The concept of a simple, comprehensive information system for regional (and later Australian) sheep producers probably had its beginnings in the 1980s. At that time, a group of CSIRO researchers (Keith Dash, Peter Waller and others) had developed what was to become WormKill. This was an attempt to have an effective, strategic worm control program for the New England and associated areas, principally to combat the devastating impact of barber’s pole worm using the long acting, narrow-spectrum drug, closantel. It proved very effective, particularly if used with Worm Egg Counts (WECs).
Similar programs for sheep worm control (e.g. Worm Plan, Worm Check and CRACK) were also being developed in all states during the 1980s, as drench resistance was recognized as a potentially massive problem.
In NSW, an extension program was developed by NSW Agriculture (principally Betty Hall) and attracted attention from north of the border. A visit by Dr Brian O'Sullivan and Dr Chris Baldock from DPI Qld bought the ideas and program back to see if it could be developed for Queensland producers.
As Queensland DPI District Extension Officer at Warwick, I became very interested in the Wormkill concept (it fitted nicely into the industry on the eastern Darling Downs) and working with a small team of Chris Baldock, Maxine Murphy and some other DPI staff, we developed the WormBuster program for Queensland. A WEC kit (Early Bird Wormcheck kit) was developed to make it easier for producers to have WECs done by the DPI lab.
After a time, Australian Wool Innovation (in one of its previous incarnations) commissioned an online resource called SCIPS (Sustainable Control of Internal Parasites of Sheep). This had been developed by Prof. Nick Sangster, then with the University of Sydney, and it contained a lot of technical information that was very useful to consultants and university students. It had not yet been developed as an extension program to industry, but it was recognised that the basic information applied in all states.
In about 2000 or so, some extension officers (Deb Maxwell, Noel O'Dempsey, Maxine Murphy and I) started investigating taking WormBuster into a decision tree-format. This was intended to help people to go through a comprehensive process to make a drenching decision, and a basic framework was mapped out.
Soon after, the first Sheep Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) was set up and AWI, as a Sheep CRC partner, became interested in the concept of a national web-based information resource for producers from the presentation I had given to AWI at Armidale. AWI liked the idea and what was to become WormBoss was conceived, funded, and under way.
The original WormBoss team consisted of Brown Besier (WA), Steve Love (NSW), Andrew Bailey (Tas), Ian Carmichael (SA), Noel Campbell (Vic), and me, Arthur Le Feuvre, Project Leader (Qld). WormBoss was established as Sheep CRC Project, with the majority of funding from AWI and in-kind funds from CRC partner organisations.
The team had some key tasks early: creating a functional framework for the information, identifying and creating content, engaging a website developer, and critically, recruiting support from other key stakeholders such as consultants and veterinary pharmaceutical companies.
A major headache was the decision support system (Ask the Boss). Trying to achieve useful and easy to use answers for producers in all the regions of Australia was difficult and, in retrospect, has been much better delivered by the new regional WormBoss Drench Decision Guides.
The original web site was set up under AWI auspices and with much support and advice from then AWI web manager, Tristan Viscarra Rossel. The team needed all the support it could get as no one really knew much about setting up information web sites. The AWI project manager, Scott Williams, was also most understanding, supportive and helpful in many ways.
AWI wanted more than just a static information resource. They wanted change in industry worm management. This meant that the web site and its information had to be ‘sold’ to the key audience of Australian sheep producers, a group not (at that stage) known for its ready acceptance of the internet as a source of credible information. Besides, producer access to the internet was often poor or non-existent.
A marketing and communications company, Currie Communications, was engaged to advise and facilitate this key task. They were very good to work with and provided innovative suggestions to add credibility, attractiveness and dynamics. It was their advice that drove the creation of the WormBoss song, probably the first (and only?) time a song was used as part of a sheep extension campaign.
Choosing a name for something that had never been done before was also a challenge and many titles were examined and discarded (similarly with the logo) before ‘WormBoss’ was chosen.
The support of Australian veterinary pharmaceutical companies was critical to the eventual success of WormBoss and they provided it generously in the form of advice, information and critical comment—all of it unbiased, ethical and professional.
After 18 months of argument, late nights, hair tearing (that's why I have none!), begging, and evaluation by many and varied people, WormBoss came together and was ready to launch.
The official launch was conducted by James Rowe, CEO of the Sheep CRC at the Wagin Woolarama in WA, in March 2005, along with a coordinated national media campaign.
It must have created some attention as initial visitor numbers to the website grew rapidly.
The team decided to offer a regular monthly seasonal update and newsletter via email and the web site in an effort to give subscribing producers a picture of what was happening worm-wise in their regions and what contributing consultants and veterinarians thought should be done in the near future. The first monthly newsletter went out in October 2006 and the service now boasts about 3,500 subscribers.
Since launch, the team has seen a number of changes to its membership and the functions they perform.
The web site has been substantially updated, with changes in appearance, content and function. The key additions are the eight regional WormBoss Worm Control Programs, which set out an annual program of management. These are complemented by the eight associated Drench Decision Guides, which assist with the day-to-day drenching decisions of whether and when to drench, whether to use a long acting product and what to do next. The Drenches section lists all commercial products, and now is searchable based on the type of worm being targeted, the drench group or active or the length of protection. For each drench, it includes information such as withholding period and ESI, as well as drench resistance notes for the drench groups.
WormBoss also has an interactive group-based workshop with ready-to-print material for trainers, consultants and educators, and accreditation for trainers. All have been tested and are very well received. Over 200 producers and other industry related people have attended one day workshops, primarily in the New England region of NSW, to update their knowledge of worm control. The latest feature has been the addition of an ‘at your own pace’ online learning section.
Currently, the web site receives around 6,000 users each month with about 35% of sessions coming from outside Australia, reflecting the dearth of easily available information on worms in other countries
So, 10 years on, the key question is this. Has WormBoss done what it set out to do: provide an easily accessed and used tool that is, in fact, used by Australian sheep producers, and can it demonstrate changed and improved ‘on farm’ worm control management practices? All surveys and evaluations show a substantial ‘YES’.
Under the second Sheep CRC, WormBoss, with FlyBoss and LiceBoss, were brought into the new ParaBoss program, and the whole is now managed under licence to the University of New England with funding from AWI and MLA in its initial post-Sheep CRC phase, but will have to ‘earn its way’ in the future. The new management is dynamic and focussed on the future and already has enacted some much-needed changes. They have my total commendation.
At the end of June, I will be handing over the reins as the ParaBoss News editor to my colleague of many years, parasitologist, Maxine Murphy.
From a personal point of view, WormBoss has given me a lot of very interesting insights into the industry and some very generous and wonderful friends and colleagues.
It's been a great journey and a great way to wrap up a 50-year association working for and with a great industry. Thank you all.
Arthur Le Feuvre