Farm Management

Understanding why farmers are pressing the app buttons

Despite the proliferation of new technology in agriculture, very little is known about the effectiveness of these new tools in improving primary productivity and adoption of new practices.

A new research project from the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC) will evaluate the use of smartphone apps in the industry and producer attitudes towards these tools, in order to ensure future tools and technologies meet their needs.

Sheep CRC sponsored post-graduate student Penny Schulz said the aim of the research was to develop a guide for app developers to follow to ensure new tools were relevant and widely adopted.

“In rural industry there is a big focus on data, information and technology at the moment, but I saw a gap in the extension of these tools and how useful they may be to farmers,” Mrs Schulz said.

“So I’m hoping to gain a better understanding of how producers are making their decisions about what technology to use, the decisions they make as a result of using technology, and whether that is the same use as what the app developer intended.”

As part of her three-year PhD supervised by Dr Julian Prior and Professor Geoff Hinch at the University of New England (UNE), Mrs Schulz will use the Sheep CRC’s popular web-based app, RamSelect, as a cornerstone for her research.

One of the features of the RamSelect development was the extensive end-users interviews undertaken at the start of the process to understand producer needs and how they interacted with the app design.

Mrs Schulz will also monitor the development of the Sheep CRC’s next app under construction through UNE’s Agile App team. It is being designed as an early intervention sheep management tool to assist producers in ensuring all animals in their care are healthy and productive.

The novel feature of the ‘wellbeing app’ will be its ability to automatically update predictions of environmental risks and animal resilience/susceptibility in real-time, without needing labour-intensive inputs from sheep producers.

“Apps and online tools like this that utilise big data technology, have huge potential for simplifying complex information and enabling producers to make more informed and timely decisions to improve productivity, animal wellbeing and profitability,” Mrs Schulz said.

Having delivered industry extension programs for more than a decade for both government agencies and as an independent consultant, Mrs Schulz has seen first-hand the difficulties the research community has encountered in achieving adoption of new technologies and practice change among producers.

“There has been a big decrease in government funding for extension programs and it has been largely left up to industry bodies and private enterprise to deliver new research to producers,” she said.

“The evidence suggests that adoption of some ‘best management practices’ in the Australian sheep sector in the past decade or so have not been as fast as they could have been, which has resulted in the sheep industry missing out on productivity, profitability and wellbeing gains.

“Within this landscape, apps and online tools may be a more cost effective method of delivering new knowledge and helping producers to apply best management practices, but if this is to be the case we need a validated framework to assist in the development and delivery of new apps and increase the likelihood of successful adoption by the sheep industry.”

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