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University of Missouri

Greener Pastures

Skylab measures pastures for more efficient farming.

Mizzou Skylab

Skylab measures pastures for more efficient farming. Photo by Kyle Spradley.

What do you get when you cross a tractor with a stepladder? If you are John Lory, associate professor of plant sciences, you create Skylab, the latest in mobile monitoring of pastures. With a grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and support from MU’s Division of Plant Sciences, Lory’s high-rider is fitted with various sensors whose data soon could help farmers manage their forages better.

Its height allows Lory to measure repeatedly during the growing season. In the past, researchers had to harvest pastures or mount sensors on tractors or ATVs, Lory says. “With this machine, we can easily go over a study site multiple times without having an impact on the forage.”

One sensor measures crop height and, with repeated measurements, growth. Another measures leaf color, which signals the amount of all-important nitrogen. A global positioning system linked to the steering allows Skylab to revisit exact coordinates repeatedly and measure any changes.

Lory hopes similar systems will be available to farmers in five years or less. He envisions a time when farmers upload data from their forages into an online database that gives back customized advice on how much nitrogen fertilizer they should apply. “That would be an invaluable tool to have for our Missouri farmers.”