Imagery from drones could soon be helping dairy farmers to make crucial grassland management decisions, according to researchers.

Scientists are currently testing the accuracy of traditional, physical grass growth observations against new image-analysing, machine-learning models based on photos captured by drones and cameras.

The research aims to produce predictive data of the yield and composition of grass growth on pastures to help farmers determine the best time and which areas to allow their cows graze.

To date, the predictive models based on a simple photograph are resulting in 95% accuracy rates when compared to physical observations.

The research, funded by the VistaMilk SFI Research Centre in Teagasc Moorepark, is being undetaken by Teagasc, University College Dublin (UCD) and Dublin City University (DCU).

Established in 2018, the centre, supported by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), identifies challenges and solves problems for the Irish dairy sector.

Teagasc cows grazing repro free
Image: Teagasc

Deirdre Hennessy, senior Teagasc research officer, said that grass and pasture management is vitally important for the success of Ireland’s €5 billion dairy industry.

“It’s not as simple as letting the cows out to eat where and when they want. Farmers are constantly walking their fields, monitoring grass growth, paying particular attention to its yield, composition, and its grazing suitability,” she said.

“This is very labour intensive and time consuming, and the research that VistaMilk is funding is designed to provide them with that information more easily and quickly.

“Image-analysing, machine-learning algorithms will work with pictures captured by drones – and even satellites in the future.

“The potential of what we can do will only be limited by our imaginations.

“We can theoretically look at sending out drone swarms that will return their information to a base in a matter of minutes, giving farmers in a whole county the results that will allow them to make better business decisions while farming more sustainably,” she continued.

“For now, we will continue to prove that our drone captured imaging algorithms work and will leave the scaling up to the next generation of researchers that are following closely behind,” Hennessy said.

grass growth

Around 5,000 farmers are currently using the PastureBase Ireland app to record grass growth and quality.

However, Hennessy said that there are many factors that can skew the outcomes, including the subjectivity of observations made by different people.

“The imaging analysis work that is ongoing in VistaMilk and with our partners will make the process more accurate and automated, thereby making it easier for the farmer to make timely and correct decisions on how to manage their fields.

“The ultimate goal is to create an app that uses a combination of physical observations, weather predictive models and automated grass imaging that will save time and money for the farmers.

“While we are not there quite yet the future is just around the corner,” she said.