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Improving Pasture Performance: PASTORAL

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The research

The team from PASTORAL are working with farmers to help trial a new digital pasture management tool during its development. The tool is designed to help farmers increase productivity and carbon efficiency by improving pasture performance and management.

Funded by Innovate UK, the tool is being designed in partnership with farmers and will use advanced algorithms based on satellite data, such as weather information and field images taken from space. It will deliver regular updates and predictions, helping farmers to improve productivity and sustainability on their grasslands.

The tool will be co-designed with livestock producers across England, with service testing, development and demonstration across organic, regenerative agriculture and conventional farming systems. 

These trials will be co-ordinated by the Innovative Farmers network, collaborating with digital experts at the University of Edinburgh and Environment Systems, to help monitor pasture growth and quality.

The benefits

Productive pasture is essential for efficient livestock production. Currently farmers walk fields with rising plate meters to assess grass biomass available for livestock grazing. This approach does not accurately reflect field quality, nor likely future growth under climate change, limiting accuracy of pasture management decisions.

The digital tool being developed in this project combines satellite data with advanced algorithms to deliver weekly information on grass biomass, predict grass growth and produce carbon budgets.

Optical imagery only sees the top layer of the canopy and is obscured by cloud, while radar imagery sees through cloud but is noisy. Combined with a model of carbon flow, developed by the University of Edinburgh, PASTORAL provides per-field biomass records as well as showing pasture biomass over time.

PASTORAL easily integrates into existing app-based farm services such as the Cool Farm Tool and Agrecalc.

Trial design

Around a 100 livestock farmers from across the UK will work with the project group, involved in testing, developing and demonstrating this new technology. To get the best results, the project is working with farmers from a variety of systems - organic, regenerative and conventional, a selection of whom will be part of on-farm field labs and workshops.

There are three field lab groups as part of the project - North Yorkshire (Beef & sheep focus), Somerset (Dairy focus) and Gloucestershire (Beef & sheep focus).

The farmers trial the tool and are sent weekly information.  The project officer, Tara from Environment Systems, will visit the farms in person each season to measure grass growth and compare it to the satellite figures. Participating farmers will give feedback on visual interpretation of the data, ease of use, and integration with other apps they use.

Latest updates

Positive outcomes of the PASTORAL project and the three associated regional field labs include:

  • Some participating farmers have reported changing how they graze as a result of taking part in the project, for example starting to use mob grazing and more rotations over set stocking.
  • Participants have learnt about methods of measuring grass and how to use this information to guide decision making.
  • Participants in workshops and webinars have an increased awareness of carbon cycles in grasslands.
  • Knowing pasture covers has helped participating farmers with forward planning, e.g. when to shut fields for silage, when additional feed might be needed.  
  • The leaf area index maps we deliver show variation across fields and have helped participants identify better and poor performing areas to target improvements.  
  • Environment Systems (the research and industry partner) are just finishing a white paper which will cover much of this and there will be two further scientific publications. 

Over fifty farmers have registered fields in PASTORAL, at no cost and with no ongoing commitment, allowing us to test and develop the tool. Currently we are providing basic maps showing the green leaf area, and the amount of vegetation, across fields, with additional data being added as the project progresses. Biomass and carbon data will be delivered to all participating farmers in September.

Feedback has been positive, with maps providing confidence and reassurance for what participants are seeing in the field. To date the feedback from participants has been very encouraging; 93% of respondents said they’d like to receive this data regularly.

As the PASTORAL team continues to develop the digital tool, we look back to the summer and discuss the resilience of diverse leys, observations from PASTORAL and the impacts of drought on carbon dynamics.

Our recent webinar opened with a case study by Nick Broadwith, a Wensleydale beef farmer with 250 head of cattle on a 150 acre home farm with an additional 50 acres of rented land.

Nick uses a 4 year legume- and herb-rich ley which he aims to get in as early as possible following spring barley. Forage rape in the mix provides protection to the more delicate herbs leading to strong establishment. The ley is winter grazed by sheep and bounces back the following spring ready for the cattle.

The diverse leys proved resilient over the hot dry summer, with the major challenge on the farm being access to water as the becks dried up. While forced to sacrifice some silage fields for grazing, overall the leys performed well. Nick described how the composition of the species changed throughout the year, the diversity contributing to resilience as the species dominance varied as conditions changed, something he’s seen both throughout the seasons or across the fields.

Nick has employed similar tactics in his winter cereals, as he describes ‘turning precision agriculture on its head’. Rather than applying nutrients to meet the specific needs of the crops, Nick uses mixes of oats and barley to maximise use of available nutrients, the distribution of each species being self-selecting across the field.

