Implementation of "Stable Schools" in German organic dairy farms – a pilot study on a concept for animal health and welfare
Udder diseases and metabolism problems, typical production diseases, also play a great role in organic dairy husbandry. In a pilot study we studied the extent to which Stable Schools are suited as an innovative concept to improve the health situation with consultations in the participating dairy farms. Stable Schools base on mutual learning: problems in the own farm are discussed and solved together with other farmers.
The prevention of health problems is especially important in organic animal husbandry, because here too dairy cow diseases and udder diseases or metabolism problems are frequent production diseases. Science knows quite a bit about the occurrence of these diseases and risk factors – however in everyday life on the dairy farm, this knowledge is not always taken into consideration. There is a lack of consistent implementation of preventative management concepts as well as of their adaptation to farm specific situations.
We accompanied the introduction of Stable Schools in 19 organic dairy farms in a pilot study supported by the German Federal Program for Organic Agriculture. The focus of this study was an effectiveness analysis, meaning how far animal health actually improved in the participating farms in the course of the project. Furthermore we evaluated the extent to which the measures outlined at the group meeting were actually implemented on the farms. Ultimately, the acceptance of participants of the concept was at the core: How do farmers judge the Stable Schools? Were they successful? Did they find the recommendations of colleagues as practicable? Were the group meetings with the support of other group members motivational?
The Consultancy Concept: What are Stable Schools?
The principle: Dairy farmers discuss and solve problems on their own farm together with other farmers. Thus they all use the available professional knowledge in animal health management efficiently. Under consideration of externally documented indicators for animal health, they work together to develop close to practice and everyday solutions for the actual farm. Stable Schools follow a participatory approach and make it possible for farmers to work together to further develop their production systems, adapted in each case to individual needs. Of central meaning here is the “learn from each other” technique as a social phenomenon or process, and interaction between those learning and the learning environment. In a Stable School one group of four to six dairy farmers meets regularly and exchange experiences. Other than with normal working groups, there are solid communication rules as well as an external moderators, who lead the discussions in a solution-oriented manner and all results are noted in a protocol.
The Group Meetings
One Stable School Group Meeting is held at each participating farm in the course of one year. The host sets the agenda for the meeting and decides which topics will be addressed. A consultation (or here, project staff member) takes responsibility for organizing the meeting, writes the protocol, and serves as facilitator to follow some discussion rules without giving professional input him or herself. The consistent moderation is decisive for the success of a Stable School. It ensures that every participant and his/her recommendations are heard and that the discussion is solution oriented.
Each session begins with an extensive farm tour after a welcome from the host. On the basis of this knowledge, the participants draft the strengths and weaknesses of the farm. They look for causes for problems discussed and develop close-to-practice solution approaches. In conclusion each of the concrete recommendations is included in a protocol for the host to adopt and implement.
The pilot study
In the framework of 36 month pilot study we were able to convice 19 organic dairy farms in four federal states to participate in a Stable School. We then modified the concept of a stable school accordingly, so that we could provide participants with information about the health status of the herds on the participating farms. For this purpose the project staff documented basic information on animal health from farms at the beginning of the project. To prepare for the Stable School meetings, we reported back to them.
They received evaluations for the monthly dairy performance test, and the stable books, as well as information on animal-related parameters was taken for the herd (for example on body conditions, lameness, cleanliness and animal injuries)
This data survey was repeated following the conclusion of the first Stable School round in November 2011 as well as after the second Stable School round of the winter half year 2012/13 (all animal related data) or rather updated (management-related information)
In total two Stable School rounds took place, each with a group meeting on each farm within one year. The hosts defined the agenda and established the topics to be dealt with. A project staff member took over the organization of the meeting, kept notes and served as facilitator for the observation of particular discussion rules without giving professional input him or herself. A meeting consisted of farm tour and subsequent discussion on one or two of the “problem zones” identified by the host. In conclusion, the host committed to try out the recommendations in order to improve his farm situation.
The main goals of the evaluations in the framework of the pilot study were – in addition to studies on the feasibility and acceptance of the concepts in practical dairy husbandry – to monitor how effectively the concept of practical dairy cow husbandry can be applied; to monitor how effectively the stable school meetings work, and how effectively the project farms implement recommendations for action.
Three evaluations were carried out:
In the evaluation of the effects for animal health on the project farms, all animal-related indicators were at the farm, or rather, herd level. We converted all information on single animals from the further analysis of incidence or rather prevalence to the herd level. Then we undertook a statistical analysis with mixed models with repeated measures.
Overall, 123 optimization measures were drafted with the most important areas metabolism and udder health. The implementation rate was high and comparable with studies which looked at individual consulting: more than one-third of all measures were either fully or partially implemented. The project participants find the self-determining approach particularly motivating and evaluated the common drafting of close-to-practice as well as farm-individual recommendations for action as positive. Overall, the mean herd size grew considerably for all farms in the project period, while milk performance and herd age were almost unchanged. In addition the hygiene of the cows improved significantly, no improved animal health could be ascertained for other indicators.
In nine farms, the recommendations for action in the areas of udder health, and the content of somatic cells in the milk dropped significantly with an unchanged use of allopathic animal medications, and, in contrast, the portion of cows with suspected lack of energy in the early lactation period reduced significantly. At the same time the portion of cows with health udders (milk cell content ? 100,000) and the milk yield increased significantly.
Stable Schools are a very promising consultancy and management tool to improve herd health, perceived by surveyed project participants as valuable and useful. They lead to enrichment and diversification of the consultancy landscape and ensure that different types of users can be addressed and reached.
10.2010 - 9.2013
10.2010 - 9.2013
Project funding number: 10OE017
Funding program: Bundesprogramm Ökologischer Landbau und andere Formen nachhaltiger Landwirtschaft (BÖLN)
Project status: finished