Pasture reader monitors grass growth

By: Chris McCullough, Photography by: Chris McCullough

A Dutch dairy farmer is using a novel method to measure his grass yields and ensure he only uses fertiliser where required

Piet Jan Thibaudier, 31, discovered the pasture reader technology in Australia and adapted it to fit onto a mower that sits on the front of the tractor.

Piet Jan Thibaudier on his farm

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

The herd

Piet uses crossbred animals in his dairy herd

Piet milks 185 crossbred cows on 100 hectares near Lemmer, Holland in partnership with his parents Luut and Coby. The herd averages 8700kg per cow per year at 4.5% butterfat and 3.65% protein. The goal is to increase this average to 10,000kg 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 fed daily on a zero grazing ration.

However, as markets progressed, Friesland Campina was paying 34 euro cents (NZD$0.58) per litre for the milk, plus a bonus of 1.5 euro cents (NZD$2.71) per litre for milk produced from grazing cows. When an opportunity arose for Piet to take over a neighbouring herd of 45 cows and a further 25 hectares of land, he jumped at the chance, albeit with the understanding that changes to his feeding system was essential.

Cows have to learn to graze again on Piet’s farm

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

"That brought my cow numbers up to more than 180, and I was running a 20% 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.

"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."

As a result of allowing the herd to graze outdoors, Piet’s fodder costs fell by two euro cents (NZD$3.43) per litre but he knew the farm required a better grassland management plan.

Pasture management

Piet uses the sensor technology on his front mower

With this in mind, and with his passion for innovation, Piet surfed the web for technology that could help monitor his grass growth and discovered the pasture reader in Australia. Piet adopted the technology from Australia with Arjan Hulsman 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," he says. "This information tells me the weakest parts of the pasture and which areas I need to fertilise the most. We also have information on PH and humidity."

The original technology was developed in Australia

The reader scans every three centimetres to gain accurate results in the grass crop. Piet strives to achieve 2000 and 2500kg of dry matter per hectare. Thanks to the success of the system, Piet became a distributor for the technology in the Netherlands and already has some sales success for the pasture reader, which retails for around €5000 (NZD$8583).

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

Finding the pasture reader on the web is the latest success for Piet, who also found his rotary milking parlour online in Denmark.

Money is saved on fertiliser by following a field map produced by the technology

"When I was building my new cow barn, I decided to look for a second-hand parlour on the internet. As luck would have it, I found a 26 unit rotary machine that was being taken out of a farm in Denmark.

"It was only two years old but was being replaced by robots. In the end, I got it for scrap price of €13,000 (NZD$22,315). I had to replace all the rubber clusters and lines but everything else was relatively new.

"We milk at 4am and 4pm each day and move the cows to a fresh plot of grass each day," he says.

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