Hand Held Technologies for Assessment of Nutrient Digestibility

Lead Research Organisation: Aberystwyth University
Department Name: IBERS


Sustainability in the ruminant livestock sector involves efficient use of resource to deliver an economically viable, quality product with minimal impact on the environment. With margins tight the farm businesses cannot afford to waste expensive resource (feed, supplement etc) by giving to animals when it is not required, for instance when not in calf, or is low yielding. However the ability of farmers to make real time determinations of the effectiveness of their feed strategy is often imperfect. It is not uncommon for farm rations to perform under expectations. Currently available on-farm diagnostics, mostly relying on visual assessment, are not well positioned to make recommendations for remedial actions to halt losses in milk or meat production, or poor feed use efficiency. Accurate diagnosis involves sending samples away for detailed chemical analysis prolonging the period in which animals are over or under fed, leading to significant issues surrounding waste management (N pollutants, slurry storage), suboptimal performance (rumen acidosis) or even animal welfare. Hence there is a real and current need for improved methodology for real time assessment of feed quality and utilisation that is amenable to on farm use by either the farmer or industry support. Rapid, accurate diagnosis of poor feed use efficiency will enable more effective dietary adjustments to be made to improve nutrient use efficiency and sustain production.
This work will focus on the science underpinning enhanced functionality of hand-held NIR (near infra-red) measurement devices. The target beneficiaries are primarily ruminant livestock farmers (typically dairy or beef finishing units) with large, year round housed herds. This proposal meets an industry need to exploit the excellent scientific knowledge emerging from our agricultural research centres. The Universities of Aberystwyth and Reading are recognised as world leading in ruminant nutrition science and forage utilisation. Their expertise in evaluation of the relationships between feed, rumen utilisation and productivity will be combined with the skills in computational science and image analysis from UWE to allow us to fill an unmet need; the identification of new proxies for digestibility based on real life practice that can be applied in a tool for better on farm resource management. In this project we will combine data obtained from laboratory analysis of feed and faeces with that generated by hand held NIR devices to determine the key parameters which need to be incorporated into the integral algorithms to improve the predictive abilities of the hand held devices. We will exploit existing resource in terms of stored samples from feeding trials undertaken at Aberystwyth and Reading. Additional chemical analysis will be completed where necessary to complete the set of analyses required. We will collaborate with planned new trials to collect fresh samples and apply a similar set of measurements and extend this to image analysis of typical on-farm visual diagnostic, to quantify this process and hence increase reliability of diagnosis. We will use correlation analysis to explore the relationships between various parameters with particular reference to the identification of reliable predictive traits in the NIR spectrum associated with measures of digestibility.
Hence we will deliver a framework for the decision making tools, which can be developed into a commercial product by industry to enable delivery of improved nutritional advice to beef and dairy farmers by providing a more accurate reflection of the on farm nutrient digestibility. On-farm capability will be extended by determining parameters which can reliably be used on fresh (wet) samples of both feed and faeces. As well as enabling better focused, strategic feeding, this will enable monitoring of individual animals and herd analysis for on-farm nutrient management (slurry tank).

Planned Impact

Impact from the results of the planned work has the potential to be realised in a remarkably short period of time. It is envisaged that the realisation of new calibration sets, extending functionality of hand-held devices can be incorporated into current R&D activities of companies such as AB Agri, who already market such a device for NIR assessment of feed quality. The ability to market (to national and global markets) equipment with continual improvements will secure the viability of agri-industrial businesses, so contributing to the UK economy.
The improvements in ability to analyse composition and digestibility of feed made possible by this project will have immediate financial impact on the farmers using this technology, either directly or by use of consultants. Implementation of better feed management will reduce incidences of over-feeding, which is especially important in consideration of supplemental protein. Not only is this a major expense to the farm business, but it often involves use of off-farm product (eg soya from USA) with allied issues of sustainability (including potential for inclusion of GM to GM-free zones), reliability of supply and effect of transportation on climate change. Unintentional under-feeding similarly incurs economic penalties as it results in poor productivity (return on investment for high genetic merit animals) and if prolonged, potentially increased veterinary charges due to poor stock health.
Over-feeding can also directly contribute to climate change. Ruminants use protein inefficiently, typically excreting up to 70% of ingested N. This produces a management problem in terms of ammonia and urea loses to land and water course, but also acts as a substrate for production of N2O, a potent greenhouse gas. Therefore exploitation and uptake of the results of this project will have local and wider impact on the environment. This will then impact on the continued ability of general public to enjoy the results of livestock to landscape management and provision of ecosystem services.
There will also be impact of this project to the academics involved, through increased interaction with industry, and through development of a tool which can be used on focus farms (extension services), and has for use in postgraduate and undergraduate teaching (research led teaching) both of livestock farming and agricultural technology.


