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

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 pioneering GrassCheck programme that’s already the reality.

Each member of the group measures their weekly grass growth using an electronic plate meter.

Once a fortnight each farmer also sends a small cutting of grass from a field ready for grazing to the lab for analysis to allow them to make better management decisions.

The tests reveal the crude protein, metabolic energy (ME) and dry matter with results available almost as soon as the lab receives the sample.

A plate meter used for the GrassCheck project. Image source: GrassCheck

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

The programme’s findings have been partly responsible for driving better grass yields. Dairy farmers on the programme had growth of 12.6t of DM/ha compared to the industry average of 7.5t of DM/ha.

The understanding of pasture systems that the project has unveiled is so far ahead that researchers in other parts of the UK are considering adopting their own version of the programme and the weekly growth rate forecasts are extremely popular with many farmers across the region.

Real-time results

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 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.

GrassCheck’s network of farms are spread across every corner of Northern Ireland and cover each of the region’s main agricultural sectors

“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,” Dr. McConnell added.

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

‘Good yields in a difficult year’

“Where we are at the moment we have a really good picture of grass growth across Northern Ireland.

“We can show that even in a difficult year we got really good quality and yields from the farms – that’s really outstanding.

The GrassCheck 2018 graph shows clearly the impact of the summer’s drought on grass yields. At the time the forecasts helped farmers plan supplementary feed

“Going forward we are going to be looking in more detail at grass utilisation on these farms and their supplementary feed levels really because that is the key part of running a profitable business.

You can grow as much grass as you like, but we know every extra tonne of grass used is worth £304 to a dairy farm so improving that is important.

“This year we are focusing on collecting data on utilisation as well. This is a really good group here – this past year we have seen really good data coming through.

“The attention to detail that these guys place on their management – managing swards and getting in at the right pre and post-grazing covers – is already making a difference, with the weekly grass quality analysis also helping them to make management decisions.

“That all helps boost grass utilisation on-farm and increase the amount of milk produced.”