Managing cows from space

One of the world’s leading dairy companies, Fonterra, is considering using satellite-based imaging technology developed by CSIRO Livestock Industries and partners to improve management of its dairy herd in New Zealand.

One of the world’s leading dairy companies, Fonterra, is considering using satellite-based imaging technology developed by CSIRO Livestock Industries and partners to improve management of its massive dairy herd in New Zealand.

The company is currently researching the commercial feasibility of the ‘Pastures from Space’ system which uses satellites orbiting 700 kilometres above Earth to estimate the amount of feed available in pastures.

CSIRO program leader, Dr. Rob Kelly, says one of the research team’s major considerations will be to determine whether the system’s proven usefulness in Australia can be repeated in New Zealand.

The system’s ability to measure pasture biomass levels accurately was substantially improved recently with the deployment of NASA’s MODIS sensor in its Aqua and Terra satellites.

‘Our ability to access that sensor means that much of the ‘noise’ contained in previous satellite pictures such as clouds, bushes and lakes, can now be removed for a more accurate picture of how much feed is in pastures,’ Dr. Kelly says.

The technology can provide information on pasture biomass at the paddock level for any area over six hectare and has proved to be a success in Australia where its degree of accuracy has been estimated at up to 97% compared to on-ground measurements.

Dr. Kelly says more precise estimations of feed enable farmers to better manage activities like fertiliser application, grazing rotations and feed budgeting.

‘All grazing industries are faced with a lack of time and skilled labour to accurately make their pasture assessments,’ he says. ‘Pastures are still the cheapest feed for these industries and we need to maximise the efficiency with which pasture is turned into milk, meat and wool.’

The research will be conducted on dairy pastures in the Waikato region of New Zealand over several years.

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