Project code: D-34-07

Project title: GrassCheck - Monitoring of grass and clover growth and sward quality across Northern Ireland
Project team: A. Dale, S.Mayne (AFBI, Hillsborough), D. Mackey, M Mulholland, I McCluggage (CAFRE, Greenmount Campus), S. Laidlaw (AFBI, Crossnacreevy)
Duration:   3 years commencing March 2007

Background to proposal:    
GrassCheck has proven over two previous programmes (1999-2002; 2004-2006), to be a user friendly and helpful guide in monitoring grass growth and adding confidence to grassland management decisions. The format was redeveloped prior to the second programme, with the successful inclusion of grass growth predictions up to two weeks ahead, the monitoring of growth on-farm and reduced fertiliser N input sites. A recent farmer questionnaire carried out at the Winter Fair (December 2006), also identified positive feedback on the information collected and presented weekly within the farming press. The previous achievements of the GrassCheck format included a key role in supporting the ‘Weather Aid’ application for 2002, worth £1.42 million to dairy farmers in Northern Ireland. Despite these obvious successes, the current format does require alteration if it is to remain appropriate to meet the ever changing demands of a rapidly evolving dairy industry. This is very apparent whenever inputs are considered within a dairy farm context, particularly the levels of purchased Nitrogen (N) fertiliser. There is a very clear downward trend in the levels of N fertiliser being purchased by dairy farmers, with a 30% reduction in fertiliser N purchases in Northern Ireland from 1995 to 2005. Furthermore, the role of clover is becoming increasingly important. There is also the considerable geographic variability in grass production across Northern Ireland, and this has been addressed within GrassCheck in recent years. There is also increased opportunity now to utilise the internet as a medium for delivering additional regional specific advice relating to current grass growing and grazing conditions. The potential re-launch of this project offers an opportunity to integrate a number of these factors into a new proposal.

Proposed programme:
This new project will include a number of modifications from the previous studies. The whole package will be completely revamped with new features of the project including:-

  1. Graph – this project will retain the graph of grass growth and prediction against a seasonal average line. However, the sites contributing to the graph will be limited to Greenmount and Hillsborough, with the levels of fertiliser N being reduced from previous levels. The grass growth graph will be based on swards receiving 289kgN/ha (previously 360kgN/ha), as this relates directly to the upper limit within the Nitrates Directive. This level will be reduced to 281 and then 272 kgN/ha for the 2008 and 2009 growing seasons, in line with legislation guidelines. The average production line will be based on two years (2005 and 2006) data collected across 3 sites using the 250kgN/ha fertiliser level.
  2. Clover data monitoring – The monitoring of clover growth is highly erratic, and although clover plots will be monitored within this project, the data from them will not be published within the bulletin. The clover plots will be located at Crossnacreevy and Greenmount, with an area also prepared (clover stitched in) during 2007at Hillsborough in readiness for monitoring in 2008. Clover plots may also be sited across the individual farms, provided clover swards are present. The clover plots will receive 95kgN/ha, with this applied in early season.
  3. Table containing grass growth prediction and grass quality – the new bulletin will retain the presentation of grass sward quality and growth prediction in a table format.
  4. Minor comments within bulletin – the new bulletin will retain a few brief management style comments (supplied by AFBI/CAFRE staff), but every effort will be made to keep these as minor a component of the bulletin as possible
  5. On-farm sites – the inclusion of on-farm sites within this new project is important to obtain more accurate assessment of geographical variation in grass growth across Northern Ireland. The on-farm sites will be harvested on a weekly basis throughout the year, and the sites will be located in the west (Fintona), in the east (Portaferry), in the north (Coleraine) and in the south (Loughgall). These data will not be included within the growth graph as the new bulletin will include a map graphic that will allow for a more detailed segregation of Northern Ireland into five or six broad regions. This will therefore allow producers to pinpoint the growth that is most applicable to their farm, and give a more confident indication of current growing conditions.
  6. Greater use of internet – the use of the internet as an outlet for this project will be very important. The weekly bulletin will be sent directly to anyone who provides an email address, but through the rural portal there is the opportunity to create a more interactive aspect to the project, something that is impossible within the confides of a printed farming press bulletin. The rural portal site has contained the bulletins in the past, but these were a direct replication of the detail printed in the paper. It is planned that within this new project, given the limited space for comments within the press, a more detailed breakdown of management issues can be given through the internet. The map will bring an aspect of regional diversity to the bulletin, and regional dairy advisors will detail the growing and grazing conditions in their area through the website. Therefore, a producer visiting the site will be able to select his area from the map and will gain access to information and advice relevant to his situation i.e. a farmer in the east may need advice on buffer feeding through a dry spell whereas the farmer in the west may need to be advised to remove paddocks due to good growing conditions.

Benefits to industry etc
The dynamic changes unfolding within dairy farming at present are impacting heavily on farm profitability, and farmers that are deciding to remain in the industry require the tools to farm profitably. GrassCheck, through the identification of herbage growth and quality, will assist in building confidence in grassland management at reduced levels of N inputs and also with increasing clover inclusion at a more regional level. The assessment of grass quality is also beneficial to the feed industry, so that grazing rations can be altered in response to shifts in grass compositional quality.

Milestones with proposed dates:
March 2007:   Commence study
March 2008: Completion of year 1
March 2009: Completion of year 2
March 2010:  Completion of project

Outputs with timescales: 
March 2008: 1st progress report
March 2009: 2nd progress report
March 2010: Final report

The weekly bulletins will be published in the local press, with interim trends/findings also presented to visiting groups at Hillsborough and at farmers meetings. The internet (via rural portal) will also be a substantial outlet for information from this project, with information also being emailed weekly to an active user group of producers, advisors and industry representatives.

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