Over the last 20 years the GrassCheck programme has been fundamental in assisting ruminant livestock farmers maximise returns from grazed grass.  This initiative led by AgriSearch and AFBI, in partnership with CAFRE and DAERA, has monitored year on year variations in grass growth providing valuable information to both farmers and policy makers during this time. 

Grazed grass is the cheapest form of feed available for ruminant livestock in Northern Ireland. With grassland accounting for over 90% of the utilised agricultural area of Northern Ireland, good grassland management is critical to the profitability and sustainability of the dairy, beef & sheep sectors helping to lower input costs and increase resilience to fluctuating concentrates prices. Indeed, boosting productivity from grassland has been shown to reduce phosphorus build-up on farms, and grass-fed meat and milk provide a healthier product for the consumer.  Grassland also has an important role in sequestering carbon. Work conducted over the past 40 years at AFBI Hillsborough has shown that well managed grassland can sequester over 800kg of Carbon per hectare per year. 

Sward assessment, measurement and recording are the cornerstones of Grasscheck, and this approach is endorsed by the Sustainable Agricultural Land Management Strategy for Northern Ireland which in 2016 called an increase in the uptake of ‘sward assessment and grass utilisation measurement and recording’ on grassland farms as one mechanism by which improvements in grass utilisation can be achieved. 

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the GrassCheck project which during this time has monitored grass growth and quality at AFBI Hillsborough and CAFRE’s Greenmount Campus.    From this the GrazeGro model was developed by AFBI which was the world’s first grass growth forecast model.  These forecasts along with weekly growth and quality data from the plots formed the basis of the GrassCheck bulletin.

In 2017, the project was expanded to include data recording of grass growth, grass quality and weather data on commercial farms.  The network was further expanded in 2018 to include 48 commercial dairy, beef and sheep farms.  These farms cover a range of production systems, land types, growth potential and management intensity.

Throughout the years, the GrassCheck programme has shown the potential of N.I. to achieve high yields of utilised grass. Data from plots from the past two decades indicate an average annual growth of 11.6t DM/ha however in the past five years this has risen to 12.9t DM/ha. Data from commercial farms is also showing good grassland performance with 13.7t DM/ha produced on dairy farms during 2019 and 12.9t DM/ha on beef and sheep farms, with farms achieving an average utilisation rate of 85% (Figure 1). This was achieved despite poor growth in May and June and wet conditions in September 2019.

Figure 1: 2019 grass growth curve for dairy and beef and sheep farms.

 

Results of the GrassCheck programme are disseminated through a variety of means including a weekly newspaper bulletin, website, social media and farm walks.  It is planned to develop a GrassCheck smartphone application in 2020.

The GrassCheck project has achieved considerable impact and reach.  It currently has over 4,300 social media followers.  During the main grazing season it has a 28 day Facebook page reach of over 14,000 and over 10,000 twitter impressions.  There are around 8,000 visitors per month to the website and a weekly newspaper circulation for the bulletin of over 23,000.  Over 1,700 farmers have attended GrassCheck farm walks and open days since 2017.

In addition to providing useful information for farmers the grass growth and weather data has also provided invaluable evidence base for policy makers.  GrassCheck data from 2002, 2013 and 2014, which displayed exceptional cold and wet growing conditions, provided the necessary evidence for £5.5 million of support payments through Weather Aid and Forage Transport schemes.

Indeed, GrassCheck continues to provide a valuable source of information for DAERA policy with farm growth and weather data in 2018 being used as evidence by DAERA to successfully make the case to the EU for increased rate of advance CAP payments from 50% to 70% of claim value.

GrassCheck represents a real partnership between farmers, AFBI and AgriSearch and is recognised nationally and internationally as an exemplar of on-farm research, innovation and knowledge exchange.  Its success has led to the development and launch of GrassCheckGB in March 2019 which is led by CIEL, AFBI and Rothamstead with support from GB levy bodies and a range of commercial organisations. 

The challenges of ruminant livestock farming and grassland management are constantly evolving and GrassCheck will need to evolve to meet these new challenges.  Plans are already being developed for the next phase of GrassCheck, for example, multispecies swards are being established on several GrassCheck pilot farms across NI.  Consideration is also being given to how GrassCheck could be used to benchmark the delivery of ecosystem services across a range of land types and help the ruminant livestock sector to progress towards the target of carbon neutral farming by 2040.