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Technology solutions for forage and livestock performance

Ryan Hicks, April Mueller and Twain Butler for Progressive Forage Published on 29 March 2019

The primary agriculture enterprise in the Southern Great Plains (particularly southern Oklahoma and northern Texas) is forage-based beef cattle systems (e.g., cow-calf, stockers). These profitable operations perform well but not without obvious challenges.

Producers often face unpredictable weather, rising production and land costs, and volatile livestock and commodity markets. Most of these challenges are out of the producers’ control, so they must be versatile, detail-oriented and decisive in their operations. Often, producers who are tasked with managing forages and livestock have to make pivotal and, at times, complex decisions so they can thrive in a sometimes low-margin business.

I frequently ask producers to name their top daily challenges and concerns about managing their cattle grazing systems. The top responses nearly always involve two primary concerns: “How much grass do I have?” and “How are my cows doing?” In other words, forage production (quantity and quality) and livestock monitoring (inventory, performance and health) are top of mind.

The Noble Research Institute Agronomy and Sensors Laboratory has put a considerable amount of effort and time into developing profitable grazing systems in the Southern Great Plains and technology applications to help agricultural producers manage forages and livestock.

Estimating forage availability

One of the most difficult aspects of forage-based grazing systems is estimating forage biomass and quality. Historically, producers have often “windshield estimated” the amount of forage in their pastures or used hand-measurement techniques.

As mentioned, producers can maintain profitability only by making good, decisive decisions with accurate and reliable information. However, the anecdotal observations that have historically been used are often neither accurate nor reliable enough. They are also too infrequent to “forecast” forage production and animal performance based on the circumstances at hand and to maximize profitability. We have developed two technologies to address these challenges by delivering reliable and accurate information to facilitate decision-making.

tractor mounted sensors

We developed the ForageSensors platform, which involves a suite of sensors and instrumentation (lasers, ultrasonic, multispectral color reflectance, GPS) designed to estimate forage biomass and forage quality metrics. The device is mounted to a ground vehicle (tractor, ATV, UTV or truck) and driven across grazing paddocks, where it collects information at a rate of up to 20 times per second while geo-referencing the data.

The timing and scheduling of these “sensor runs” coincide with management practices such as grazing rotations, stocking density adjustments and forage monitoring. The ForageSensors platform provides a quick, reliable estimate of forage biomass and quality metrics created from thousands of data points representative of the forage conditions in your pasture.

biomass sensors

For our research purposes, this has been a game changer in terms of evaluating the agronomic performance of different forages and providing an unprecedented amount of data to actively evaluate forage performance in different grazing systems and management scenarios. In addition, with data being geo-referenced, forage performance can be evaluated at a high resolution across a pasture, and more importantly, producers can see how their forages are performing over time as a consequence of management decisions by using our developed data visualization tools.

However, at the end of the day, this technology still requires an individual to deploy the sensor package in the field. We believe precision agriculture technologies are impactful only when autonomous systems are developed – systems that don’t require human involvement, but instead autonomously provide automatic data streams to producers.

In 2018, we began an innovative project to develop the ForageTower application, a field technology solution in which solar-powered sensors are deployed in the field, automatically collect forage information continuously or at predefined intervals, and send this information wirelessly in accessible real time to the researcher or producer.

Though a considerable amount of system evaluation and validation is still unfinished, preliminary results have revealed a robust system suitable to deploy in grazing pasturelands with reliable wireless data transmission of forage performance.

Now that we have a means of reliable forage estimation, how are the cattle performing?

Evaluating cattle performance

Cattle producers need a reliable inventory of animal units and the ability to assess performance (e.g., weight gain) and monitor health. Therefore, we needed to develop a technology solution that could remotely assess animal performance (specifically weight gain) in real time with no human intervention.

We started by using Tru-Test walk-over-weigh (WOW) components (livestock scales and platform, electronic eartag identification panels and the associated data acquisition and recording instruments). This system is commonly deployed in livestock handling facilities, with an operator manually retrieving the data output.

Our contribution was to take this system, affix all components to a mobile platform to enable the system to be used around the property, develop a solar-powered system that could function 24/7 and equip it with radio wireless transmission capabilities.

livestock scale

The system is deployed at a water source by using portable livestock fencing structures to ensure that livestock walk across the livestock scale each time they go to the water. When an animal crosses the platform, the instrumentation immediately records the animal’s unique electronic eartag identification and weight. Within seconds, the day and time, the animal’s identification number and weight, and the pasture identification are all sent wirelessly to a centralized master radio unit and data-logging software that retrieves, logs and writes the information to a simple Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

We have developed and deployed 10 WOW systems on various grazing research paddocks where our researchers have real-time access to evaluate livestock performance autonomously on different grazing systems and forages.

There now exist two primary data streams: forage and livestock performance. The real value of having these two data streams is that it allows researchers and producers to simultaneously evaluate forage and animal performance to determine daily weight gain in connection with the ever-changing forage conditions.

This information is highly valuable to producers because they now receive real-time, reliable field information to make management decisions. In addition, we recognize that these technology applications are just mere components in the grand scheme of what we are attempting to accomplish.

Yes, these systems can be purchased, fabricated and deployed on livestock grazing operations and certainly have their place, but we also recognize that this isn’t economically feasible in most production circumstances. Therefore, we are concentrating our efforts on using these sensor technology applications to populate large databases that can be used to produce systems and forecasting models.

We want to provide producers with a suite of decision support tools for which individuals will populate initial information on their operations, where it would then integrate with our production models to forecast potential forage and livestock performance.

These models will be based on decades of grazing research, forage measurements, livestock performance, climate and weather data, and soils data, which will result in accurate forage and livestock performance forecasts for producers in real time. The more frequently these tools are used, the more accurate and reliable the data will be, as the models will continuously learn from the researchers’ and producers’ data inputs.

It is an exciting time for precision agriculture. The applications to advance our forage-based beef cattle operations are boundless, with a number of available technological capabilities.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Researchers use tractor-mounted sensors to estimate forage biomass.

PHOTO 2: Sensors used to estimate biomass involve lasers, ultrasonic systems, multispectral color reflectance and GPS.

PHOTO 3: With this system, cattle must walk across the livestock scale each time they go to water, and instrumentation records the electronic ID tag and weight, transferring the information via radio to data-logging software. Photos courtesy of Noble Research Institute.


Ryan Hicks is a Noble Research Institute sensor technology electronics technician. Email Ryan Hicks

April Mueller is a Noble Research Institute research assistant. Email April Mueller.

Twain Butler, Ph.D., is a Noble Research Institute agronomy and sensors professor. Email Twain Butler.