PIEDMONT, S.D. - Will cattlemen someday measure their animals' breaths and belches to determine feed efficiency, or whether they're getting sick?
Pat and Scott Zimmerman think so.
They are principals of C-Lock Inc. in Piedmont, S.D., which has developed and is marketing a system called GreenFeed - a sort of computerized breathalyzer that measures the methane and carbon dioxide output in cattle and other ruminants. They say the equipment can be used to monitor cattle health and efficiency.
Pat, the elder Zimmerman, is a range science and atmospheric scientist with nearly 40 years of business and academic experience and owns C-Lock. His son Scott, who holds a civil engineering bachelor's degree and a master's in water resource engineering, serves as its director of engineering. Mike Billars, an electrical engineer, designs circuitry and writes programming for the systems. Zimmerman's other son, Tom, works in component purchasing, billing and budgeting.
GreenFeed machines have been tested in the scientific market for about a year and the company has been aggressively promoting them in the past year.
A French scientist is using a GreenFeed system to help develop more feed-efficient beef bulls. A beef feedlot researcher in New South Wales, Australia, is using the machines to help develop better feed formulas. A Pennsylvania State University researcher is studying a GreenFeed system to help cut methane emissions with the ultimate goal of increasing feed efficiency.
Beyond the science market, Zimmerman thinks his machines have a place in feedlots and in purebred livestock operations in the Upper Great Plains.
Family of inventors
Pat Zimmerman, 62, grew up on a wheat farm in eastern Washington. He was exposed early to the idea of inventing things on the farm. His father developed a wheat seeder that he collected royalties on when it was eventually built by John Deere.
Zimmerman, the oldest of four children, went on to Washington State University in Pullman. He got his bachelor's degree in environmental science and zoology and a master's degree in environmental science, with an emphasis on air pollution research. Zimmerman served as a WSU faculty member for about six years.
In 1979, Pat went on to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. He was there for 18 years and commuted to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he picked up a doctorate in range science.
In 1997, he took a job as director for the Institute for Atmospheric Science at the South Dakota State School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, S.D. There, Zimmerman taught meteorology and invented what he called the C-Lock System. The system was a way to evaluate what farmers and ranchers were accomplishing in carbon accounting and to help them get paid in an emerging carbon market, which later dissipated.
C-Lock was incorporated in 2003.
On to GreenFeed
GreenFeed is based on the principle that if you measure the metabolic gases from a ruminant animal, you can determine its feed efficiency. The same gases identify certain cattle illnesses before symptoms can be seen.
From the outside, the system looks much like a standard feeder that supplies mineral concentrates to cattle in a pasture. But it does much more.
GreenFeed uses a tone and a light to draw an animal to pellet bait. When the cow sticks its head into the machine, it is recognized by its radio frequency identification (RFID) ear tag. Each cow is lured and tested three to five times a day for a period of three to seven minutes each time. If the RFID tag indicates the animal has already visited, it gets no feed and leaves the machine.
The GreenFeed equipment measures emissions from the mouth and nose. Those two orifices produce 92 to 95 percent of methane emissions from cattle. Cow flatulence accounts for the rest, but it isn't studied in the GreenFeed system.
Eighteen sensors in the system are coordinated to verify that the animal is properly in position for the machine to collect methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2). A cow produces both gases from regular exhaling and belching. A cow typically belches every 40 seconds.
Data is stored and transmitted every hour through a cell phone account. It goes to a computer server at C-Lock headquarters, where it is processed using automated algorithms and analyzed. Enough on-board storage is in the system to accumulate more than a year's data, in case there is a transmission interruption.