Pasture reader monitors grass growth

The technology is able to measure the height of grass while it is being cut and also determine expected yields

A Dutch dairy farmer whose cows recently learned to graze again after 10 years of living indoors is using a novel method to measure grass yields to ensure he uses fertilizer only where required.

Piet Jan Thibaudier discovered the pasture reader technology in Australia and adapted it to fit onto a mower that sits on the front of the tractor.

The technology is able to measure the height of the grass when cutting, as well as the yield. With this information, Thibaudier can draw up a field map that highlights the areas that most require fertilizer, preventing overuse and saving money.

Thibaudier milks 185 cross-bred cows on 250 acres near Lemmer, in partnership with his father and mother.

The herd averages 8,700 kilograms of milk output per cow per year at 4.5 percent butterfat and 3.65 percent protein, but the goal is to increase this average to 10,000 kg with five percent butterfat and four percent protein.

Years ago, when Piet’s father ran the farm, the cows were switched from a pasture-based system to being kept indoors and being fed every day.

However, as markets progressed, Friesland Campina was paying 34 euro cents per litre for the milk plus a bonus of 1.5 euro cents per litre for milk produced from grazing cows.

When an earlier opportunity also arose for Thibaudier to take over a neighbouring herd of 45 cows and a further 60 acres of land, he jumped at the chance, albeit with the understanding that changes to his feeding system were essential.

“A neighbour was quitting dairying and asked me if I wanted to take on his herd and land,” said Piet. “I wanted to expand at that time and was able to take over.

“That brought my cow numbers up to over 180 and I was running a 20 percent replacement rate for followers. With the bonus Friesland Campina was offering for milk from cows grazed at grass, I decided to let the cows out.

“However, my cows had not been out to the fields in 10 years and had never learned how to graze. It was truly remarkable to see the 45 cows from the neighbour’s herd educate my cows on how to eat grass in a field again,” he said.

“Our cows are milked twice per day and graze six hours per day. I want to increase that to 12 hours per day with 150 days grazing in the season,” said Piet.

As a result of allowing the herd to graze outdoors, Piet’s fodder costs fell by two euro cents per litre but he knew the farm required a better grassland management plan.

With this in mind, and with his passion for innovation, Thibaudier discovered the pasture reader in Australia.

He adopted the technology from Australia to suit his own farming system by mounting the sensors and readers onto his mower mounted on the front of his tractor.

“Before the grass is cut the sensors measure the height and yield of the sward as the mower passes over it. This information tells me the weakest parts of the pasture and which areas I need to fertilize the most. We also have information on PH and humidity,” he added.

The reader scans every three centimetres to gain accurate results.

Thibaudier has since become a distributor for the pasture reader in the Netherlands, which retails for about 5,000 euros, or C$7,600.

“I already have five customers,” said Piet, “who are all using the system to monitor their own grass yields and quality.”

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