Bring out the laser! On-farm drone and laser trials to begin

Long gone are the days of guessing which nutrients are low in your soil or whether your silage is good enough for the high-yielders, but could precise, real-time data – or close to it – form part of grass management too?

For a group of 30 Northern Irish farmers taking part in the GrassCheck programme that’s already the reality.

Each of the group measures their weekly grass growth using an electronic plate metre. Once a fortnight each farmer sends a sample of grass from a field ready for grazing to the lab for analysis to allow them to make better management decisions.

Real-time results

The data – which is returned within days of sampling – has been useful helping the farmers decide which fields to graze next and whether silage grass is ready for cutting.

The results of the programme have been impressive – already yields on the GrassCheck farms have increased and profitability has also followed suit.

Dairy farmer Ryan Carr from Downpatrick, Co. Down said the almost real-time results had allowed him to make better farm management decisions.

When a lab test result showed his milking cows were grazing on low ME grass he knew he had to pull them off it straight away.

“If I didn’t I would have seen the crash in the tank and I would have wondered what had happened,” he said.

“The scope for precision farming in Northern Ireland is huge,” added Dr. Debbie McConnell, one of the researchers taking the lead on the GrassCheck programme.

“Grass measurement is time-consuming so we want to look at technologies that will reduce the amount of time that that takes.”

The GrassCheck programme currently includes 30 sheep, beef and dairy farmers – but this year will expand to include 40.

Drones and laser technology

The key focuses of the 2018 programme will be grass utilisation and testing the potential of technology such as drones to assist grassland farmers in collecting data.

The kit will primarily be tested at the Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute in Hillsborough. However, there will also be times when farmers will have a go at using equipment such as drones too.

“We’re looking at drones and visual imaging. And so we will be studying things like NDVI reflectance – different light signals coming from plants – we will also be looking at a trail-behind pasturemeter which fits on to a quad and uses lasers to measure the height of the grass.

“It runs across the paddock; you drive across it and it measures grass.”