The Systems 360° Initiative is a discussion-based Extension program for Alabama beef producers to increase knowledge and application of sustainable land and animal management practices in the Southeast. The Initiative is a collaborative effort by an advisory group consisting of Alabama Cooperative Extension personnel (ACES; specialists and agents), Auburn University College of Agriculture faculty, Alabama A&M Small Farms Research Center, the Alabama Beef Cattle Improvement Association and state Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Administration (FSA) personnel. The goals of this project are to: 1) create decisions tools (webinar series, management handbook, and PowerPoint templates) and 2) provide in-classroom training and hands-on demonstrations to educators on the tools and related concepts to minimize environmental and economic risk in beef cattle production systems. These tools address soil, forage, water, climate, and economic considerations in different eco-regions of the state. In 2016, the Systems 360 advisory group was formed and a needs assessment was conducted to determine a strategic plan for curriculum development. Curriculum development began in fall 2016, and resulted in the release of a series of webinars, YouTube videos, individual ag/natural resource publications, a printed beef systems handbook, and a cattle herd management calendar. In fall 2016, a pilot producer-based discussion group (also known as a working group) was started in the Tennessee Valley region of Alabama to begin delivering components of the curriculum to stakeholders as they were developed. There were 24 producers in this program, which consisted of on-farm learning experiences involving Extension, NRCS, and FSA personnel. Additional technical educators were trained in fall 2017 after the full release of the curriculum, and additional working groups are being implemented on a statewide basis in spring 2018.
1) Formation of the Systems 360° Advisory Committee: A multidisciplinary Systems 360° Advisory Committee was formed in summer 2016 to develop and deliver a comprehensive curriculum related to improved land resource utilization in Alabama livestock operations. This integrated team will consists of ACES personnel (specialists and agents), Auburn University College of Agriculture faculty, USDA NRCS, USDA FSA, Alabama A&M University Small Farms Research Center, Alabama Beef Cattle Improvement Association, and key beef producers. The advisory committee will contributed towards this effort in two ways: a) development of educational decision tools and evaluations; b) provide in-service training opportunities to technical personnel statewide.
2) Educational Resource Development: Develop interactive educational resources on soil, water, forage, climate and risk management in livestock operations. Target tools for development include web-based presentation platforms (webinars), as well as reference PowerPoint templates for use in future programming. The advisory group will contribute subject matter expertise to the development of an iBook available for download on mobile devices and a printed version for increasing accessibility to reference information. Materials will be designed for use in future programs by Extension agents, NRCS, FSA, and will later become accessible by end users.
3) Resource Training Programs: Members of the advisory committee provided training programs on Systems 360° curriculum and concepts for use in end-user programming. The target audience for these workshops include Extension agents, NRCS conservationists, FSA field representatives, and regional beef cattle leaders. These trainings will consist of both in-classroom and experiential learning opportunities to illustrate sustainable land management practices in beef production systems based on regional soil, water, forage, climate, and economic considerations.
4) Producer Networks and Resource Implementation: The advisory committee has begun to evaluate use and implementation of practices through Systems 360° Regional Working Groups (beginning with the pilot working group in fall 2016/spring 2017). Following technical trainings, Extension agents are implementing regional working group programs with producers focused on concepts presented during training events. Selected participants in these programs will be part of a follow-up evaluation to determine long-term impacts beyond the timeframe of the proposed project.
There is a need for agency partnerships to train new and beginning cattle ranchers in improved land management strategies, which will lead to enhanced sustainability of the beef industry within the state.
Effective dissemination of educational materials is built upon knowing:
1) type(s) and form(s) of information needed and
2) the appropriate technology transfer system(s). It is estimated that 70% of US farms and ranches now have access to the internet making this platform a new and viable educational tool (NASS, 2015). Extension educators across the country now use a combination of online decision tools to deliver scholarly information to end users. Of this percentage, roughly 39% are livestock producers that regularly use computers for business (NASS, 2015). Recently, beef cattle Extension programs in the US have successfully used websites and other web-based platforms to provide research-based management information (Parish, 2011; Rusche and Renelt, 2014). Websites, webinars, and e-publications significantly improve the scope and reach of land management resources to end users, especially when awareness of these resources is coupled with one-day training events (Mullenix et al., 2015). There are no curriculum resources that address sustainable land management practices for beef cattle producers using a comprehensive, systems approach in Alabama. Given the success of these resources for other subject matter areas (Majumdar et al., 2015), the Systems 360° Initiative will develop interagency curriculum resources such as webinars, e-publications, and slide sets for cattle producers. The technology transfer system for these resources will be managed using a train-the-trainer approach, followed by their use as supporting material in subsequent hands-on, statewide beef cattle programming led by educators and technical assistance providers (Extension agents, NRCS, and FSA personnel). Survey data from statewide beef cattle programming illustrate the desire for educational programs taught using a combination of in-classroom and experiential learning methodology. Evaluations conducted by the ACES Animal Science and Forage Team in the last two years indicated that participants attending a live educational program prefer hands-on learning opportunities, on-farm or university experiment station tours, and field days to demonstrate recommended production practices. These training workshops provide experiences that equip new and beginning farmers with skills to become successful in the management of livestock operations, providing a positive feedback loop for Extension educators, and assistance agencies such as NRCS and FSA. Improved focus on environmental sustainability through this program may enhance overall economic and social well-being of a growing beef cattle sector within the state by 2020.
