How livestock producers in NI are making better use of grass

A collaboration between researchers, farmers and industry in Northern Ireland is helping livestock producers make better use of grass.

Established in 1999, the GrassCheck project is operated by Northern Ireland’s levy body, AgriSearch, and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI).

It is supported by the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (Ciel), the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

It aims to provide up-to-date grass information to assist farmers with grassland management decisions and improve utilisation across the region.

See also: Promising weight gains made from grass in dairy beef study

This year the project progressed from monitoring grass growth on small-scale trial plots to include 12 dairy farmers, 15 beef farmers and five sheep farmers, who measure grass growth weekly and take fortnightly grass samples.

What the information is used for

Scientific-grade weather stations have been placed on each of the farms. They send reports every 30 minutes to a central database, which all farmers can access.

This helps livestock producers understand what the weather is doing on a localised level and how this can influence grass growth in their area.

Lyndsay Chapman, CEO of Ciel, says such technology is vital in helping farmers make informed decisions.

“Ciel has secured funding for scientific-grade weather stations on each of the farms. For the farmers involved in GrassCheck, this technology provides real data to help them understand what the weather and soil temperatures are doing on their farms.

“Importantly, however, sharing the data through easily accessible technology also helps other farmers in their area to make decisions about when to apply fertiliser, cut grass and ultimately make more from forage.

“This is a great example of how collaborating on the use of innovative technology can benefit farmers and food producers.”

AFBI dairy researcher Deborah McConnell says having localised weather information is proving invaluable for the participating farms. 

“In Northern Ireland, we have 307 different soil types and a range of micro climates and in May we saw a 1.5t difference in grass in the east of the province compared with the west, because the east was so dry.

“[GrassCheck provides] localised data on grass growth, rainfall, soil moisture levels and temperature. Livestock farmers can use this information to help with decision-making on farm.”

This year, it has been particularly useful for NI livestock farmers, given the wet August and September.

“Farmers in the west of the province, who were most affected by the heavy rain, were able to identify local soil moisture conditions and make data-based decisions about housing livestock early,” Dr McConnell says.

She adds that the information collected is also useful when informing policy-makers about conditions on the ground. “If farmers are in trouble because of forage shortages and need to apply for weather aid support payments, we have the evidence to put forward to our policy-makers to support our claims,” she explains.

How it’s helping farmers

GrassCheck is also helping the participating farmers to increase performance.

Dr McConnell says one farmer was able to pinpoint a 5t difference in grass production between two neighbouring fields. As a result, he decided to reseed one of the fields.

“There are financial benefits from making more from grass. For every 1t extra grass produced on a dairy farm, that’s the equivalent of £334 in the farmer’s pocket – or £204 on a beef farm,” she says.

Case study: Hugh Harbison, Coleraine

Hugh Harbison

Dairy farmer Hugh Harbison has increased his milk from forage by 500 litres per cow since being involved in the project.

“We are now achieving an annual average of about 3,300 litres from forage out of 7,200 litres in our 160 cows.”

He says he has learned a lot from his peers through the collaboration.

“The GrassCheck farmers have set up a WhatsApp group and we bounce ideas off each other and also put forward our opinions on different things. It’s really useful,” he says.

Mr Harbison, who milks his herd of 160 British Friesians across 250 acres in Aghadowey, Coleraine, says weekly monitoring of grass has changed his grazing rotation.

“We were measuring grass using a plate meter before getting involved in GrassCheck. However, we weren’t doing it routinely. By measuring grass every week and taking grass quality samples every two weeks, we have been able to see how quickly grass can change – and in 10 days you can go from 20kg DM to 120kg DM,” he says.

As a result, this year Mr Harbison has shortened his grazing rotation throughout the spring and summer to 18 days.

“It means cows are now going in and coming out of paddocks at the correct grazing covers, which is allowing us to get more milk from grass,” he adds.

About Ciel

Ciel is one of the four Agri-Tech Centres established as key pillars of the government’s Agri-Tech Strategy. They are funded through Innovate UK, the UK’s strategic innovation agency, and are a partnership between industry and academia.

Ciel works with 12 of the UK’s leading livestock research institutions and a group of industry members spanning the food supply chain.

Ciel aims to use these collaborative partnerships to enhance and accelerate innovation, as well as inspire and identify opportunities that could lead to the development of new products, services and techniques.