The test, developed by Australia's science and industrial research agency, the CSIRO, uses a mechanical device called Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy to measure the toughness or shear energy of oaten hay.
Around the world, NIRS already is used to measure the fiber and sugar content of forage and feed, but it never has been used before to measure shear energy.
The advance has particular importance for the dairy and equine industries, where hay is an important part of the animals' diet. Making the hay as good as possible, particularly for young animals, is critical for productivity.
That means not only ensuring the hay has a high nutritional value but also that the animals can digest it easily.
David Henry, project leader at CSIRO Livestock Industries, that is where the shear test helps. By measuring the toughness of the hay, it can tell producers how easily an animal will be able to break it down into small particle sizes that can be easily digested.
The higher the hay's shear energy measurement or toughness, the longer the animal will need to chew, the less it will eat and the less energy it gets. After eating, it may feel full, but it cannot make ready use of the nutrients in the hay.
"The beauty of NIRS is that it is inexpensive, rapid and accurate," Henry said.
It takes just 10 minutes to measure shear quality from the time the hay is ground up and thrown into a NIRS machine. It is a huge advance on current wet chemistry analysis, which takes up to two days.
Henry believes NIRS technology also could be used to rapidly and accurately test other characteristics of forage quality, such as fibere and carbohydrate content.
Hans Jung, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was in Australia learning about the project.
"I'm not sure if knowing the shear is going to enable you to give animals a better diet, deliver better milk or increase profits," he said. "But being able to estimate the shear value of hay using NIRS is a huge cost and time saving over the way we usually do it. It's not only cheap and rapid, it's also quite precise.
"This is an advance. To my knowledge, no one has taken this shear force value and applied it to the diet of foraging animals," Jung said.
Colin Peace, executive officer of the Australian Fodder Industry Association, which consists of hay producers, exporters and consumers, is more circumspect.
"We see it as still being at the experimental stage," he said. "But the potential is here to really help producers focus on what their end markets require and make the production pathway more efficient. It could eventually increase production efficiency for a lot of ruminant feedlot systems."