MU Extension receives USDA tech grant for pastures
University of Missouri Extension has received a $444,000 grant to create a mobile application to help farmers manage forage better.
The Conservation Innovation Grant from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services is one of 33 nationwide. It provides seed money to implement new ideas and techniques for conservation on private lands, says NRCS state conservationist J.R. Flores.
MU Extension specialist Stacey Hamilton said the goal of the three-year grant is to help farmers make better decisions about forage using affordable technology.
Hamilton says MU is a national leader in measuring the height and mass of forage in pastures using sonar technology on an all-terrain vehicle. An onboard computer collects and sends the sensor data to the MU Grazing Wedge website, (grazingwedge.missouri.edu), an online tool that translates the data into estimates of the amount of forage in pastures.
“The Grazing Wedge website helped forage managers for years, but required a lot of time walking across pastures to take measurements and then manually enter the data on the website every week. We needed to improve that aspect,” said Ryan Lock, one of the researchers on the project. “The innovation resides in linking the sensor, the smartphone and the website through the mobile app. This technology enhances labor efficiency and provides better opportunity to manage grazing systems and natural resources.”
“Basically, the Grazing Wedge is a weekly inventory of your farm,” Hamilton says. “Instead of knowing how many bales of hay you have stored in the barn, and then subtracting bales as they are used, or adding bales, the Grazing Wedge figures how much forage you have available in pastures for feed or harvest.”
Over time, the tool helps producers calculate growth rates and cumulative forage production for grazing systems.
Hamilton said the system gives accurate data, but the cost of a military-grade computer, needed to withstand rugged travel across pastures on all-terrain vehicles, was out of reach for many.
To replace the costly computer, MU Extension will develop a smartphone app called PaddockTrac. “It seems everyone owns a smartphone these days and they can be utilized in this situation,” says MU Extension nutrient management specialist John Lory.
“The process is very similar to technology in the health arena where people wear wrist bracelets that collect data on heart rate and steps that are uploaded to a health tracking website,” Lory says.
The new PaddockTrac system will have three key components:
First, pastures on a farm are mapped using an MU website and saved to a secure account. During the pilot phase, producers will work with an MU Extension associate to map their farms.
Second, using sonar technology on an ATV, farmers measure the height of forage in their pastures. Sensor data travels over a wireless Bluetooth connection to the farmer’s mobile device, where it is stored until a wireless internet connection is available. Then the PaddockTrac app uploads the sensor data to the MU Grazing Wedge website.
Finally, the Grazing Wedge website will parse the data to fields. “Before you can get back to your computer at home, the Grazing Wedge will have a report on how much grass you have in each paddock,” Hamilton says.
This information allows farmers to decide where cattle should graze first and if there is extra forage to harvest as hay or silage.
The MU project leadership team includes the state dairy extension specialist Stacey Hamilton, state nutrient management specialist John Lory, research specialists Ryan Lock and Danny England, and MU Extension assistant dean of agriculture Robert Kallenbach.
MU Extension plans to recruit farmers starting in 2018 to pilot test the system.
Source: Stacey Hamilton, 417-466-2148; John Lory, 573-884-7815; Ryan Lock, 573-228-2801