Smart pasture tools to build paddock potential

Pasture is one of the most important assets in dairy and livestock production systems, yet few producers measure their pastures in a meaningful way with, for example, only one in ten dairy producers measuring their pastures.

While low-tech tools like transects and rising plane meters have been the go-to solutions in the past, digital technologies are taking over, giving producers real-time, paddock-by-paddock yield estimates and predictions. In this article we look at the benefits of measuring pasture, what tech is available to producers now from vendors on AgTech Finder, and some of the ‘future farming’ pasture technologies in development.

With the uptake of drones and other forms of sensing, the tools and capability that now exist for farmers to measure their pasture feedbase are more comprehensive than ever before.

Why measure pasture?

In pasture-based farming systems, profitability is closely linked to the growth and use of pasture. If pasture is not managed properly, it’s productive life is reduced and it then becomes a more expensive source of feed than necessary.

Understanding the volume and growth stages of the pasture biomass enables farmers to make informed decisions about how best to manage their livestock. A well-managed pasture is productive and profitable, providing high-quality feed, improving soil health, and optimising production of milk or meat.

Agtech solutions for precision pasture

The power of data and innovative Internet of Things (IoT) technology can provide the information you need at your fingertips to make pasture management decisions that are best suited for your individual situation. There are agtech tools available to make sure your pasture is working for you in the best possible way. Check out some of the solutions available on AgTech Finder, with others available by searching the full Directory here.

Future tech for pasture management in the dairy industry

Nowhere is pasture management more important than in the dairy industry. Australian dairy cows produce between 22 and 30 litres of milk per day, so good nutrition is paramount. In 2018, Dairy Australia, in partnership with the Gardiner Dairy Foundation and Agriculture Victoria launched DairyFeedbase, a series of innovation programs designed to revolutionise feedbase (pasture) management on Australian dairy farms. By introducing cutting edge ag technology and bioscience, the project could provide returns to the industry of up to $100 million within 10 years. It aims to deliver easy-to-use digital tools and real-time information to improve decision-making in the paddock, and strategically allocate feed at an individual cow level.

At Agriculture Victoria’s Smartfarm at Ellinbank in Victoria’s Gippsland region, and on six commercial partner farms, researchers have been testing a range of technologies:

  • Wide-angle sonar - uses sonar sensors to take hundreds of measurements per second to measure pasture height. This data can then be used to calculate the number of kilograms of dry matter per hectare at paddock scale.

  • UAVs (drones) - four UAV flying heights have been tested. The researchers gained significant efficiencies in product output by flying above 50 metres, while maintaining prediction accuracy.

  • Satellite imaging - estimates of pasture dry matter yield using satellite imaging.

  • Modelling - a pasture growth model that will incorporate Bureau of Meteorology nine-month forecast data has been developed for Ellinbank and the six commercial partner farms.

An ultrasonic pasture meter mounted on a frame measures the pasture directly ahead of the vehicle ((Photo courtesy: www.mdpi.com/journal/remotesensing).

Senior Research Scientist on the project, Dr Liz Morse-McNabb, says that while pasture is the cheapest source of feed, home-grown feed is often underutilised.

“People aren’t measuring pasture, so we’re aiming to provide a suite of information or management tools that can enable that real-time paddock-based, farm-based estimates of yields and quality over time,” Dr Morse-McNabb says.

“We’re using a whole range of technologies right through from sonar, LIDAR, radar and satellite. We have hand-held ground-based sensors, we have multispectral sensors on UAVs, and we use satellite-based sensors as well. All of the technologies that we’re assessing in our project is cutting edge and we are using the information in new and different ways.

Particularly with some of the multi-spectral sensors that we’re using – we’re applying that information and using that data in a way that others haven’t used so far. So we’re really trying to push the boundaries of all of these sensors that we have to enable that end goal of being able to quickly, easily and efficiently measure and predict pasture yield and quality.”

The commercial partner farms are providing the research team with feedback as the project progresses, to ensure the tools and information they are receiving is useful in terms of everyday management of their farms and herds.

Ultimately researchers hope the Pasture Smarts Project will allow producers to grow and use more pasture (both grazed and conserved), simplify day-to-day management, and better manage risks around forage management. The tools developed by the program will allow for automated assessment of pasture dry matter yield and nutritive characteristics, and to better forecast pasture performance.

Watch the video from DairyFeedbase about the Pasture Smarts Project.