Using a handheld NIR reader

Posted on June 18, 2019 in Forage Foundations
By Jerry Ruetten, Vita Plus dairy specialist
Dairy producers are busy people and have to make high-impact decisions on a daily basis.  A new tool promises faster decision-making capabilities with instant feedstuff analysis in the palm of your hand.

Traditionally, near-infrared (NIR) spectrometers are used to analyze the chemical makeup of different products.  In the dairy industry, this technology is often used to analyze feedstuffs for dry matter (DM) levels and other feed quality metrics.  Currently, these results are obtained by submitting a sample to a lab to run the tests or with a Koster tester.  Both of these can take longer than we would like, but now the technology is being adapted to fit in your pocket.

Handheld NIR readers are pocket-sized micro-spectrometers that allow consumers to scan products and obtain real-time DM and moisture results.  I found the device to be highly portable, easy-to-use and calibrate, and it gave me instant results. The device is cloud-based and syncs with an app on your phone, which allows the unit to be small.

I have tested the device on a variety of forage- and grain-based animal feeds, including legume silage, corn silage (fresh and fermented), mixed forage silage, grass silage, small grain silage, and dry hay.  If you plan to use or test one, here are some tips from my experiences to use the device effectively:

  • For accurate results, make sure the device has some form of sun shade to prevent outside light from coming between the device and material.
  • Always press it onto the material with the same light pressure.
  • For test one, scan the feedstuff five times, mix up the material, and scan five more times.  Repeat the same process for test two and then average them for the result.
  • To obtain accurate results, do not test materials during extreme temperatures.

I found the device to be useful because it gave instant feedback that could be used in the field to make harvesting decisions based on moisture and day-to-day moisture changes when mixing TMRs.  It also generated a lot of discussion from producers on the technology and how it could benefit their operations.  These devices are rather new, and with that comes a higher price.  However, depending on how many feed lab samples an operation sends in each year, the cost of the device may make sense.  Value should also be placed on the timeliness of the information returned to the user.

However, we do want to exercise some caution when it comes to accuracy of these devices, particularly when particle size varied within the feed.  For example, when we passed corn plants through a chipper shredder twice, particle size was pretty uniform and the NIR reader was quite accurate.  When it was tested on already-ensiled corn silage with varying particle sizes, it was not as accurate.  It was less accurate when tested on haylage than corn silage, presumably because of the varying particle sizes.

Although these units are not currently 100% accurate, as their calibrations improve, they will get closer to the target.

Category: Equipment
Forage Foundations
Forage harvesting