Web application allows South Tyrol farmers to estimate the quality of forage in their meadows
Farmers need to know about the quality of the forage – grasses and other plants eaten by livestock – in their fields in order to provide animals with adequate food rations. The webGRAS project has developed a web application (http://webgras.laimburg.it/)enabling farmers in Italy’s Autonomous Province of Bolzano to estimate the quality of forage from their meadows at the first time in the year at which they cut the grass.
" WebGRAS is an open-access, user-friendly web application, available in all three official languages of South Tyrol (German, Italian and Ladin), and enabling farmers and advisors to estimate the potential quality of forage (green herbage unaffected by forage conservation) at the first cut of permanent meadows. "
The project drew on a database of some 6 000 forage samples, and 13 years’ worth of data from 202 environments – involving combinations of sites and years – was assembled to describe changes in forage quality over time. Statistical predictive models were then developed for 19 quality parameters, taking into account weather conditions during plant growth, botanical composition of forage, topography, soil properties and grassland management. These models were brought together to create the application.
Stakeholders and experts in forage production and animal feed were involved in the development, giving the project the benefit of their expectations and knowledge. They also provided input on aspects of the tool, such as the workflow, layout, text and contextual support. This helped to ensure that the application was easy to use and increased the likelihood of it being taken up by farmers.
A range of forage information sources
Dairy production on small farms is the main feature of agriculture in the Province of Bolzano. Most reliable information on forage quality is obtained through laboratory analysis, but reference values can be estimated using tables showing relationships between plant development and forage quality.
The accuracy of such estimates can be improved by using information on the same aspects considered in development of the application (weather during plant growth, forage composition, topography, soil properties and grassland management). Some of this information is available from computerised mapping systems and meteorological databases, but it has not hitherto been easily retrievable for use in estimating forage quality. User-friendly local statistical predictive models based on such information were also lacking.
Bridging the gap between information and a customised tool
WebGRAS has thus bridged the gap between available information and a tool for customised prediction of forage quality. Users provide information such as field location, dates of stem elongation (when the sward achieves a height of 15 cm) and first cut of the meadow, botanical composition, management and soil properties. Topographic and climatic variables such as heat accumulation, potential radiation and deviation of precipitation from long-term averages are automatically generated on a daily basis to provide new predictions. Online contextual supports, the user manual and an introductory video help users to become acquainted with the application.
The user gets a report summarising predicted forage quality for actual and notional harvest dates so that they are aware of changes in quality due to harvest timing. The system allows data in existing reports to be corrected and existing reports can be used as a basis for new reports, minimising the time needed to produce them.
WebGRAS has become part of the teaching content in mountain agriculture training courses at local agricultural schools and the Free University of Bolzano/Bozen. It thus contributes to enhancing farmers’ knowledge, and improving their management choices and the economic sustainability of their farms.
Total investment and EU funding
Total investment for the project “webGRAS” is EUR 319 315, with the EU’s European Regional Development Fund contributing EUR 110 898,10 through the “Autonomous Province of Bolzano” Operational Programme for the 2007-2013 programming period.