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Thermal Sorting

Researchers at Kansas State University find that sorting cattle by thermal imaging holds promise for more efficient cattle feeding.

Mark Spire, DVM, gets almost giddy in discussing the latest results on the use of thermal imaging in feedlots.

Spire and his Kansas State University (KSU) colleagues, Jim Drouillard and Jan Sargeant, have been studying the use of infrared technology as a diagnostic tool for some time now (“Seeing What Cattle Feel,” May 2001 BEEF Feeder). Now, they're exploring the use of thermal imaging of feeder cattle as a means of sorting cattle into more efficient feeding groups.

“Our studies show that high-metabolism cattle (redder thermal images) gain faster, convert better and produce higher-quality carcasses than cattle with slower metabolisms (bluer thermal images),” Spire says. “Using infrared to sort a cattle population into high- and low-metabolism groups for finishing promises some great efficiencies in feed efficiency, better outcomes and profits.”

Spire says the group has seen as much as a 16°C difference in thermal temperature in cattle. Every 1° of surface temperature difference translates to a 0.2-lb. difference in gain.

“The idea is to sort into high- and low-metabolism groups and feed accordingly,” he says. “For instance, the high group could be fed a cooler ration of 21 lbs. of feed/head/day, while the low-metabolism group would get a 17-lb. ration of higher concentrates.”

Such a system would simplify bunk reading and maximize feed usage. The technology also could help detect sick cattle, he says.

Spire says the thermal image of a beef animal will change two days before the animal shows any outward signs of sickness. This is because the body traps heat in order to spur recovery. As a result, body surface temperature goes down. Thus, the cooler the animal is in relation to its earlier thermal image, the more likely the animal is sick.

“Such a system would allow us to better manage the use of antibiotics, not only allowing more judicious use but better residue control. It would also allow us to better match cattle's appetites, which would aid in manure management and caring for the environment,” he says.

What makes this technology particularly promising, Spire says, is the potential to integrate it with radio-frequency identification (RFID). Such a marriage would simplify the logistics of tracking and handling cattle.

Spire envisions that the cost might be in the $4 to $4.50/head range, but the return in better efficiency would be $17/head.

Spire says the KSU work shows the optimum time to thermal scan cattle would be early in the feeding period, about 30 days after arrival.

“By that time, they'll have been able to get acclimated to the conditions and the readings will be more accurate. The lowest weights we've worked this on is 450-lb. calves,” he says.