Unique farmer-science partnership leaves valuable legacy

Published 20 May 2009


Representatives of the Cicerone farming systems project have presented a cheque for $18,000 to the University of New England to support an annual “Cicerone Livestock Farming Systems Scholarship” at the University.

This follows the winding up last month of the Cicerone Project – a unique farmer-science partnership, begun in 1998, that conducted realistic farming systems research on topics of interest to local producers.

Cicerone’s Producer Chairman, Terry Coventry, and Cicerone Board members Clare Edwards (NSW Department of Primary Industries), David Paull (CSIRO Livestock Industries) and Jim Scott (UNE) were present at the handing over of the cheque to Professor Iain Young, Head of UNE’s School of Environmental and Rural Science.

Mr Coventry said that the intention of the scholarship was to continue the legacy of collaboration between livestock producers, researchers, extension officers and the University by assisting a young person in their study of livestock farming systems.  “The scholarship is aimed at supporting students to research soil nutrient imbalances and deficiencies, as these continue to be a major constraint to the livestock industries of our region,” he said.

In accepting the funds for the scholarship, Professor Young expressed his appreciation of this legacy from a valuable learning partnership, and said that developing and delivering enhanced knowledge of managing soil fertility was vitally important for continuing to feed the world in a sustainable fashion.

The Cicerone Project was funded between 1998 and 2006 by Australian Wool Innovation as well as by members’ subscriptions and internal funds from income earned from the sheep and cattle run on the experimental farmlets.  Over time, this learning collaboration expanded to influence many commercial livestock producers:  at its peak, Cicerone had a membership of 120 farmers, each running on average about 6,000 sheep and 480 cattle on a total land area of approximately 180,000 ha. “We particularly liked being able to get to know the researchers, postgraduate students and extension workers well, and to see the results first-hand at the more than 50 field days held over the length of the project,” Mr Coventry  said.

Professor Jim Scott, a board member on the Cicerone Project since its inception, said that it had been carried out in the footsteps of UNE’s inaugural Professor of Rural Science, the late Bill McClymont, and Dr Bill Willoughby of CSIRO. “Together, they pioneered the study of agriculture as an ecosystem on the Northern Tablelands,” he said.

“We made important advances over eight years of intensive field experimentation,” Professor Scott continued.  “These included changing the system of testing for virulent footrot to a more reliable system, and investigating the pros and cons of investing in high levels of soil fertility and the re-sowing of pastures, and the role of intensive rotational grazing management – especially in relation to intestinal parasite control.” He said that four postgraduate students had carried out their studies on the farmlets, and that about 500 undergraduates had engaged in learning activities there.

Mr Paull said the Cicerone Project had given CSIRO Livestock Industries a local opportunity to provide research solutions enabling Australia’s livestock industries to be more globally competitive. “We were able to provide land, office space and scientific expertise to the project,” he said, “and in return CSIRO benefits from links established with the local and rural communities. CSIRO was privileged to be part of this important collaboration with industry, and to contribute to the supervision of PhD students involved with Cicerone.”

Clare Edwards, an extension specialist with NSW Department of Primary Industries, said the project had been of great value to livestock producers.  “It was good to be able to show farmers the side-by-side comparisons of different pastures, soil fertility levels and grazing strategies, and the effects they had on animal health, reproduction, weaner growth and wool production, especially through six challenging drought years,” she said.

The image displayed here expands to a photograph, taken at the handing over of the cheque, showing (from left)  Professor Jim Scott, Claire Edwards, Terry Coventry, Professor Iain Young, and David Paull.