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Spreading the word: ag professionals and MIRG (Research Brief #25)

Posted January 1998

What predicts ag professionals’ knowledge of and willingness to make recommendations on management intensive rotational grazing (MIRG)? A UW-Madison survey of agricultural professionals throughout Wisconsin concludes that it is both what they know and who they know. The breadth of and confidence in MIRG knowledge by ag professionals varies greatly depending on how many graziers they know personally, and the number of MIRG sources they use.

The survey included questions about the ag professionals’ backgrounds, beliefs, and degree of sharing of MIRG information. According to Garrett O’Keefe, department of agricultural journalism, other studies have looked at how information reaches farmers from the university or other agricultural professionals. “This is the first study to consider how information on an emerging production system travels between farmers and ag professionals,” said O’Keefe.

The UW-Madison research team consisted of O’Keefe; Sara Steele, project coordinator, emerita, Continuing and Vocational Education (CAVE); Mohammad Douglah, CAVE; Michele Gale-Sinex and Rick Klemme, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS); Lorna Miller, department of rural sociology; and Heather Hartwig Boyd, agricultural journalism. Federal Hatch program dollars for interdisciplinary research funded the survey.

The research team surveyed agricultural professionals in 18 occupations, including teachers, extension faculty, government program staff, veterinarians, loan officers, animal nutritionists, and agricultural journalists. Of those who received the survey, 68 percent responded. Eighty percent of the respondents worked directly with dairy farmers, and 89 percent grew up on or worked on a farm as a youngster.

Familiarity with graziers and MIRG

Most ag professionals reported being familiar with MIRG and graziers. MIRG is accepted as a viable alternative by over three-quarters of the responding Wisconsin agricultural professionals. Most of the respondents knew at least one dairy farmer using MIRG, and in most cases, professionals who knew graziers personally were more likely to consider this approach useful.

However, knowing graziers personally did not make lenders and business consultants in the sample more likely to see MIRG as an option for farmers. O’Keefe commented, “My sense is that lenders, whether working for banks or governmental bodies, are the most conservative innovators, and among the last to support change. Business consultants may see their own interests at risk when farmers adopt MIRG.”

More professionals in the western half of Wisconsin knew graziers than in the eastern half, no doubt reflecting the degree to which farmers are using MIRG and grazing networks in those areas of the state. Most of the respondents thought the farming communities they work in are at least “somewhat open” to new ideas.

Summary of surveyed ag professionals’ attitudes toward MIRG
Percent who believe:
confinement dairying working, alternatives needed 78%
MIRG is a possible alternative for some farmers 65%
MIRG is a viable system for many farmers 20%
MIRG will not work for many farmers 6%
colleagues accept MIRG somewhat or very well 64%
local farmers accept MIRG somewhat or very well 45%
lower milk production possible disadvantage of MIRG 69%
Percent who see MIRG as advantageous in these conditions:
hilly land 82%
small dairy enterprise 76%
low value of land for cash cropping 75%
little or poor quality farm machinery 67%
starting farming 55%
need to meet environmental laws or conditions 50%
spend more/better time with family 50%
Percent who see MIRG as helping meet these goals:
reduced need for machinery 85%
lowering costs 77%
improve herd health 68%
reduce tillage 67%
reduce chemical use 60%

Who makes MIRG recommendations

Ag professionals were most likely to recommend a new practice to farmers when they saw it working for other farmers. More than 80 percent of the respondents said they wanted to see a new idea tried by farmers before they would recommend it. Forty-five percent preferred to get farming information by seeing a practice themselves, and 37 percent preferred reading about it.

While most professionals surveyed were familiar with and accepting of MIRG, not all recommended it. Roughly 40 percent reported they’d presented MIRG as an option to more than two farmers, and 15 percent had suggested it to one or two farmers. Those most likely to have suggested MIRG believed it is an option for many farmers and can increase profits.

Ag professionals were more likely to recommend MIRG if they knew graziers, particularly if they used graziers as an information source. Said Steele, “Our analysis showed that using graziers as an information source was more influential in determining whether ag professionals would make MIRG recommendations than simply knowing graziers. Using graziers for information implies a more interactive relationship between the professional and the grazier.”

At the same time, ag professionals who knew graziers tended to have positive beliefs about MIRG and profits, milk production, lowering costs, and grazing on large farms. Ag professionals who knew more graziers and became interested in MIRG depended on those graziers for information and then passed it along to other farmers.

Which professionals acted as a conduit for information? Of the respondent professions, educators and environmental agency staff were most likely to recommend MIRG to farmers; business consultants and lenders were the least likely. Confidence in their level of influence on farmers’ decisions strongly correlated with how often they had suggested MIRG to farmers.

The survey also asked the ag professionals to rate their confidence in and knowledge of 12 topics related to MIRG. Respondents reported the most knowledge in the areas of grasses and legume mixes, pasture management, and fencing, and the least knowledge in outwintering dairy cattle. Very few professionals indicated knowledge in several topics, and even among the educators, those most confident in their MIRG knowledge, fewer than a third felt they were confident in all of the topics.

The more sources a professional used, the more confident he or she was about MIRG topics. Survey respondents who frequently attended pasture walks or sustainable agriculture field days were the most likely to feel comfortable about a number of MIRG topics. Other than frequent pasture walk attendance, no single source contributed more to confidence than any other.

Where they get MIRG information

Respondents were most likely to get information on MIRG from farm magazines and newspapers, extension, and farmer networks. “MIRG is a grassroots movement in terms of innovation and adoption patterns,” commented O’Keefe. “After the initial innovators started using it, others who were interested relied on whatever sources their circumstances allowed.” When asked to rank the sources having the most influence on their recommendations, 43 percent of the professionals placed farmers first, and 20 percent ranked professional colleagues first.

Although many professionals indicated a lack of confidence in several MIRG topic areas, fewer than half of the respondents were seeking additional information. O’Keefe responded that this is not an unusual pattern. “In almost every field, surveys have found that those lacking information are often not seeking it. It’s a function of self-perceived need or interest: they may feel they already have enough information to do their job, or are simply not interested in any more information.”

Those indicating confidence in specific MIRG topics were the most likely to be seeking additional information. The responses show that professionals who were actively seeking MIRG information were much more likely to recommend MIRG to farmers than those who were not. The professionals who were seeking information were of all ages and both men and women, but tended to have more formal education than those not seeking information.

How the word gets out

The most critical finding of this research is the major role that farmers play in the spread of information on new practices. Farmers rely on each other for information. This research shows that ag professionals rely on farmers, too. Professionals are particularly likely to recommend a new practice if they can see it in use, as opposed to talking or reading about it, emphasizing the importance of farmer contacts. Their confidence in and willingness to share MIRG information with other farmers also increases as their involvement with it and personal interaction with farmer innovators becomes greater. And as they get more involved with MIRG, they may seek even more information about it, becoming a source of MIRG information themselves.

Percent actively seeking and using MIRG information
All respondents 37%
Educators (extension, vo-tech) 65%
Environmental agency staff 52%
Instructors (high school, professors) 41%
Business consultants 32%
Lenders 25%

Contact CIAS for more information on this research.

Published as Research Brief #25
September, 1998