PASTORAL – improving pasture management
Lucy Gatward talks to Dr Iain Cameron, lead consultant from Environment Systems
How data can help farmers make smart decisions about grazing management
Ask a beef, sheep or dairy farmer the best way to monitor how their pastures are doing, and they’ll likely say the same thing: I walk it and I use my eyes. And they’re right. Nothing matches the experience of observing and assessing what you see whilst standing in the field.
Using technology to reaffirm what you see can give you confidence to adapt and tweak plans, monitor change and most importantly, plan. As our weather becomes less predictable and more extreme, the sense in this becomes clear.
This is the starting point for a recent Innovative Farmers project, PASTORAL, the first phase of which drew to a close in September 2023.
Pasture Optimisation for Resilience and Livelihoods
PASTORAL is a partnership between agricultural data consultants Environment Systems, the University of Edinburgh and Innovative Farmers, combining satellite imagery, a model developed to monitor carbon flow, and in-field plate metering. The layering of these information points leads to the ability to predict grass growth, monitor biomass and produce carbon budgets.
Predicting the impact of weather for precision pasture management
Lead consultant from Environment Systems, Dr Iain Cameron says, “Bringing our satellite data together with Edinburgh University’s grass growth model gives another perspective, not only on how your paddock is doing, but also on how it will respond to different local weather conditions. This partnership explores the ultimate goal – running simulations that can predict the impact of different weather and environmental scenarios such as drought, or sustained downpours. In addition, farmers can see where the carbon is in their systems – how much is locked up and how much is being released”.
Key learnings so far
“This is the end of the first live phase of the project” continues Iain. “We’ve learned that the satellite technology, at this early stage, has its limitations. One of the things with pasture is the frequency with which it changes. We’ve learned that running the model on weekly basis can miss detail. This is why the on-the-ground plate metering information has been so important in building a fuller picture, and has allowed us to see where improvements need to be made”.
Potential uses for satellite data and simulation modelling biomass and carbon
This kind of model has potential to be used to monitor biomass, as well as the balance of carbon in and out of the atmosphere. “Understanding carbon flux over time gives farmers a better idea of what their system is doing”, says Iain. “Much of what drives this is temperature, so we should be concerned at locking up carbon in a warming climate. Is it possible? We need to understand better how it works. In a heatwave no amount of good husbandry will lock up carbon, but it will be possible to make improvements”.
A more complete picture
Another key advantages of using satellite imagery is that it provides a snapshot across a whole field, filling in the gaps of plate metering. “Taking weather into consideration as well mean you can see how you may change plans in the future”.
Find out more:
To find out more about PASTORAL, see envsys.co.uk/pastoral/
To find out more about the Innovative Farmers PASTORAL field lab, see innovativefarmers.org