9 November 2001

Internet chat-room keeps dairy groups talking despite F&M

By John Burns

AN internet chat-room is providing an alternative way for dairy producer groups to meet, allowing them to discuss problems and share information.

When the MDC-sponsored Profit from Pasture milk production groups stopped meeting because of foot-and-mouth, Cumbrian member Kevin Beaty asked consultant Carol Gibson to investigate how to keep contact alive.

Ms Gibson and her colleagues found SmartGroups.com on the internet, which allows groups to set up private chat-rooms for free, requiring no technical knowledge about the internet and e-mail.

"We started by inviting a few group members to test the chat-room and asked them to invite other members to join in. Consultants and technical people were also asked to contribute," she says.

The groups section of cyberspace has been used to distribute group newsletters and display tables showing members and their details, including regular updates on pasture cover and growth rates.

Members have also passed on notes made at useful conferences, diary dates such as British Grassland Society meetings, adverts for livestock and deadstock for sale and input prices.

But the most commonly used service has been members asking for information on a variety of topics. "This has prompted debate and interesting reading," says Ms Gibson.

Questions asked include has anyone any experience of missing one milking on Sundays? What is a fair price to ask for calves? Can anyone recommend a herd management programme? What are the dimensions for a simple AI race?

"Queries about cow tracks were also common, but the most queries concerned low butterfats in May – there were about 25 contributions on that topic," says Ms Gibson.

Mr Beaty adds: "The chat-room has worked very well, especially early in the outbreak. One member even posted a photograph of the AI race someone wanted information about. But to get the most out of the technology we need more members to take an active part in chatting." &#42

HOW TO CHAT ON THE WORLD-WIDE WEB

&#8226 Each SmartGroup has a homepage giving basic group information; a message area; an event calendar; a files area; a picture album; a voting area; a classified ads section; a simple database system; and a management area.

&#8226 To establish a new group on SmartGroups.com, click to create your own group. You are then presented with a series of choices such as private or public. In private groups members need a password to gain access to the site whereas anyone can contribute to public groups.

&#8226 Communication between group members can be via e-mail or in group form on the groups own web-site. There are full and clear instructions for managers and members, but other sources of help are available.