Nick’s faith in diverse leys is clear. “Don’t underestimate these diverse leys,” says Nick, “I’ve been absolutely blown away by what they can do.”

Handing over to the PASTORAL team, Iain Cameron of Environment Systems showed what summer looked like from space, the typical green giving way to vast swathes of brown.

As part of PASTORAL, we have observations of over 500 fields and reductions in biomass this summer compared to last were evident. A sombre mood dropped on the webinar as we considered the impact of more frequent and more extreme weather events predicted for the future, but took comfort from the recovery of grasslands we’ve seen moving into Autumn.

We could see the effect drought had on grass across the country, but what effect did it have on carbon dynamics?

Vasilis Myrgiotos from the University of Edinburgh explained how PASTORAL is modelling carbon flows based on the changes we see in above ground biomass.

In summer, grassland generally becomes a carbon sink, locking up more carbon in the soil than is released into the atmosphere, however in drought years systems lose carbon, either storing less than they do in non-drought year or even becoming sources. This was seen on fields across the PASTORAL network this summer, losing more carbon in July and August than in the same month last year, but returning to previous ranges in September.

By better understanding the biomass/ dry matter removed from systems, either by cutting or grazing, we can better understand soil carbon. Soil properties, species composition and management choices all play a huge role in carbon flux. The more we know the more robust the model estimates may be.

If you’re part of the PASTORAL network and have data to share, whether that be silage yields, plate meter measurements, or soil carbon tests we’d love to hear from you.

A recording of the webinar is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxAPI-k6uzo
If you’d like to know more about the project visit our website https://envsys.co.uk/pastoral/
or get in touch at pastoral@envsys.co.uk.

Summer has seen the first round of PASTORAL on-farm workshops with beef focus groups in North Yorkshire and Gloucestershire, and a Dairy focus group in Somerset.
Workshops allow the project team and participants the opportunity to discuss PASTORAL and guide its development, ensuring the tool meets the needs of its users. They’re also a chance to discuss grazing strategies and grass management.

In North Yorkshire, participants shared their thoughts on grass cover maps of the hosting farm. Participants were keen to have evidence of carbon storage on pastures. A simple score was the order of the day, with grass growth being an interesting additional piece of information that could feed into rotation planning.

On a dairy farm in Somerset a few days later, the conversations focused on the need for reliable estimates of dry matter per field or paddock to support day to day decision making. A simple value per field was in order, with kg DM/ha or kg DM/field answering questions such as, ‘what field should I graze next’ and ‘where do I need to put the electric fence’. Participants also discussed the value of more detailed information to look at performance through the season to feed into longer term planning. This would allow monitoring of long-term trends and quantify the effects of altered management practices, evidencing changes in sward growth and production, and carbon storage over time. Hoping that PASTORAL will reliably monitor diverse leys, where plate meter can prove unreliable, and reduce variation seen in plate meter readings.

A similar conversation was had a few weeks later in Gloucestershire, where conversations focused on beef systems. Participants shared their reluctance to plate meter, with expense, time and limited confidence on anything but ryegrass cited as barriers. The value of having data on grass production was recognised, with participants excited that PASTORAL will be filling the

This project will be split into three field labs focusing on beef, lamb, and dairy production, with 6-12 farmers per group:


  • Yorkshire beef & sheep
  • South West dairy
  • Midlands beef & sheep

In April, the farmer groups began trialing the tool, and are sent weekly info on grass growth in their field. For this, satellite imagery, advanced modelling and weather and climate data are combined to produce field reports of weekly biomass and monthly/annual carbon budgets. They will spend the next few months testing, validating and calibrating the tool to improve its accuracy. The project officer, Tara from Environment Systems, will visit the farms in person each season to measure grass growth and compare it to the satellite figures. Participating farmers will give feedback on visual interpretation of the data, ease of use, and integration with other apps they use.

There will be three meetings per group (in person or virtual, responsive to what each group wants), to include on-farm visits demonstrating the use of the tool and comparing this to other options like plate meters and sward sticks.

Farm walks & validation workshops

15th July 2022

Continued testing & workshops

11th October 2022

Final meetings

31st May 2023

Group Coordinator

A portrait of Kate Still.
Kate Still

Soil Association

South West England

Specialist in animal welfare; dairy and sheep farming experience; former farm business consultant and advisor on agri-environment schemes and conservation; Animal Welfare Advisor on AssureWel, Soil Association. Kate is assisting in group co-ordination and additionally working on another project (RELACS) focusing on antibiotic reduction and udder health. This field lab with provide beneficial information to the farmers in the RELACS project.


A portrait of Tara O'Neill.
Tara O'Neill

Environment Systems

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