Infrared thermal cameras soon may transform the way feedlots monitor animal health and weight gain.

It looks like the camera system used to monitor shoppers at your local Wal-Mart. But, the infrared camera system being tested at Kansas State University (KSU) for use in feedlots gathers images for quite a different purpose.

Instead of just recording what's obvious to the human eye in a pen of cattle, the infrared camera records images the human eye can't see. It measures the amount of energy being released from the animal's body and converts that energy into a visual image.

This “thermal” image can reveal injection site reactions, areas of inflammation, bruises and other health problems. Thus, feedlot personnel can get an earlier indication of health problems, injuries and other issues before the problems become physically evident, if they ever do.

“The camera will generally detect anything that causes a change in blood flow to an area of the body, or anything that alters the amount of energy released from the body,” says Mark Spire, a KSU beef cattle specialist who has been working with the technology for more than five years.

The thermal image can be viewed in real time, stored on videotape or saved as a still picture. That allows comparison of one animal's thermal pattern to others in a group as well as archiving the images to evaluate changes over time.

“The bottom line is that feedyard folks will get information about the cattle that they haven't had before,” he says.

Environment, diet, disease, metabolic rate and other conditions can alter the amount of thermal energy an animal releases, he explains. For example, an animal with respiratory disease usually has a cooler thermal profile.

While feedyard health personnel can catch some of these conditions, many — like lung lesions — go undetected. In fact, Spire says, as many as half of these cases are never found and those cattle don't perform adequately or grade as well as they should. But, an infrared camera system could change all that.

“This technology allows the rapid screening of large numbers of animals in a short amount of time with more accuracy than visual monitoring of animals,” says Spire.

Having the ability to earlier and more accurately detect conditions affecting animal growth and feed intake would allow feedyard workers to implement management changes more suited to the animal's ability to perform, Spire explains.

Using the thermal profiles, they could separate the animals into high-energy and low-energy groups and then feed them as a contemporary group.

“Then we don't have a mixed population of cattle sitting out there that have wide variation in their performance and wide variation in their feed intakes. We have a very similar set of cattle to work with,” Spire says.

Working Out The Logistics

Though the benefits seem obvious, the logistics of operating the system are still a little muddy.

KSU researchers hope to complete a fully automated system that links animal identification to the thermal image and monitors animals remotely and non-invasively, Spire says.

This would most likely entail a fee-based program in which feedyard workers could passively collect the images once the software and hardware were installed. Trained technicians would collect and interpret the data. Then they would provide the feedlot a list of animals and their expected performances based on their thermal profiles.

Though he can't say for sure when a program like this will be available, Spire estimates it will be within a year.

The cameras are available now for $40,000 to $60,000 and are used for a number of applications in several other industries. But, development of automated analytical software to interpret the images has yet to be completed.

Developers also must address environmental challenges in the feedlot. Besides being a big, deep area to monitor, a feedlot can have wind and solar gain that can distort the energy reading.

For more information about using infrared cameras in the feedlot, contact Mark Spire at 785/532-4201 or e-mail spire@vet.ksu.edu.