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NIRS forage testing grows in value

Photos by Curt Arens closeup of hay
GOOD STUFF: A mobile NIRS forage-testing unit made the rounds across Nebraska, dating back to 1987, to demonstrate the importance of testing forages and hay, using quality forages in rations, and the value of quality hay and forages for dairy and beef producers.
Then and Now: In 1988, NIRS forage testing was part of a demonstration project.

Editor’s note: In our new column, Then and Now, we look at farm technologies, strategies, equipment, livestock, crops and treatments from our back issues of Nebraska Farmer, and discuss how things have changed and how they have stayed the same.

In the late 1980s, farmers in Nebraska and across the country were slowly coming out of a major farm crisis. During this time, many farmers looked to new enterprises and cash streams to save their operations. They also looked at new ways to save money and become more efficient.

For forages and hay production, it was the dawning of a new age that paid closer attention to forage nutrition analysis that could offer better rations for breeding, growing and finishing livestock and dairy, as well as a way for hay producers to garner a premium for the good stuff.

The cover of the April 16, 1988, Hay/Forage version of the 1988 Crop Guide issue of Nebraska Farmer featured a photo by Associate Editor Jim Carlton of John Miller, Murdock, Neb., and Bruce Stock, Ashland, Neb., piling small square bales on a flatbed trailer. In the cover story, Miller notes that there is an “art” to making high-quality hay.

Several articles in this issue are dedicated to producing, testing, marketing and feeding forages. One article that caught our eyes was about a demonstration project and a computerized mobile near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) testing unit that Bruce Anderson, Nebraska Extension forage specialist, was putting to use around the state.

The analyzer was connected to a computer, focusing infrared rays on a prepared sample of dried, pulverized plant material, instantly measuring and analyzing different plant components because each component reflects infrared rays differently.

According to the article, written by Carlton, no private laboratories in the state at that time offered NIRS forage testing. The demonstration project was part of a three-year program that began in 1987 to demonstrate techniques for forage sampling and analysis.

A photo accompanying the story included Anderson operating the computerized NIRS with West Point farmers Donald Knievel and Paul Steuter Jr., along with Mid-America Dairymen Inc. fieldman Dick Drueke of West Point.

Don Kubik, a Nebraska Extension dairy specialist at the time, noted in the article that the 28 dairy demonstration herds that were part of the program became very conscious of how valuable high-quality forages are. Kubik said that all the herds involved experienced milk production hikes as a result of closely tracking forage and feed analysis.

Rick Rasby, Nebraska Extension beef specialist, concurred. “Knowing the exact quality of their forages also allows producers to determine exactly when and how much protein supplement they need to purchase,” he said in the article.

1988 clipping from Nebraska Farmer demonstrating the new NIRS mobile forage testing unit to West Point farmers

In this 1988 clipping from Nebraska Farmer, an article by Associate Editor Jim Carlton featured a photo of Bruce Anderson, Nebraska Extension forage specialist, demonstrating the new NIRS mobile forage testing unit to West Point farmers Donald Knievel (left) and Paul Steuter Jr., along with Mid-America Dairymen fieldman Dick Drueke.

The key to demonstrating the value of hay and forage analysis to producers was the mobile computerized NIRS unit, because it could be taken on the road to mobile sites by Anderson, and results of the analysis could be printed out within minutes. A conventional analysis could take days.

Today, 32 years later, Anderson recently retired from UNL, but the legacy he and other Extension researchers had begun lives on. Ward Laboratories in Kearney, Neb., is now part of the NIRS Forage and Feed Testing Consortium.

“The NIRSC is a group of commercial laboratories, university personnel, government agency groups, researchers, instrument vendors and other industry companies,” says Rebecca Kern, animal scientist with Ward Laboratories and director on the board of NIRSC. “The group collaborates to ensure robust, accurate results across NIRS instrument platforms and member laboratories."

These days, Ward Laboratories samples are dried, ground and scanned on a FOSS DS 2500. “Proper sample preparation is key,” Kern says. “Moisture and sample particle size can affect the variability and accuracy of NIRS results.”

Kern notes that the advantage of NIRS technology over wet chemistry for farmers is the cost. “Producers receive a large number of constituents on their report for a fraction of the cost,” she says. “Each of those constituents can provide insights for the forage producer about what they can do to improve, and to the livestock feeder about how animals might perform consuming that forage or potential supplementation needs.”

While Anderson was delivering forage reports in minutes in 1988, it usually takes a couple of business days for an NIRS report from Ward Laboratories, in order to get the moisture right on the samples — and to perform wet chemistry tests on specific forage samples if the producer requests it — to gain more insight. “Nitrates are a popular addition to an NIRS report for corn silage samples or sorghum-sudan forage types,” Kern says.

As margins have grown tighter, the value of forage analysis has become even greater since 1988 when the NIRS testing unit first hit the road with Anderson. It is a technology that has been fine-tuned over the past three decades, but it continues to do good service for farmers raising high-quality forages and livestock producers who feed it.

Check out the NIRSC website at nirsconsortium.org.

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