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Thermal Imaging Helps Farmers See Livestock in a New Way
July 11, 2012

By Aaron Lancaster
IIP Staff Writer
July 9, 2012

Looking at a horse through a thermal image screen
An infrared camera measures a horse’s surface temperature. Associate professor Peter L. Ryan (middle) helps lead research on thermal imaging technology.

Farmers are seeing livestock in a whole new way thanks to researchers at Mississippi State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the MSU program has developed a new application for thermal imaging technology, using it to monitor surface temperature gradients on animals.

The resulting “temperature maps” allow users to monitor the health and well-being of their animals in a noninvasive way. The innovative approach could cut costs for the world’s leading producers of livestock, such as Brazil, China and India.

A team of MSU researchers showcased thermal imaging, or “thermography,” technology at the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The festival lasted from June 27–July 1 and July 4–July 8 in Washington.

Peter L. Ryan, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Animal and Dairy Science, said the technology saves time and energy for animal caretakers.

“The less you have to do in terms of handling the animal, the better,” Ryan said.

A simple color-based scale makes it easy to pinpoint illnesses and ailments. Researchers say this technique will cut costs and reduce labor for people caring for large animals.

“You don’t have to take a sample, send it out to the lab, analyze it — and your results are right there,” Ryan said. “It’s an instant result, instant diagnosis. … It’s a really powerful tool.”

Originally developed by the military, thermal imaging technology has been used in industries such as manufacturing, engineering and energy.

The equipment was repurposed by researchers at MSU working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The infrared-sensitive cameras are provided by FLIR Systems Inc., a producer of thermal imaging tools based in Wilsonville, Oregon.

Scott Willard, an associate professor at MSU, said that FLIR was caught off guard when MSU asked to use infrared technology for agriculture.

“We do what I guess you could say is a nontraditional use of it,” Willard said. The business-minded professor subsequently founded a private company, Remote Animal Monitoring Solutions (RAMS), which uses the technology to serve clients with large animals.

RAMS operates under the Mississippi University Research Authority Act (MURA), Mississippi state legislation passed in 1992. MURA allows university employees to start companies using technology from their research.

Ryan, Willard and other MSU researchers have found a wide variety of uses for thermal imaging instruments. The tools can be used to detect sick livestock, determine lameness in horses and even monitor foot health in elephants.

“If you have a 10,000-plus [pound] animal that has a problem with its foot, that can be a life-threatening thing for an animal of that size,” Willard said.

The imaging technology can also be programmed to target specific areas of an animal or to detect a certain temperature. Ryan is confident that, in addition to being noninvasive, thermal imaging is just as accurate as conventional care methods.

“Thermal signature doesn’t lie. … It’s not only a pretty thing to look at, but you can actually get some meaningful data from it,” Ryan said. “We’re always exploring options. …We’d like to see it developed in such a way that it can become a more versatile tool in livestock management and herd health production, just like the dairy cow.”

While it can be effective, the technology has limitations. If the sun has been shining on an area, for example, the thermal readings might not be consistent.

“We’re as much about trying to find out how we can use thermography as we’re also trying to find out what the boundaries are where we can’t use it in a production setting,” Willard said.

Even when considering such limitations, both Willard and Ryan agree that thermal imaging could have a great impact in livestock-producing countries.

“I think in some developing communities, when you have a technology that is portable, battery-operated, can go out into the field and be used in a number of different ways. … I think that’s where it might have some potential,” Willard said.