Getting farmers and scientists to talk

Two monologues do not make a dialogue.

-Jeff Daly

I wanted to talk a little bit about an interesting paper I came across this week in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine: “A participatory approach to design monitoring indicators of production diseases in organic dairy farms”. A team of researchers from France and Sweden published together the results of their participatory study aimed at defining/refining monitoring indicators of production diseases in organic dairy farms. You may not all have access to the full publication but the abstract can be found here.

Herd health production management programs
picture from www.nytimes.com

Scientists can sometimes be very quick at shelling out advice and telling farmers how herd health and production management (HHPM) programs should be run. And while such advice may be well-meant and theoretically sound, they rarely stop to ask  farmers what they would like to (or can) use. And then both parties may end up being frustrated with one another… and that’s often because a true dialogue is lacking…

The authors of this study looked to

create an environment in which farmers could adapt the indicators proposed by scientists for monitoring the five main production diseases on dairy cattle farms. The adaptations of the indicators were characterized and the farmers’ explanations for the changes made were described.

And now, we have a two-way conversion!

Participatory approaches come from the social sciences. In the context of animal disease epidemiology, the term participatory refer to the essential involvement of communities in defining and prioritizing veterinary-related problems, and in the development of solutions to service delivery, disease control or surveillance (definition lifted from another great paper here).

Herd health production management programs
Udder health-
image from www.dsm.com

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the 40 farmers accepted the HHPM indicators exactly as they were proposed by scientists.  I was more surprised though to read that the least accepted indicators included ‘the percentage of cows with clinical mastitis that showed general signs of disease’ and ‘the percentage of abortions per year’. It would be interesting to know a little bit more why…

But going back to the main results…many of the original indicators were modified by the farmers to reflect their knowledge of disease patterns specific to their farms (e.g. “it is often the male calves that have small health problems.”); insemination practices etc.; or because certain data were unavailable on the farm. This paper highlights the need when designing decision support tools for farmers or proposing health indicators for benchmarking to understand farmers’ practices and their perceptions. Scientists often define HHPM indicators with the view of comparing the health situation between farms. But farmers are more interested in comparing the health situation of individuals within their herd.

Herd health production management programs
dairy farmer-
image from www.thebullvine.com

I agree with the authors’ conclusion that long-term studies are needed to assess how effective farmer-designed monitoring tools are when it comes to improving animal health. But this should not prevent us from already engaging farmers in the planning phase of HHMP in a more systematic fashion. This constitutes an important step towards securing their long-term commitment to the programs, in itself an important component of optimised production processes and herd health.

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