How grazing data can help you make more green
DairyNZ scientist Callum Eastwood has been watching the grass software grow and has some tips for harvesting the benefits.
ADVICE: There's been a quiet revolution going on for agricultural software in the past few years, it's been moving from your desktop to the cloud. Gone are the days of installing a file off your floppy disk or USB. Now, if you could just remember the log-in details!
Pasture management software is a prime example, with some well-known software now available via your web browser and an annual subscription. The number of products has also been growing like ryegrass tillers, as a new breed of tech-savvy start-ups mix software programming with farming experience.
For many farmers there's good reason to take a hard look at the options, because there's plenty of profit in top pasture. A great season can add an extra $300/ha – that's more than $40,000 for the average farm.
Pocketing that extra cash will require some co-operation from the weather gods, as well as good planning, measurement and proactive decision-making with pasture deficits and surpluses.
Farmers on smaller properties who know their farm well can often do all this visually, with a few figures jotted down. But as farms get bigger, and involve more complex balancing of pasture with supplements, it takes a more focused effort to manage the pasture supply, especially when it goes from 'not enough' to 'way too much' in no time flat.
So the question then is, what's the best option for your farm business?
I'm part of a team at DairyNZ studying precision agriculture and what it might mean for the dairy industry. Much of the research is funded by the Transforming the Dairy Value Chain Primary Growth Partnership programme, a seven-year, $170 million innovation investment led by commercial partners, including DairyNZ and Fonterra, and partnered by the Ministry for Primary Industries.
We've asked farmers what they want from pasture software, and we've looked at what's on offer, and have a few tips to help make the decision easier.
A first decision to make is who needs access to the pasture data, where, and when? The beauty of web-based systems is that you can log-in from anywhere, as can your staff and farm advisors. It has also allowed the use of smartphone apps for collecting and viewing pasture information. Farm owners can also check in to see how the farm is tracking. Which of these features you'll need will depend on whether you're an owner operator, manage many staff, or run a multi-farm business.
You'll probably have already experienced a downside of web-based software – dodgy rural internet connections or mobile reception in the paddock. Check with the product provider about whether their App works 'offline' and what happens if your internet drops out when you're entering data.
Match the software product to your data habits. If you already collect pasture data, focus on software that fits well with you and the team. For example, if you use a plate meter or CDax Rapid Pasture Meter, how easy will it be to upload the data into the software? If you usually walk the paddocks, farmers told us they liked it where data could be entered straight into an App during the walk. Alternatively, back in the office, can you set up the data entry to be in the order of your normal paddock walk?
When we've looked at pasture management, the interaction with other parts of the feed base and farm system become obvious. It's important to consider whether a product can account for different feed base activities. One example we've seen is a feed wedge where you can note which paddocks are shut up for silage or crops. Farmers noted they also wanted to be able to identify irrigated versus non-irrigated paddocks, or those planned for renewal.
Think about how you make pasture management decisions now, what are the Key Performance Indicators? Farmer we talked to used KPIs such as average pasture cover, weekly pasture growth rates, or annual pasture yield per paddock. Check that the software can provide these numbers, and where you'd look to find them.
The feed wedge, a graphical display of per paddock pasture covers, is a cornerstone tool for most farmers. They're easy to understand, as many farmers and staff are visual learners. Most products will display a feed wedge, but there are some exceptional ones out there, for example incorporating predicted pasture growth per paddock for the next few weeks, showing days since last grazed or ungrazed winter pastures, and splitting into a different feed wedge for each mob.
Ryegrass pasture is a seasonal crop. First it won't grow, then it grows too fast, then you're trying to stop it going to seed, then (if you don't have irrigation) you're hoping it survives until autumn. Check if the software has flexibility to help you manage these seasonal patterns. Does it include a spring rotation planner, some form of autumn feed planner, or a way to assess the poor producing paddocks? We think the software should match how you manage, not the other way around.
There's a wide range of pasture management software out there, from simple to feature-laden. Think first about how you and your team currently operate, as this will give you an insight about the questions to ask before investing.
Pastures from the cloud
How can you make the most of pasture management software?
· Keep staff app'y: Your staff might seem to live their lives via the small screen, work with it by considering products that include App-based access.
· Quality data leads to payback: Rubbish in equals rubbish out. Focus on regular data collection to harvest the benefits of software functions.
· Funky feed wedges: A feed wedge is the go-to display of pasture data for most farmers, some products offer additional features.
· Access all areas? Many products allow different levels of access, so you can restrict the data entry (and deletion) to a core group, while others can look - but not touch.
· Dr Callum Eastwood is a scientist in the Advanced Management Technologies team at DairyNZ. He has spent 15 years examining farmer use of new technologies.