If you are reading this article, chances are that you already know how measuring your pasture growth automatically using satellite-based technology can help you earn better profits. Congrats! You are already ahead of the game.

But, its 2020. Should you go back to using an app such as Pastures from Space? Or do you have better options now? Read on as we dive deep into the details and help you understand your options.

Firstly, Kudos to the scientists at CSIRO, Western Australia, as Pastures from Space (PfS) was one of the first satellite-based applications that helped measure pasture growth automatically. It was ahead of its times when it started over 4 years ago in 2016. It identified and solved the right problem.

But it also had some key limitations. Eventually, these limitations led the team to shut down the program for a couple of years. Now with improvements, the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) plans to re-release it in 2020.

Costs

Unlike RPMs, C-Dax meters and Motes – satellite-based pasture growth applications have zero associated labour, upfront infrastructure or ongoing maintenance costs. So you only pay for their service. This is a huge advantage.

Pastures from Space service earlier had a farm size-based price, ranging from AUD 400 for up to 500 ha to 2,000 for up to 15,000 ha. It also offered users an option to pay less for lower-resolution images. The PfS team is yet to reveal their revised plans.

Today, other satellite-based pasture growth measurement apps such as Pasture.io offer a premium plan at $1,099 plus $8/ha per year, and an enterprise plan at $4,099 plus $11/ha per year. In addition to this, they also offer their basic pasture management software for free, as long as you need.

Compared to the cost of using farm labour, buying infrastructure and maintaining equipment associated with other pasture growth measuring methods – these apps prove to be 5 to 10 times more cost-effective. So with costs put of the way, the more pertinent question to ask is ‘Which app can help solve my problem, better’?

Solving the right problem

Early on, the Pastures from Space team used satellites to help farmers track two parameters – 1) Pasture growth rate (PGR) and Food on offer (FOO). PGR helped farmers understand how well their pasture is growing and in turn, helped them plan better. FOO helped farmers know how much fodder is available for grazing today. It helped farmers track these two parameters automatically, without needing any additional labour or effort. This focused and simple approach worked, at least for a while. Because it solved the right problem in 2016, at a time when reliable farm labour was starting to get scarce and expensive.

Coming from a farming family, we know how important this is to a busy farmer like you. We also understand that you do not care about technology unless it helps you solve your problem. This understanding drives everything at Pasture.io. This is why we built our service to help you make effective grazing decisions on a daily basis. In addition to the high-resolution satellite images, we also take into account important factors such as your herd size, your local weather, when a paddock was last grazed, and when a paddock was last fertilized. The end result is not about satellite technology or our complex artificial intelligence algorithms, it is about helping you identify the best paddock to graze next.

Pastures from Space also came really close to doing this but did not go all the way. They helped you determine how fast your pasture was growing and showed you data on how much fodder was available as pasture. But, they did not use high-resolution satellite images or take into account data from your farm to help you decide which paddock needs to be grazed next. This was not because they didn’t understand the value of this. It was because they were not using the right technology that could offer this level of service.

Limitations of MODIS

Pastures from Space used (and plan on continuing to using) the MODIS satellite. MODIS has been orbiting earth since 1999 and is primarily used to track changes over landscapes across time. More specifically, it is used globally to measure deforestation rates, vegetative growth and wildfire spread. Data from the MODIS is free to use, but free comes with its own limitations. In this case, it comes with low spatial resolution. At best it can only capture landscapes at a resolution of 250 m by 250 m. Because, of this limitation, Pastures from Space can only offer data, for every 6.25 ha block of land in your farm, that is if you are in Western Australia. The data can be of lower quality if you are located in other parts of Australia or New Zealand. So in effect, at best you get only one data point for every 6.25 ha block of land. Sure, this level of detail can help you get an overview of your farm, but it cannot help you differentiate between paddocks nor can it inform you about which paddock to graze next.

Limitations of NDVI

In addition to this, Pastures from Space uses NDVI (Normalized difference vegetation index) to calculate how much vegetative cover is available over each 6.25 ha block of land. There are several well-documented limitations of using NDVI alone to calculate pasture growth. To begin with, NDVI can accurately measure pasture growth only when it is below 2,000 Kg DM/ ha. The values are not so accurate above this threshold. However, your herd will get enough nutrition only when it grazes in a paddock that has more than 2,500 Kg DM/ ha. So in effect, NDVI alone cannot tell you if you have enough pasture or not.

Also, different pasture species, even when at the same height, will give different NDVI values. This means it is impossible for NDVI to calculate available dry matter fodder, without averaging out the values based on the reference NDVI of a standard pasture species such as clover-grass. However, as a farmer, you know that pasture species vary from region to region, based on micro-climates and soil fertility. So in effect, the assumptions made may not match reality, and therefore give you less accurate data. To their credit, the Pastures from Space team openly talk about these limitations and acknowledge that their data has a standard mean error of ± 300 Kg DM/ ha. While this is great theoretically, as a farmer, this could be the difference between your herd getting enough nutrition to thrive or merely enough to survive. It could also mean the difference between earning better profits or not.

The Pasture.io Difference

Nutrition and profits are far too important to be left to chance. This is why at Pasture.io, we tackle these limitations with a two-pronged approach. First, we use high-resolution satellite images of your farm, for every 0.012 ha block of land. These satellite images are 500 times more accurate than images by Pastures from Space. We pay a satellite to get these high-resolution satellite images. And unlike Pastures from Space, the service is not limited to Western Australia. It is offered globally.

Next, we pro-actively store records such as your farm’s grazing, irrigation, fertilizing and seed sowing schedules. This helps us understand how your farm is unique and different. Our team and algorithms then work hard behind the scenes to make sense of this data and make the necessary adjustments to give you accurate pasture growth measurements.

This two-pronged approach makes a huge difference. A few independent tests we ran showed that we have an error difference of only ± 20 Kg DM/ ha compared to real on-site measurements. This means Pasture.io is 25 times better at adjusting errors compared to Pastures from Space. In other words, 25 times better at helping you earn better profits.

But more importantly, Pasture.io offers data with reasonable confidence until 3,500 Kg DM/ ha. This means that farmers can use Pasture.io to not only make effective grazing decisions but can also plan to store surplus as hay, haylage or silage. This is truly a game-changer. And enough reason for you to consider using Pasture.io instead of Pastures from Space. Especially, considering that it is not 2016 anymore. It is 2020, an entirely new decade, changing times and better solutions on offer.

About Pasture.io

At Pasture.io, we are building a product that puts your pasture cover and growth measurements on autopilot. Thus allowing you to make accurate grazing decisions, improve farm productivity, and earn better profits. Some of our farmers have received up to a 40x return on their investment by using our service.

Please check out our free and paid plans. It might change your life and your pasture for the better.

Happy farming!

- Ollie Roberts, 01 January 2020