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Description Sustainability in the ruminant livestock sector involves efficient use of resource to deliver an economically viable, quality product with minimal impact on the environment. This work indicates the potential to use a portable device to provide on-farm diagnostics to identify incidences of over or under feeding of animals. Our work has focused on dairy cattle but could be equally applied to other farmed livestock with the appropriate calibrations.
There are two main research findings from this work. Firstly we have demonstrated the ability to make reliable spectral measurements in the near infra-red (NIRS) with a hand held device. This potentially removes the need for samples to be sent from farm to an analytical lab, so increasing speed of diagnosis of feed issues. Furthermore we have devised a method of working such that these measurements could be made reproducibly on wet samples (faecal) samples. We have demonstrated that the data captured can correctly identify different groups of animals taking part in a feed trial. This demonstration of reliability was a key aim of the project, enabling increased diagnostic power from on farm equipment to monitor animal health and performance. The final analysis of data collected across sites which is needed for preparation of a manuscript has been delayed due to Covid related limitations to access to laboratories where the machines holding the data are. Secondly we have demonstrated the ability to extract digital information from faecal images relating to feed strategy. This has entailed development of a portable imaging unit that can be used in combination with the NIRS device. We have published this in Scientific Reports.
Exploitation Route The work was funded by SARIC Club in response to a challenge set by the industry member ABAgri. Now that we have demonstrated potential we anticipate further development of the methodology will be taken forward by the industry team to enable operation by their farm advisers to improve feeding strategy decisions on farm. have had follow-up farm meeting with contact from ABAgri regarding potential future research in area of cattle feeding.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Title Dung image analysis 
Description Developed a new hardware for image capture and analysis of dung. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Early stage evaluation of tool ongoing within project timelines. 
Title SOP for reliable NIRS measurement from fresh faecal samples 
Description It is notoriously difficult to obtain reliable, reproducible near infra red spectra (NIRS) from samples containing water. We have developed a protocol involving replicated technical measurements which can be applied to samples of fresh faeces from dairy cows. Multivariate analysis has shown that results generated could be separated in terms of experimental treatment without significant interference from "sample noise". This information will be included in a forthcoming publication. 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This advance is primarily likely to increase non-invasive diagnostics of feed use efficiency, but the methodology may be adaptable to other water-based samples. Through engagement with ABAgri it is expected that the algorithms for spectral analysis of faeces will be incorporated into their on farm system used by farm consultants. 
Description Precision farming Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presented project as part of a workshop on precision farming research at Aberystwyth University. Attendees from IBERS, Department of Geography and Earth Science and Computer Science.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation to SARIC Club 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Presentation of poster and talk at SARIC dissemination event November 2017. Enabled wider discussion of our project with those in related projects with view to future activity.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Presentation to SARIC Club Dissemination Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact In addition to a project poster presentation, a joint presentation was made by Alison Kingston-Smith and Gary Atkinson to update a workshop of ~60 delegates including representatives from funders (UKRI, KTN and 12 industry partners), and academics of progress to develop a hand held instrumentation for improved feed utilisation by dairy cattle. This was a mixed discipline audience which highlighted technical advancement relevant to the industry partner mostly associated with the project (ABAgri) but also demonstrated wider relevance to the water and slurry storage sectors.
Following from this, the project twas selected by SARIC as a case study to be included in their "Impact brochure" to be published 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018