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Sep 30

Shining a light on NIRS technology: Versatility of Near Infrared technology improves efficiency in ag industry

Posted on Sep 30 By: Natalie Noble

It’s all around us and affects our everyday lives without most of us even realizing it. Used in Alberta’s ag industry since the 1980s, researchers are finding more ways to take advantage of Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) when it comes to barley.

A single 45-second NIRS scan uses light energy absorption to provide information on 34 components including protein, starch, fibre, micro-nutrients, malting potential, and digestible energy. This information can be used in a variety of ways from predicting traits for breeders to measuring feed quality characteristics for export to Japan, In fact, here at home, research scientists with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry have worked with NIRS technology for over 20 years.

“Canada was at the forefront of adopting this technology for grain-grading. It’s used in all of the grain elevators in Canada to measure grain quality,” said Marylou Swift, PhD, feed quality research scientist and former manager of the NIRS Network.

FOSS DS2500 spectrometer
FOSS DS2500 spectrometer at the Field Crop Development Centre, Lacombe.

NIRS conveys the feeding value of barley coming into the mill specific to swine, beef or poultry. More accurate assessment of feed means it can be formulated properly to meet the animal’s requirements. With this is mind, it is not surprising that NIRS has been adopted by about 20 Alberta feedlots and over 10 other agriculture enterprises. Researchers are predicting a trickling down of the technology to more users as farmers begin to realize its potential.

“This technology helps growers deliver a specific quality that buyers are looking for,” said Lori Oatway, research scientist at the Crop Development Centre in Lacombe. “We’re always looking to optimize production. Ultimately, it makes it easier to sell your crop and get more benefit for it.”

From a seed breeder’s perspective, NIRS helps in the selection of lines with superior traits according to the variety’s intended use. This advantage has also made great strides in the malting and brewery industries, especially with today’s influx of craft breweries, where the tool can screen for positive and negative traits that affect the end product.

“We see the excitement in everyone we work with, including milling and malting groups, about the fact that we can tell how a sample is going to perform in a matter of minutes,” said Oatway. “We can then bulk known qualities together and make processes more efficient. I really think that’s going to be a focus of where this technology can take the industry.”

“It’s benefitted the livestock producer because we’re taking a lot of variation and guess work out of the formulation. That’s just going to feed back up the crop chain” said Swift. “I think the livestock industry will continue to use the technology, but in the next five years it will move more into the crop growing industry where they will realize the value of it in assessing quality.”

Natalie Noble is a freelance writer based in Calgary with rural Alberta roots.

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