investment in our current and future projects.  MLA is looking to increase its investment in strategic partnerships that integrate R&D with adoption, so that we have the producer outcome in mind and work towards that from the start of projects.  We need to be working with the commercial sector and our research partners to engage producers in working through how future R&D can better address the key industry issues.  We will be looking to conduct projects alongside producers so that the research findings make sense within their farming system and are more immediately useable by producers.

The direction of this work must come from producers to be most relevant and beneficial to industry.  We must have their buy-in to ensure that research work we undertake is aimed at the areas producers have identified as important to making their businesses more productive and sustainable.  We need to then ensure producers are engaged with all aspects of RD&A so that we have better and more rapid impact within industry from our R&D.  

Through the regional consultation model, industry has created a pathway to make it much easier for producers to have direct input into how levies are spent for the future prosperity of the sector.  We urge all levy payers to take up this opportunity to contribute to both your own business and to ensuring Australia continues to lead the world as one of the foremost producers of premium red meat products.

More information on the regional consultation framework is available here: http://www.mla.com.au/About-MLA/RD-Consultation

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