A new pathway to livestock profits with infrared technology

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A new research trial in central Alberta is shining the spotlight on a potentially revolutionary new system for optimizing feed efficiency in livestock.

The trial, at Pine Haven beef cattle operation, is led by nutritionists at Country Junction Feeds along with science advisor Dr. Al Schaefer. It involves the innovative application of leading-edge infrared thermography (IRT) technology, integrated with strategic animal nutrition expertise, to support everything from herd improvement planning to advanced precision feeding.

This system, now supported by years of pioneering research and the latest patented technology, shows advantages for reducing the cost of production and environmental impact while supporting continuous improvement each production cycle.

“The results we’re seeing are very promising,” says Bernie Grumpelt, livestock nutritionist with Country Junction Feeds. “With continued refinement, there is strong potential for IRT-based approaches integrated with nutrition knowledge to become a new standard for addressing feed efficiency, bringing many advantages to livestock industries.”

Leading-edge IRT-based approach

Though pioneered as an application for use with beef production, the technology and system model also hold potential for optimizing feed efficiency across other livestock sectors. “The approach represents a brand new pathway to more efficient, profitable and environmentally sustainable livestock production,” says Grumpelt.

The IRT technology utilization applied with the new system is based on over 20 years of IRT-related livestock research led by Schaefer and colleagues. This includes numerous landmark studies identifying correlations between IRT measurements and reliable identifiers of metabolic efficiency among individual animals. For example, with beef cattle the IRT approach identifies energy loss as expressed by thermography measurements from key anatomical areas – this has been shown to correlate with conventional efficiency measurements using residual feed intake values.

Fast, practical and accurate

“With the application for beef cattle, we’ve developed the technology to the point where we can now take an IRT image of an animal and by running that information through our software and database we can quickly and reliably determine its relative metabolic efficiency or feed efficiency performance compared to other animals in the herd,” says Schaefer. “This gives the producer a fast, effective and practical tool to identify the relative efficiency of each of the animals.” While current industry standard technologies for sorting efficiency with cattle take 70 to 100 days to provide information, the new IRT-based model takes about 20 seconds per animal and delivers actionable information in real time. That means the technology is more accessible to commercial herds.

“The system is non-invasive and very animal friendly as well as handler friendly,” says Schaefer. “You simply walk the animal past the IRT camera. The RFID on each animal is used to trigger a Bluetooth communication to the camera, an image is taken and you’re done, simple as that. The software does a near instant processing of the IRT measurement data, using algorithms and other database information to provide simple to understand results.”

Herd improvement, precision feeding

Animals can be sorted on the basis of their efficiency, with different management approaches applied for each group. Producers can select animals for breeding based on which are the most efficient. They can make herd improvement decisions such as culling the bottom 10 or 20 percent. Producers can also apply different feeding strategies with different groups of animals, knowing which approaches for each group will represent the most efficient use of resources. For example, the most efficient animals will benefit more and deliver higher returns when placed on a higher quality diet – they’ll gain efficiently and finish sooner.

This is where the integration of the IRT results with nutrition-related expertise and data comes into play – enabling truly breakthrough advances in precision feeding. “One measurement provides sufficient information to group the animals and design feed and management strategies accordingly,” says Schaefer.

Bringing the model to more producers

The trial underway at Pine Haven is among the latest designed to help refine the system based on evaluation in a commercial setting. It involves 195 head, which based on IRT measurements are sorted into three groups – most efficient, medium efficient and least efficient.

“The overall improvements have the potential to be quite dramatic,” says Darrell Kimmel, manager of Country Junction Feeds. “It all means very substantial benefits for the operation including major advantages for the bottom line for of the producer.” Efficiency improvements using this technology as a basis for boosting cattle feeding strategies could represent an added value for the producer. For cow-calf production, analysis indicates that by culling the lowest percent of least efficient animals producers can run more cows on the same amount of land.

“The key right now is refining the system,” says Kimmel. “That’s what’s the team involved has been focused on recently with numerous activities including the Pine Haven trails. We expect to begin offering the system in beta form to more operations over the remainder of the year. Over time we believe it can play a prominent role with many operations.” More information on Country Junction Feeds is available at www.countryjunctionfeeds.com

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