New sensor technology trials could revolutionise pasture management


New optical sensor technology could revolutionise the way farmers measure and manage their pastures, say scientists. Trials are underway at five research sites across Australia, to determine the usefulness of hand-held sensors in calculating pasture health.

The machine uses light-reflecting sensors to measure the colour of the pasture and its cover or biomass. That data is then translated into a number of simple measurements, to reflect pasture health.

Tony Butler from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture is leading the project in Tasmania and says it could help farmers’ efficiency. “We can then start determining how many stock and how long they are going to be in that paddock before you have to move them onto the next paddock,” he said.

“It’s basically trying to make a quick, simple and effective timeless or efficient way of getting pasture biomass samples out there.”

Matthew McDonagh from Meat and Livestock Australia said pasture health is paramount to efficient farming. “It’s very important to producers that they understand the grass system that they have and the pastures that they have available for their sheep and cattle,” he said.

“We’ve got extreme variability in our climate, we’ve got extreme changes in rainfall and temperature, we’ve got huge variation in the different pasture species that we use for our farm systems.”

Currently, there is no technology available to farmers to help them determine how many head of stock to graze in a paddock. Richard Johnston, who runs a mixed farming enterprise in Westwood in northern Tasmania, relies on his own observations when making those decisions. “I’ll make certain strategic times to go around and just make an eyeball opinion of what I think I’ve got,” he said.

Cressy farmer, Will Green, believes the current system is inefficient. “At the moment, yeah, we go out and do an eyeball estimation of the property to get a feed budget together to see if we can get through the spring with all our animals,” he said.

“It’s fairly time consuming – one person has to go out to keep it consistent so it takes a fair while to get round the property to get all the pastures.”

While the three-year trial is only in its early stages, Dr McDonagh said the optical sensor could be a game changer for the industry. “Producers will be able to get an objective assessment of pasture availability within their farm and they’ll be able to better manage their animals because of that,” he said.

“So they can understand how to better fatten up for reproduction or they can understand how to best grow their cattle and sheep out to meet market specifications.”

“We know that we’re losing about $50 per hectare in lost production just through under-utilisation of the pasture that is there,” he said. “That’s around $50,000 of extra production, profitability returned to the producer off a thousand hectare block.

It is hoped the technology will be rolled out on a commercial scale, when the trials are completed in 2018.

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