Project title: GrassCheck 4 – Improving grass utilisation under grazing by monitoring grass growth and through the development of a grass growth prediction model

Project team: A. Dale and C. Ferris (AFBI, Hillsborough), S. Laidlaw (AFBI, Crossnacreevy), I. McCluggage, M. Mulholland and D. Mackey (CAFRE, Greenmount Campus)

Duration:  21 months (April 2011 - December 2012)

Background to proposal:                                  

During the last 10 years (1999-2002; 2004-2006; 2007-2009) GrassCheck has provided livestock farmers in Northern Ireland with grass growth and quality information.  During this time GrassCheck has continued to develop. For example, the addition of the growth prediction element in 2004 provided farmers with an estimate of growth for up to two weeks ahead, while the geographical applicability of GrassCheck was greatly enhanced by the inclusion of measurements across a range of farm sites in 2007. 

In addition, to assist farmers to interpret and use grass growth data, the management comments section was strengthened in 2007 to provide additional information on grazing management targets and advice on managing predicted surpluses/deficits. To assist further, the ‘GrassCheck at Greenmount’ section was piloted from April until June 2009. This section was prepared by CAFRE staff, and provided information on the performance and grazing management of the dairy and beef herds at Greenmount.


To assess the effectiveness of GrassCheck, CAFRE undertook a short questionnaire with 126 farmers during their spring/summer farm walks in 2009.  The results indicated that 69% of farmers questioned read the GrassCheck bulletin weekly or fortnightly, and that its usefulness was rated as excellent or very good by 41% of the responses.  In addition, formal and informal farmer feedback given to CAFRE staff and regional dairy development advisors indicated that the ‘GrassCheck at Greenmount’ section was both popular and useful.


Recent milk price fluctuations, and the expectation of similar fluctuations in the future, have resulted in a renewed interest in grazing by many Northern Ireland farmers.  However, many farmers appear to have lost their confidence in managing grassland, and in the ability of grazed grass to make a significant contribution to milk output, especially with higher yielding cows. The re-launch of the GrassCheck project offers an opportunity to provide dairy farmers with key information on grass growth and quality, together with timely management advice on how to deal with the challenges faced during a typical grazing season.


Proposed programme:

The proposed new programme contains two main elements:


  1. Development of an improved grass growth prediction model: 

The new project will seek to improve the existing grass growth model, and in particular the regional accuracy of this model. These improvements, and subsequent validation of the model, will be undertaken over two grazing seasons (2011 and 2012).  This will involve collecting basic meteorological data from each of the grass growth monitoring sites, and linking this to actual grass growth data at each site.


  1. Production of weekly bulletins on actual and predicted grass growth during two grass growing seasons:

The proposed new project will seek to improve the understanding of grassland management at farm level, and help improve grass utilisation efficiency and farm profitability. To achieve these objectives, the project will retains some elements of the existing GrassCheck format, while providing valuable new information which will help strengthen the interpretation of the grass growth and quality data collected.


Weekly GrassCheck bulletins will contain the following:

Measurement sites:  grass growth will be measured weekly at six sites, including four farm sites (Hillsborough, Greenmount, Portaferry, Aghadowey, Tempo and Fintona). At each site a set of nine plots will be established, and growth measured by cutting plots in a three weekly cycle. The N level used at each site will be 270 kg/ha.

Map graphic: individual site growth rates will be presented within a map graphic.

Graph: will display current average growth, growth predictions and also the long term seasonal average. The overall actual growth will reflect the overall average of all six harvested sites within the project.

Summary table:  will include actual and predicted grass growth along with average grass quality.

Management comments: will aim to provide three or four key management points each week.

Distribution of information: the weekly bulletin will be distributed via the farming press weekly, and also be made available through the Rural Portal and AFBI websites. An electronic version of the bulletin will continue to be sent on a weekly basis via email circulation list, mostly comprising advisors and industry representatives

Grazing management focus:  a key new aspect of the proposed GrassCheck project is to demonstrate how the grass growth information collected can be used by farmers to improve grassland management, and the efficiency of herbage utilisation on their own farms. The ‘Grazing Management Focus’ feature will further develop the ‘GrassCheck at Greenmount’ concept, but focus on herds within Northern Ireland, with a different herd featured each week.  Although the location will change weekly, a number of elements of the feature will remain constant, thus providing continuity on a weekly basis. Key information that will be presented includes:

A. Grass supply - to include details of average farm cover, pre-grazing cover and grass growth

B. Cow performance – to include current milk yield, milk quality and meal/forage supplements being fed

C. Management issues – description of ground conditions, fertiliser applications, surplus/deficit grass issues


Each week the feature will also contain a grass wedge (based on plate meter measurements), and this wedge will be combined with a description paragraph, highlighting the information required to produce the wedge.


Benefits to industry etc

The dairy industry in Northern Ireland continues to face challenges, and those farmers choosing to remain within the industry require the tools necessary to maximise farm profitability. The efficient use of forage has the potential to improve profitability at farm level, and the key to maximising the potential of forage, particularly grazed grass, is making the correct decisions at the correct time. Knowledge of current and future grass growth trends is vital if confident decisions are to be made at farm level, and GrassCheck will provide this information. The ‘Grazing Management Focus’ feature will also increase farmers awareness and understanding of key grassland management elements and terminology, including; the use of grass wedges, target grass covers, stocking rates and rotation length. The information generated by GrassCheck can also be used by Government to assist the industry, an example of which was the key role that the project had in supporting the ‘Weather Aid’ application in 2002, worth £1.42 million to dairy farmers in Northern Ireland.


Milestones with proposed dates:

April 2011:             Commence study (Year 1)

November 2011:    Completion of first grazing season and initiate model development

March 2012:          Start second grazing season (Year 2)

November 2012:    Completion of second grazing season and validation of growth model

December 2012:  Completion of project


Outputs with timescales: 

  • 28 weekly bulletins (mid March – mid October) in popular press annually during years 1 and 2
  • Weekly e-mail notifications during grazing season to registered users
  • Two press articles annually
  • Dissemination of interim trends to visiting groups at Hillsborough and at farmers meetings during years 1 and 2
  • Production of improved grass growth model at end of project