UK livestock farmers have finished running trials with new satellite technology that maps out the quantity of grass available on their farms, holding the potential to reduce costs and help farmers prepare for unpredictable weather conditions in the future, caused by climate change.
As part of the PASTORAL (Pasture Optimisation for Resilience and Livelihoods) project, farmers have been working with farmer-led research network Innovative Farmers, agricultural data consultants Environment Systems and the University of Edinburgh in a project that tests the use of satellite imagery (optical and radar) and modelling to estimate grass biomass availability (kg DM /ha) at a field level. This is being calibrated with in-field plate metering.
The combination of these methods is hoped to provide farmers with an accurate picture of grass availability across their grazing platform and used the models to predict grass growth. This provides more information in order for them to make important decisions earlier and with a greater degree of accuracy. The models' ability to run simulations that predict the impact of different weather and environmental scenarios such as drought or downpours, could give farmers time to plan for extreme weather conditions.
The trials have concluded, with farmers providing crucial data as they test and calibrate the new technology with their own grass monitoring routines.
Better grazing methods may have a positive impact on livestock health and productivity, as well as protecting soils from being over-grazed – in addition to freeing up time for farmers and reducing the cost of maintaining pastures.
James Allen, a livestock farmer at Great Cotmarsh Farm in Wiltshire, has seen good results from the project. He said: “PASTORAL is a helpful tool, with the potential to save time and money and help future-proof against the effects of climate change.
“We move cattle up to every two days – grass availability is a big part of how we make these decisions. These calls are hard to make - we don’t have the time to measure grass ourselves, and we might not have eyes on every part of the farm.
“This hasn’t been helped by the unpredictable weather – last summer was so hot the grass stopped growing in one of the peak growth seasons.
“Getting a whole-farm view and seeing how the grass growth is changing means we can vary how long the livestock are in each particular cell and plan the order we graze fields.
“It's very easy to just give technology to farmers – working with the researchers and Innovative Farmers, our feedback has helped to co-design the tool, which gives us more confidence that it’ll be useful for the people who will need it most.”
John Ker, a beef farmer at Kittisford Barton Farm in Wellington, Somerset, participated in the trial. He said: “With climate change developing, we’ve been looking critically at our performance – how we measure and record farm data is a huge part of that.
"We were using a set stocking model for grazing before, so there wasn’t much movement. PASTORAL has helped us change to a hybrid system between mob and set stock grazing.
"These changes have enabled us to extend our outside grazing period by nearly eight weeks – that really affects our margins and helps us maintain healthy stock. It’s been a really useful tool to help make these important decisions.”
The project marks the first time the University of Edinburgh’s model has been used in a live environment, and the feedback from the farmers has been crucial to how the data collection has changed.
Environment Systems Lead Consultant Dr Iain Cameron said: “If you ask farmers how they assess their pastures, they’ll likely say they look for themselves.
“Nothing matches standing in the field and observing – but using technology to reaffirm what you see can give you the confidence to adapt, monitor changes and plan for the future.
“We’ve learned lots over every stage – it quickly became clear that pasture growth is so rapid that running the model on a weekly basis can miss detail. This is why the on-the-ground information has been so important in building a fuller picture and has allowed us to see where improvements need to be made.
“We’ve been lucky to work with a great team of farmers and we’re thrilled at how things have turned out.”
Innovative Farmers manager Rebecca Swinn said: “We’re pleased to see the results of the field lab, which shows the value of farmer-led research.
“Seeing an idea go from concept to use on farms is a big achievement. I have no doubt that the technology will continue to develop, especially as farmers are part of the refining process. We are excited for the future.”
To find out more and to get involved, visit the field lab portal on the Innovative Farmers website, where any farmer can join the network and find trial information and findings for free.
PASTORAL is funded by Innovate UK and led by Environment Systems in partnership with the Soil Association and the University of Edinburgh.