Grass, watch this space

Teagasc and University College Cork researchers are using satellite imaging to observe and predict grass growth rates across Ireland and these new tools are set to be available for advisors later this year and farmers at the earliest spring 2015. 

This is according to lead research officer Stuart Green of Teagasc’s spatial analysis laboratory.

Speaking to Agriland this afternoon, he explained the team is working with NASA and the European Space Agency to create satellite grass growth tools to give very local measurements of growth rates, and more importantly, predictions for growth over the coming few days or even weeks.

“We are now using NASA and the ESA’s satellite technology to monitor grass growth using infra-red technology. Using satellites to observe plant growth is a well-developed technological service used across the globe, especially in tillage and horticulture. Measuring grass levels in a highly managed landscape like Ireland is much less developed.”

But fear not, this is all set to change.

Green explained. The NASA Aqua and Terra satellites each carry a version of the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (Modis). This imaging system captures information, not just in natural colour as a conventional camera does, but in a wide range of energies that tell us different things about the earth below.

“For the purposes of monitoring grass levels, Modis can capture images in the Near Infra Red (NIR). This is light that is just beyond the red wavelengths of visible light that we can see, and is important because it is strongly reflected by plants; so in the NIR plants are three or four times brighter than the green and up to 10 times brighter than the red. This bright signal is directly related to the amount of plant material and how well it is growing.”

So how will this work on farm level?

“At the moment we are trying to figure this out, the best way for farmers to use this technology,” explained Green.

“Research in Teagasc has found that farmers do not really engage with computers, so we may deliver the technology tools by telephone. Ideally, the farmer can connect to get simple messages on local grass growth, be that the telephone, smart phone app or text service.”

Key to the new tools will be predictions for grass growth over the coming few days or even weeks and Teagasc and UCC plan to link in with Met Eireann on this. “This is the next stage that is in development. We want to have a grass growth weather-based forecast so we can hope to predict the likely grass growth rates.”

In terms of rollout, Green confirmed a spring date of 2015 is the target for farmers, but cautioned the technology needs to be fully tested.

“We want to be really confident it is working, that it is going to be a reliable product. We plan to rollout the system this year for a number of Teagasc advisors and hopefully next spring we can start to roll it out to farmers.”

And the plans don’t stop there. Green confirmed that Teagasc, along with other stakeholders, currently has an application in with Science Foundation Ireland to lead an Atlantic Centre for Earth Satellite where innovative agricultural observations will be to the fore. Simply put, watch this space.