Teagasc: Making money by watching the grass grow
Ireland’s multibillion euro meat and dairy industry is directly dependent on grasslands for production
With Irish livestock and dairy production mainly pasture-based, achieving greater efficiency in grass production will be critical to achieving Food Harvest 2020 targets
If there are two things Ireland has no shortage of, they are grass and rain. It is not for nothing that the country is known throughout the world as the Emerald Isle but sadly this clean, green image is inextricably bound to our fairly damp weather.
And those who would swap a few extra days of sunshine for a little less grass should pause for a moment to consider the impact this could have on the national economy both now and in the future.
Exports of Irish food and drink are worth more than €9 billion each year with roughly two thirds of this made up of meat, dairy and other products, which are directly dependent on our grasslands for their production.
And the sector is set to increase in importance in the coming years with the government’s Food Harvest 2020 plan setting a range of ambitious targets including a 50 per cent increase in milk production along with an increase in the output value of beef by 40 per cent and sheep by 20per cent by 2020. And with Irish livestock and dairy production mainly pasture-based, achieving greater efficiency in grass production will be critical to achieving these targets.
“We have a natural advantage in terms of cost and environmental efficiency in terms of our grass-based production and we see increased grass production as one of the main drivers towards achieving the Food Harvest targets,” says Teagasc research scientist Laurence Shalloo. “This will require the development of new grassland technologies which can lead to greater efficiency in grass utilisation and we have created a new decision support software tool, Pasture Base Ireland (PBI), to assist in the development of those technologies.”
Teagasc Walsh research fellow Vincent Griffith explains the need for the PBI. “The reason we developed it is because there is a lot of data on grass growth being produced on farms but not being used for industry gain. There is no central database for it and the goal of Pasture Base Ireland is to collate all of this information together.”
Farmers using the system use web-based software to store grassland measurements for different areas of their farms. This will allow the quantification of grass growth across different farms, grassland management systems, regions and soil types using a common measurement protocol and methodology.
Grass measurements are recorded on a regular basis and reports are automatically generated for management purposes. The reports are developed in a format that allows individual farms to be benchmarked with other farmers. The background data such as paddock soil fertility, aspect, altitude, reseeding history, soil type, drainage characteristics and fertiliser applications are also recorded.
And weather is also included of course. All farms on PBI are attached to their nearest Met Éireann weather station to allow the linkage between meteorological conditions and grass growth to be established.
The main aim is to build up a database over time which will give farmers the information they need to tackle underperforming areas of their farms. “The way it works is that farmers will examine grass growth in each paddock on their farms each week and record information on growth and whatever measures they have used to address poor growth. Over time this will build into a database of the key factors driving grass growth which the farmers will be able to use in future,” says Shalloo.