Use of near infrared technology expands

Near infrared technology allows livestock operators to assess fat, protein, starch and fibre content of feed without lab tests.  |  File photo

Feed optimization | Despite high cost, NIR machines can bring savings to livestock operators

Greater use of near infrared technology could make the preparation of livestock rations more precise, say feed experts.

Lowering feed costs was the primary focus of a March 14 workshop in Lethbridge, which explored the latest NIR research findings and how they could be applied at feedlots, backgrounding operations and cow-calf operations.

NIR processes use the light reflective properties of organic components to determine fat, protein, starch and fibre content. It enables producers to mix rations best suited to animals’ needs.

Before NIR, lab tests were required to calculate exact feed content. They were expensive and time consuming.

NIR technology provides results within minutes, and experts say the machines, although expensive, can be a good investment.

Agriculture Canada animal nutrition researcher Tim McAllister said about half a dozen feedlots in southern Alberta make use of NIR units, as do several feed consulting companies.

“At this point, I would say that the usership of those units, from what we’ve seen, is probably less than optimal, and we think that that’s partly because people don’t realize the value of the technology and how it can actually save them quite a bit of money,” said McAllister.

“Even though those machines … are not particularly cheap, when you’re looking at the volume of feed that’s being fed in many of those operations, and the accuracy of the machine to be able to estimate the energy value and protein value and subsequently the value of that feed as a whole, they can pay for themselves in a very short period of time.”

Feed can vary greatly depending on location and growing conditions, which means animal rations can vary from day to day. It means animals might not receive the optimal ration for their growth, which makes it less economical for producers.

“There’s probably some performance in the animal that we’re leaving on the table because we’re not feeding in that precise a manner,” McAllister said.

Accurate NIR readings depend on the accuracy of calibrations, which have been verified through “wet” laboratory technology. The greater the number of calibrations, the better the accuracy.

McAllister said many calibrations in existing NIR services are based on American data.

Canadian NIR researchers are working to develop Canadian calibrations to make the technology more useful and accurate here.

“Over time, your calibrations get stronger and stronger because you are using samples that are derived from varying environmental conditions, so that’s what we need to do in Canada.”

Mary Lou Swift, a feed research scientist with Alberta Agriculture who has worked with NIR technology for years, said she saw its potential while working for a British Columbia feed company.

“We actually got to a point where we would take samples of the wheat on the way to the grinder every day, and if we needed to, we would reformulate the whole system on a daily basis to make sure that our customer had a constant protein going out in the feed,” she said.

Many people thought she was crazy to invest money in NIR, Swift recalled.

“I take good pleasure in noticing every one of those people now own an NIR.”

Swift said feedlots have been early adopters of NIR, and many took advantage of a grant program that provided up to $20,000 toward buying them.

She initially expected feedlots to use the machines only for barley, which is a primary ingredient in most feedlot rations. She was wrong.

“They’re using it for these grain screening pellets, using it for distillers grains. The oil content in distillers grains is known to vary a great deal now. It’s money in their pocket, and they realized that early and got on the bandwagon.”

Feedlots and hog operations are becoming ever more precise in ration formulation because it provides optimal feed at the lowest cost.

Paolo Berzaghi, an NIR researcher and consultant with Unity Scientific, has been working on NIR in the feeding industry since the late 1990s.

He told the workshop that on-farm feed analysis improves feeding consistency, which benefits animal health, the environment and profitability.

“It’s a mature technology. It’s been around for a long time. It’s just the implementation is new,” said Berzaghi.

The wet chemistry available from labs is accurate but not rapid, simple or cheap. It is also too slow to allow producers to change rations quickly to suit feed variability.

NIR eliminates those challenges, he said.

His research in European dairy herds showed that a feed control program using NIR was worth 27 cents per cow per day.

However, Berzaghi said the technology is limited in its ability to analyze minerals in feed. Its strength lies in organic nutrients.

As well, NIR is only as good as the calibrations in its database. A larger number of verified samples obviously provides more accurate results, and updates may be needed until the database contains most of the likely feed scenarios.

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