The rate at which cattle metabolize feed can vary considerably. Despite this, their feed is portioned based on the average weight of the herd. That means that some animals are overconditioned and others aren't conditioned enough. That type of variability, according to the National Cattlemen's Association, can translate into a loss of $200 per head from an average market value currently hovering at $948. One solution may come from infrared camera technology. Mark Spire, a professor at the Food Animal Health and Management Center at Kansas State University, has used Flir Systems' Thermacam to examine cattle and hogs for five years. At first, the camera only helped to detect areas of inflammation, such as bruises or injection sites. More recently, however, he began to use it to examine health and growth aspects associated with animal feeding, diseases and metabolic processes. Thermographic images captured with a short-wavelength infrared camera are helping researchers to group feed animals according to how they metabolize feed. Consequently, each group of animals is more uniform in quality when the harvest comes. Courtesy of Kansas State University. "What we found was that, as the animal grows, it releases more energy. Sick animals release less energy," he said. "This information is useful because it allows us to screen sets of animals for less energy, which indicates a disease may be going through." More significantly, Thermacam allowed Spire to identify and group animals with similar metabolic rates so they can share more appropriate feed rates. In other words, animals quickly metabolizing feed get one diet while animals metabolizing at a slower rate get another. "Grouping animals according to their metabolic rates allows us to harvest a more uniform product," Spire said. The scope of the research encompasses hogs as well as cattle. The Thermacam, a short-wavelength -- 3 to 5 µm -- camera, is mounted on a platform affording a view of every animal in the pen. Most research is performed at night or in a closed structure to minimize interference from sunlight. Although the camera is both effective and reliable, Spire said he hopes eventually to apply longer-wavelength sensors detecting in the 8- to 12-µm range, where sunlight is less of an issue and the animals' coats present less of a visual barrier. "Our goal is to have a process that can be commercialized," he said.