Near-Infrared Spectroscopy Delivers High-Quality Milk Analysis to the World’s Dairies

By Mostafa Medhat – Director of Products, Agriculture & Food

Dairies come in different shapes and sizes—from giant factory-scale operations in developed nations, to tiny family farms in third-world countries. And whether big or small, these dairies play a massive role in countries’ economic output, with the agribusiness-dominated United States leading the world in milk production, while India—with its patchwork of small-scale farms—comes in second.

Regardless of size, location and business model, all kinds of dairies can benefit from improved measurement of milk quality. By continually testing, farmers can gather critical information about the composition of milk that can improve the quality of their output and enhance the health of their herds.

However, current testing methods are available only to large diaries, requiring samples to be collected and sent to labs for analysis. Such analysis is expensive and can take days to complete—far too long for real-time monitoring and mitigation of health and quality issues.

To meet this challenge, a new approach to milk testing has arrived on the scene, one that stands to massively reduce the cost and increase the availability of sample analysis. Using a combination of near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) techniques and microelectromechanical (MEMS) semiconductor technology, Si-Ware has developed the NeoSpectra line of sensors. NeoSpectra sensors with an order of magnitude reduction in price and can operate in harsh environments, paving the way for high-volume, high-frequency testing on farms.

Milk Analysis Boosts Cow Health

NIRS has proven to be a useful tool for analyzing milk, capable of determining the content of fat, protein and lactose in samples. By analyzing these levels in milk, dairies can identity issues with specific cows. This is just an example of what can be done, other parameters can be measured depending on the needs of the application, like the somatic cell count or even adultration detection.

This kind of analysis can uncover minor health issues that can affect milk quality, such as dietary problems that can be addressed by adjusting the feed or supplements given to a specific cow. NIRS also could reveal more serious issues. Poor nutrition can cause a range of health issues for cows, including lameness, bladder infections, anemia and urinary blockage.

Losses associated with these and other diseases can total as much as $200 to $400 per case, per lactation, according to one analysis from 2011.

NeoSpectra Sensors Bring High-Quality NIRS Analysis Down to the Farm

Traditional methods of evaluating cow health don’t use scientific rigor, often involving a visual inspection to search for physical signs of disease. Lab-based NIRS solutions are more precise, but suffer from the time and cost limitations mentioned previously.

NeoSpectra sensors offer a superior alternative, combining the ease and frequency of visual inspections with the accuracy of NIRS. These small, low-cost sensors can perform NIRS analysis with a comparable level of accuracy as lab-based systems.

The NeoSpectra sensors are able to attain dramatic cost reduction through miniaturization down to the chip level. By placing all functionality on a single semiconductor device that takes advantage of the economies of scale made possible through chip fabrication, NeoSpectra sensors can reduce the cost of NIRS functionality by orders of magnitude, with cost reducing as volumes increase .

Out of the Lab and Into the Barn

For the bigger dairies, NeoSpectra’s NIRS analysis can deliver large-scale benefits.

Such farms milk cows using assembly-line-like systems designed to perform with maximum efficiency. These systems operate at high-volumes, using robots to milk vast numbers of cows and to collect the milk in a central tank.

An ideal approach to analysis would be to conduct testing in real time during the milking process, with the sensors integrated into the milking machines. This method would arm dairies with the key information they need to make real-time decisions on cow health and milk quality.

Major sellers of milking machines are adding sensors to their products to determine milk quality. For example, major dairy equipment supplier Lely is offering a light sensor for measuring constituents on milking machines.

NIRS represents a superior alternative to light sensors, analyzing samples with a higher degree of accuracy and comprehensiveness. As a result, leading dairy equipment suppliers are evaluating NeoSpectra sensors for use in upcoming dairy equipment offerings.

NeoSpectra Delivers Big Benefits for Small Dairies

NeoSpectra’s NIRS sensor analysis also provides benefits to smaller dairy operations, such as family farms located in emerging economies like India. In stark contrast to the industrial-scale dairies in the United States, these farms often maintain a small herd of cows consisting of as few as five animals—all of which are hand-milked by farmers. The farmers then take their milk to a village collection station, where they receive payment.

The collection centers use ultrasonic analyzers to measure the milk, looking specifically at the fat level. The pay rate for dairy farmers depends on the level of fat found in the milk. However, these analyzers also aren’t as accurate or comprehensive as NIRS.

The use of in-field NIRS testing can allow small dairies to measure other parameters beyond fat, determining the levels of protein, and lactose, as well as detecting the presence of adulterants and fillers in milk. This gives small farmers critical insights into the true value of their milk, allowing them to charge optimal pricing.

Milking the Dairy Industry for Profits

The dairy business represents a critical segment of both the global economy and the worldwide food supply, playing central roles in both developed nations and emerging economies. For dairy operations of all sizes and in all countries, testing milk on a frequent or real-time basis can yield valuable information that can enable farmers to obtain the best pricing for their wares—and to help monitor and protect the health of their herds.

Si-Ware’s NeoSpectra sensing solutions provide an accurate, low-cost and widely available approach to testing milk that is likely to see widespread adoption of farms in the coming years.