View from space: Satellite farming for greener pastures
Making the most of natural resources of farms is critical in today's environment, where rainfalls are becoming ever so scarce.
While in Queensland the use of animal recognition technology is being used to conserve water, on the other side of the country in Western Australia, satellite technology is providing farmers with a suite of tools to accurately estimate the amount of feed in their pastures, how quickly their pastures are growing and the pasture quality.
Jointly developed by the CSIRO and Western Australia's Department of Agriculture and Department of Land Information, the project, called Pastures from Space, uses satellite data from NASA to monitor the efficient use of feed resources in the livestock industries.
The Pastures from Space message is clear: use it or lose it.
For maximum efficiency on a farm, farmers need to use the pasture when it is at its best. This was one of the main drivers for the project, which predicts the quantity of green pasture in each paddock for a farm, or Feed on Offer (FOO), as kilos of dry matter per hectare.
According to Gonzalo Mata, who is in charge of farming systems and web development for the project, the general rule of thumb is that only about 20 to 30 per cent of pasture grown is utilised in many beef and sheep production systems. This is because a lack of information on feed resources leads to conservative management as a means of mitigating risk.
"Farmers need this information in order to match the animals' nutrient demands for growth and reproduction with the supply of feed which can be very seasonal. If this is not achieved, production is lower or costs increase through the use of supplements to achieve the balance," Mata added.
According to Mata, you can't manage what you can't measure, hence the need for allowing farmers to measure how much pasture there is on their farms. The project also predicts the rate of growth of pasture, or Pasture Growth Rate (PGR), on a weekly basis as kilos of dry matter per hectare per day.
The PGR tool uses images from a NASA satellite to create a composite greenness index. The climate data is sourced from the Bureau of Meteorology on a weekly basis and the two data sources are combined in a pasture growth model.
Pastures from Space boasts a 97 percent accuracy and it is possible farmers with a subscription (which costs $900 per year) to have sustainable pasture utilisation of more than 50 percent.
"When the farmers get their system up and running, the level of interaction that they have is only limited by their ability to ask questions of the data. New information is downloaded on a weekly basis using a software package called 'Pasture Watch' and can review the automatically generated graphs showing PGR for individual paddocks or combination of paddocks depending of what decision he is trying to make," Mata said.
"Building data over time allows the farmer to do comparisons for specific paddocks between seasons or between years, which can be a powerful tool to benchmark production and manage risk."
By going online, the farmer can also look at maps of PGR for their farm, giving them a better understanding of why some parts of a paddock or of the farm are performing better than others.
As of 2007, Pastures from Space had 80 commercial subscribers, and the numbers of people accessing the non-specific satellite measurements on the free Web site is growing.
Mata says the numbers have been growing every year by at least 10 percent, and up to late last year, nearly 10,000 unique IP addresses had visited the Web site.
"This tells us that not only are producers looking at this information but also researchers, educational institutions, state departments of agriculture and many of the commercial businesses that support and contribute to the agricultural sector in Australia and overseas."