October 27, 2022 at 4:36 p.m.

New technology for management of grazing

Pasture walk event demonstrates PaddockTrac
Producers gather to discuss grazing management during a pasture walk Sept. 22 on Walter Organic Family Farms near Villard, Minnesota. The Walter family has been piloting PaddockTrac, which measures forage growth.  PHOTO BY GRACE JEURISSEN
Producers gather to discuss grazing management during a pasture walk Sept. 22 on Walter Organic Family Farms near Villard, Minnesota. The Walter family has been piloting PaddockTrac, which measures forage growth. PHOTO BY GRACE JEURISSEN

By Jan Lefebvre- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

VILLARD, Minn. – Walter Organic Family Farms was the site of a pasture walk event Sept. 22 to demonstrate technology developed by the University of Missouri called PaddockTrac, which measures, tracks and records data on forage growth to help with grazing management.
Angie and Nate Walter, along with eight other dairy farmers across the country, are testing PaddockTrac before it becomes available on the market.
The Walters milk 100 organic crossbreds and rotationally graze the herd on 160 acres. The pasture walk was held on a field of alfalfa, red clover, rye grass, fescue and other grasses.
The event was hosted by the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship and Pope County Soil and Water Conservation District.
The Walters, along with Melissa Behrens of Pope County SWCD and Adam Gillins, an apprentice at the Walters’ farm through DGA, were presenters.
Gillins showed how PaddockTrac is mounted onto the front of a four-wheeler and plugged into the cigarette lighter. As the user drives around the pasture, PaddockTrac uses sonar waves to take up to 50 photos per second, which are compiled in readings to measure forage heights. Each reading consists of 300 images. The PaddockTrac app then analyzes the readings and sends that data via Bluetooth to the user’s phone.
“I think it’s taking a bit of that data-driven decision making and applying it to grazing,” Gillins said. “It’ll help give us an idea as to where we should be grazing next.”
Before measuring a grazing field, the user enters locations and dimensions for each pasture using Google Maps and also inputs what is growing on each one. To establish a base height for pasture readings, the user drives on a road or gravel driveway and takes three readings. Once a base height is set, PaddockTrac is ready to use in the pasture.
Since the readings are more accurate if the user drives in a zig zag pattern at a steady rate of speed, it is best to have the phone mounted on the four-wheeler to allow for full focus on driving. Since PaddockTrac records images that show where pastures are sparse or dense, it takes that into consideration before determining if the pasture should be grazed or not at the time of a reading. PaddockTrac also allows the user to set goals for pastures and gives analysis as to how well those goals are being met.
Currently, PaddockTrac is only set up as a grazing tool for measuring forages.
“It’s designed right now for grazing dairies,” Angie Walter said. “It doesn’t do crops, just grass.”
It also does not yet offer a lot of choices as to types and combinations of forages to input before using, which affects its accuracy.
“The types of forages that it has on file and the feed value of those forages right now is limited,” Gillins said.
Gillins said some of the Walters’ paddocks have more forages in them than could be entered into the app, which affected accuracy of results. However, the app is only in development, so input options and adjustments will be added as test results and feedback becomes available.
“We’re giving (the University of Missouri) feedback so that they can improve it for when the general population would purchase it,” Walter said.
 Dr. Stacey Hamilton, University of Missouri dairy specialist, is one of the leads on the pasture technology team.  
“Our goal is to make a system that enables producers to make proactive decisions regarding their pasture management, which ultimately leads to success financially and environmentally,” Hamilton said. “We are pleased so far. There have been a few hiccups, but that is expected in rolling out new technology. The team, based on feedback, is constantly striving to improve the entire system.”
The Walters are using PaddockTrac on all their grazed fields about every seven to 10 days. They test all the fields on the same day so the comparisons are more accurate. According to Gillins, once PaddockTrac is set up, getting the readings takes very little time and effort.
“The app is really easy to use,” Gillins said. “As far as the actual doing of the measurements, it’s very simple.”
Since PaddockTrac is in testing mode, the Walters and other farmers using the technology also analyze their forage heights using more time-consuming but traditional methods such as grazing sticks or plate meters to check PaddockTrac’s results for accuracy. The hope is that a year from now collected data will allow for improvements to get the technology ready for marketing.
With many dairy farmers experimenting with more grazing and stretching the grazing season, PaddockTrac is one more tool that might soon help farmers apply data and save time in making their grazing decisions.


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