Research & Development

Former Sheep CRC CEO calls for more research collaboration

Terry Sim, September 30, 2020

Former Sheep CRC CEO James Rowe.

AUSTRALIA’S agricultural research and development sector was not short of money, but needed more collaboration to tackle the industry’s big opportunities and issues, according to former Sheep CRC chief executive officer James Rowe.

At the recent virtual Livestock 2020 conference, Professor Rowe outlined the structure and outcomes of the Sheep CRC, commenting on the readiness of the current agricultural R&D structure in Australia to tackle opportunities.

He said the CRC model had the opportunity for lower overhead costs in the management of R&D through collaboration, while Australia’s rural research development corporations, state departments and the CSIRO each had their own R&D management teams.

“You’ve got far too many organisations trying to manage research in my view and very few of them ready to let go and let somebody else co-ordinate this on a national scale.

“And really, with a skills-based board accountable to the investors, there is a clear plan and instructions, you should be able to leave them to it and again, hold them to account,” he said.

Data use is the next big opportunity

Professor Rowe said the next big opportunity lay in the way data was used. He said industry was most unlikely to find “single factor silver bullet” solutions to problems.

“And at the moment, data is cheap and easy to collect, there is bucket loads of it.

“It’s use is difficult and it is very expensive and I reckon that the opportunity for the sheep industry combined with the cattle industry and even the cropping industry, really needs an integrated way of using the data that’s available, to manage the problems of climate variability, the well-being of our livestock, the genetic improvement, quality assurance, provenance and the connected consumer,” he said.

“And although the opportunity is there, you go straight into this overlap and duplication which is already in the marketplace.”

He said there are many R&D models in livestock production and grazing management with lots of competition amongst researchers and commercial groups.

“None of these models do everything, none of them are perfect and if there was just some effort to get over the barriers and the fences that separate them, I reckon there would be some really really big opportunities for the sheep and the livestock industries to use grazing resources much more efficiently.”

Professor Rowe said the “clear gaps” in sheep-related research were in using data effectively, including the information collected on climate, at abattoirs, on diseases and at the retail level.

“But we are not really making the most of it.

“There are a number of products that take us a little bit of the way there, but it is this fragmented approach that I think is the gap, that produces the gap.”

He urged the sheep industry and researchers to tackle issues and look for ways to collaborate, “because without it, you are going to be really struggling to use funds successfully and develop products that are good.”

Not enough co-ordination in funding use

Professor Rowe also saw attracting sufficient seed money for a CRC as a problem and said the individual organisational and researcher interests “always seem to come first.”

“And right now I think one of the greatest challenges is that there is a bucket load of money floating around and not enough co-ordination in how it’s used.

“We’re not short of money, we are short of co-ordination and collaboration and tackling those big issues.”

Professor Rowe was asked if the two main sheep RDCs, Meat & Livestock Australia and Australian Wool Innovation, acting independently, were structurally or culturally equipped to tackle the CRC’s unfinished business, or should the sheep/wool industry consider a new levy-funded R&D model.

He said he was sure AWI, MLA and the Australian Meat Processors Corporation and other RDCs had the intellectual capacity to develop a collaborative approach to sort out the industry’s big issues and major opportunities.

“It’s a case of the resolve and the leadership from the top, I think, and also the pressure from industry.

“Most of these organisations are using industry money and I think that if the industry pushes for a more efficient use of those funds that might be something that changes behaviour,” he said.

“It’s not an easy or straightforward activity at all.”

Professor Rowe said there were many opportunities to apply the collaborative CRC model to access other sources of R&D funding.

“It just needs a change in mindset and it also needs a little bit of seed money.

“I think that all for the RDCs should be putting some funds into a pool that looks for opportunities that might lie in the intersection of the areas that they regard as their core business,” he said.

“I don’t think that that happens, I know that there are meetings at various levels between the RDCs, but that’s where it is going to start, that’s where the money is and it is also an opportunity for the existing CRCs.

“The existing organisations need to be a little bit more open about looking for the opportunities to collaborate, because they are out there.”

CRC model has stood the test of time

Professor Rowe said the CRC model had stood the test of time, but it had to have three core ingredients to be successful, including industry and researchers collaborating to identify the ‘big ticket’ opportunities and challenges.

“There needs to be consensus, it needs to be defined.

“The second thing is it needs to ensure that industry has a very prominent seat at the table and that there is genuine interaction and collaboration between industry and the researchers – they are looking for synergies here and it’s not just window-dressing – yes, the researchers talk to industry,” he said.

“The third dot point, I think is one that sounds very simple, but if done properly is very powerful.

“And that is, demanding that a CRC deliver industry impact.”

He said the industry had to be prepared to let a CRC go long enough to “to require that (impact) as an obligation.”

“The second thing is they don’t want to see high-powered economic models used to define impact, they want a plain English description of what the research will do, what the outputs are expected and how, if those outputs are utilised, they deliver a monetary benefit in the hands of the industry.

“You need to do that at the start, you need to check it each year and you need to report on it at the end.

“it’s one of those things that I don’t think too many research projects and major programs do properly and are certainly not held to account as they should be.”

CRC combined sheep meat and wool research

Professor Rowe said the challenge of the first Sheep CRC was combining meat and wool research and development.

“So we looked at consolidation of the genetics, we looked at the measurements that would be needed when you select and manage animals for meat and wool traits.

“That took us into the automated collection of data, automatic drafting, electronic tags which set up researchers for many of the sophisticated technologies the CRC brought into the industry later on.

He said when the second CRC started in 2007, its signature project was the information nucleus flock program which set things up for research into genomics. Other key Sheep CRC outcomes included precision sheep management technologies, Lifetime Ewe Management, RamSelect, objective measurement of meat easting quality, low cost DNA testing, the sheep well-being program and ASKBill app and the fostering of postgraduate students.

Professor Rowe said the CRC’s collaboration and engagement across the sheep industry value chain allowed organisations to share information.

“It is very powerful in securing opportunities for the industry by having one signature for a project that covers multiple aspects of that value chain, and we were able to that a number of times.”

“The CRC structure allowed the tackling of complex issues with multi-disciplinary inputs,” he said.

“And that is a key point when we are talking agricultural problems and opportunities.”

The Livestock 2020  Big Issues – New Partnerships conference was organised by MLA’s Southern Australia Livestock Research Council.


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