This project aims to improve the sustainability of forage-based beef cattle systems in Alabama through the development of technical content focused on improved land resource utilization for various ecological regions of the state and integrate of this delivery system into face-to-face farmer-based discussion groups. Curriculum development has included webinars, YouTube videos, printed publications (individual fact sheets and a handbook), a beef herd management calendar, and excel-based forage budgets for use by 1) Extension agents and 2) beef cattle farmers. This curriculum is housed on the Alabama Beef Systems website as a series of systems-based resources for Extension agents to use to facilitate the formation of a farmer-to-farmer based discussion group in their respective region of Alabama.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
To strategize on curriculum resources to be developed as supporting curriculum for the Systems 360 working groups
There were 8 participants from the collaborators on the grant that participated in this meeting in July 2016. A Qualtrics survey was sent to the group prior to the meeting to determine what educational resources were needed as part of this project. The results of the survey were discussed and a timeline was developed as part of the committee meeting.
Survey participants indicated that there was a need for both web-based and printed content on land and animal management strategies for Alabama beef farmers. The main web-based content that the group decided to focus on was webinars and short, YouTube videos to highlight best management practices. Short, printed publications were also an identified need. The group decided to “package” these publications into a short handbook that would be the guiding curriculum piece for farmer-based discussion groups. This would allow technical service providers to still access these as individual publications online, or provide a printed, collective text book to participants in the working groups. An iBook was discussed as another option for extending the reach of this material. However, the committee felt that the web-based archiving of publications would provide as much reach as an iBook for the same cost. Instead, an emphasis was placed on promotion of these products through our collective social media outlets.
To develop educational resources on soil, water, forage, climate and risk management in livestock operations. A series of PowerPoint curriculum for use by Extension agents, webinars, YouTube videos, publications, a management handbook, and herd management calendar were created as supporting curriculum for implementation of Systems working groups.
Economics of Beef Management Publication
PowerPoint Curriculum for Technical Service Providers
Forage Management Resources
Publications for Differing Ecological Regions of Alabama
PowerPoint Resources for Technical Service Providers
General Herd Management Practices Resources
PowerPoints for Use By Technical Service Providers
Systems Management Resources
Water Management Resources
PowerPoints for Use By Technical Service Providers
Systems Management Handbook and Starter Guide for A Farmer-Based Discussion Group Program Use by Technical Service Providers
- There are 28 educational products that have been created as part of this project (when videos/budget sheets are categorized as a single output).
- This information is housed at www.aces.edu/beefsystems for use by technical service providers and stakeholders.
- Web evaluation metrics will be collected in 2018 to determine reach of information using the Alabama beef extension website and social media outlets.
Two in-service training opportunities were provided to technical service providers (Extension and NRCS personnel) in 2017 to describe the resources created through this grant, and to create a plan for statewide implementation of systems working groups.
Alabama Extension Animal Science and Forage Regional Extension Agents were trained regarding the Systems 360 curriculum and program implementation plan in October 2017. USDA NRCS personnel were made aware of the program at a joint Extension-NRCS grazing lands training course in November 2017. There are currently 9 regional extension agents on the Animal Science and Forage team, and there were 12 NRCS participants at the training.
- The above described resources have been used as part of two in-service training opportunities for technical service providers (n = 21 participants total).
- There was a 38% increase in knowledge regarding the availability of beef cattle management resources for use as part of their educational programming efforts in the state.
- An additional in-service training will be provided to Extension agents in March 2018 who plan to implement a systems working group in their region in 2018.
To develop multiple Systems working groups for Alabama beef farmers, and to determine potential adoption and use of management practices described in the Systems Management curriculum
In fall 2016, a pilot Systems Working Group was started. The working group was facilitated by an Animal Science and Forage regional agent, and consisted of 24 beef producers. The first meeting was held at an Auburn University research farm. Subsequent meetings were held on producer farms or the research farm to showcase management practices related to water, forages, general herd management, and climate impacts. Affiliated agencies such as NRCS and FSA were invited to participate on a local level. The working group highlighted best management practices on these topic areas through producer-led discussion at the farms. Extension specialists and agents were in attendance to help facilitate conversation.
- 62% of the program participants noted that they preferred learning from on-farm discussion groups, highlighting that peer-to-peer learning is an effective tool for improving understanding of these topics.
- There were 3,072 acres and 1,300 head of cattle impacted by the pilot program. Additional working groups (n = 3) are being implemented for a more statewide reach in 2018.
- A poster on this program was presented at the Southern Pastures and Forage Crop Improvement Conference in June 2017:
- Participants reported an average economic impact of $2,500 per operation from this program.
- One participant indicated that he saved more than $3,500 in his soil fertility program from the adoption of precision soil sampling in pastures and hayfields.
- Participants plan to work towards 300 days of grazing per year and improve their calf marketing programs in the next year as a result of this program.
Educational & Outreach Activities
- There has been improved communication among Alabama Extension (Auburn and Alabama A&M universities) and USDA NRCS Alabama on shared curriculum resource development that can be used for stakeholder education since this project was started.
- There has been an increase in availability and reach of educational resources related to strategies for improving natural resource management in beef production systems. There have been 28 educational products developed as part of this grant including both web-based and printed resources that have created a library of systems-management resources for Alabama technical educators and farmers.
- A Qualtrics survey in fall 2017 noted a 38% increase in awareness about beef management systems educational resources created through this project. Among survey participants (n = 15; consisting of mostly regional extension agents), 100% indicated that they plan to use these resources in their educational programming efforts.
- The first Systems working group was implemented in fall 2016/spring 2017 and consisted of 24 beef farmers in northern Alabama. 30% of participants had started implementing one of more of the management topics discussed by the end of the program, and an additional 28% planned to implement one or more topics related to soils, forages, water, or animal management within the next year. A follow up survey will be conducted in 2018 with two farmers from this group to determine economic impact of long-term management practices that were a result of this program.