Articles | Volume 13, issue 16
Research article
22 Aug 2016
Research article |  | 22 Aug 2016

A pilot project combining multispectral proximal sensors and digital cameras for monitoring tropical pastures

Rebecca N. Handcock, D. L. Gobbett, Luciano A. González, Greg J. Bishop-Hurley, and Sharon L. McGavin

Abstract. Timely and accurate monitoring of pasture biomass and ground cover is necessary in livestock production systems to ensure productive and sustainable management. Interest in the use of proximal sensors for monitoring pasture status in grazing systems has increased, since data can be returned in near real time. Proximal sensors have the potential for deployment on large properties where remote sensing may not be suitable due to issues such as spatial scale or cloud cover. There are unresolved challenges in gathering reliable sensor data and in calibrating raw sensor data to values such as pasture biomass or vegetation ground cover, which allow meaningful interpretation of sensor data by livestock producers.

Our goal was to assess whether a combination of proximal sensors could be reliably deployed to monitor tropical pasture status in an operational beef production system, as a precursor to designing a full sensor deployment. We use this pilot project to (1) illustrate practical issues around sensor deployment, (2) develop the methods necessary for the quality control of the sensor data, and (3) assess the strength of the relationships between vegetation indices derived from the proximal sensors and field observations across the wet and dry seasons.

Proximal sensors were deployed at two sites in a tropical pasture on a beef production property near Townsville, Australia. Each site was monitored by a Skye SKR-four-band multispectral sensor (every 1 min), a digital camera (every 30 min), and a soil moisture sensor (every 1 min), each of which were operated over 18 months. Raw data from each sensor was processed to calculate multispectral vegetation indices. The data capture from the digital cameras was more reliable than the multispectral sensors, which had up to 67 % of data discarded after data cleaning and quality control for technical issues related to the sensor design, as well as environmental issues such as water incursion and insect infestations. We recommend having a system with both sensor types to aid in data interpretation and troubleshooting technical issues. Non-destructive observations of pasture characteristics, including above-ground standing biomass and fractional ground cover, were made every 2 weeks. This simplified data collection was designed for multiple years of sampling at the remote site, but had the disadvantage of high measurement uncertainty.

A bootstrapping method was used to explore the strength of the relationships between sensor and pasture observations. Due to the uncertainty in the field observations, the relationships between sensor and field data are not confirmational and should be used only to inform the design of future work. We found the strongest relationships occurred during the wet season period of maximum pasture growth (January to April), with generally poor relationships outside of this period. Strong relationships were found with multispectral indices that were sensitive to the green and dry components of the vegetation, such as those containing the band in the lower shortwave infrared (SWIR) region of the electromagnetic spectrum. During the wet season the bias-adjusted bootstrap point estimate of the R2 between above-ground biomass and the normalized ratio between the SWIR and red bands (NVI-SR) was 0.72 (95 % CI of 0.28 to 0.98), while that for the percentage of green vegetation observed in three dimensions and a simple ratio between the near infrared and SWIR bands (RatioNS34) was 0.81 (95 % CI of 0.53 to 1.00). Relationships between field data and the vegetation index derived from the digital camera images were generally weaker than from the multispectral sensor data, except for green vegetation observations in two and three dimensions.

Our successful pilot of multiple proximal sensors supports the design of future deployments in tropical pastures and their potential for operational use. The stringent rules we developed for data cleaning can be more broadly applied to other sensor projects to ensure quality data. Although proximal sensors observe only a small area of the pasture, they deliver continual and timely pasture measurements to inform timely on-farm decision-making.

Short summary
Proximal sensors can assist in managing feed in livestock production systems but raw data needs calibration to biophysical values such as biomass and ground cover. Our pilot project monitored tropical pastures for 18 months using digital cameras, multispectral sensors, soil moisture sensors, and field observations. We developed stringent data cleaning rules that are applicable to other sensor projects. Proximal sensors were found to deliver continual and timely pasture data.
Final-revised paper