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Minerals could be at the root of your herd health problems. “The symptoms of deficiencies in trace minerals are often subtle,” says Twig Marston, beef Extension specialist with Kansas State University.
“With deficiencies in selenium, for instance, there are more retained placentas at calving and a slight decrease in breeding soundness exams,” he says. “Both copper and zinc deficiencies might cause a drop in pregnancy rates.”
Geography and ongoing changes in weather and growing conditions can make trace mineral deficiencies a permanent or sporadic adversary.
“Soil conditions, rainfall, plant growth, and proximity to water all have an effect,” says Marston. “There are areas of Kansas, for instance, that have a high molybdenum content in forages and grains that decreases the availability of copper.”
And in many parts of Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, and North Dakota, high-sulfate water can tie up the availability of copper and selenium, says Cody Wright, Extension beef specialist at South Dakota State University.
Wright has a seven-step strategy for addressing mineral deficiencies.
1. Study Herd Performance
Because individual deficiencies can share common symptoms, it's hard to diagnose a specific deficiency based on a single symptom. The first step in detecting and addressing a possible mineral deficiency is to look at herd-performance parameters, like reproductive rates and weaning weights. Compare these to historical or standardized performance data.
2. Analyze Feed, Water, Current Supplements
This is a follow-up step only if shortfalls in herd performance suggest possible deficiencies.
The laboratory screenings typically measure the macro minerals: calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and sulfur. They also may include the trace minerals: cobalt, copper, zinc, selenium, manganese, iodine, and iron.
“In some cases, a little bit of testing might result in savings,” says Wright. “I know of two producers who feed no supplement other than white salt because they tested to learn about the mineral content of their feeds. But that's not going to work for everybody. There are many situations where forages don't meet all the mineral needs of cattle.”
For confusing cases, blood samples or liver biopsies can confirm the presence or absence of mineral deficiencies. Those might be needed when feed analyses show sufficient mineral content, but the animals' physical symptoms and performance suggest deficiencies.
3. Get Professional Help
If possible, work with a nutritionist to formulate specific recommendations. He or she will be able to spot the possible presence of mineral antagonists.
“Sometimes minerals can act against each other,” says Wright. “For instance, the more sulfur and molybdenum there is in the diet, the more that copper availability is reduced. In order to overcome the antagonism, copper would need to be supplemented at levels beyond what animals normally require.
“The nutritionist can determine how much of each mineral needs to be included in the supplement to meet the needs of the cattle at a projected daily intake of 2, 3, or 4 ounces per head,” he says.
4. Have A Supplement Custom Blended
Have it meet the nutritionist's recommendations. As an alternative, you might use the nutritionist's recommendations as a guide for shopping for a commercial mineral meeting your specific needs.
Hand-mixing minerals on your own presents challenges on two counts. First, stocking the inventory of the variety of trace minerals needed can be costly. And second, weighing and accurately blending the minute amounts of trace minerals required can be difficult.
5. Monitor Consumption
“Your supplement could be formulated for a daily intake per head of 2 or 4 ounces, for example,” says Wright. “But in reality, maybe your cows are eating only ½ ounce per head per day.”
One way to increase intake is to blend the supplement with other feeds, such as distillers' grains or with a total mixed ration.
In many parts of Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, and North Dakota, high-sulfate water can tie up the availability of copper and selenium
6. Consider Alternative Delivery
If mineral intake is a problem, consider alternative methods of delivery. Cooked molasses blocks containing supplements can be custom-formulated.
For copper deficiencies, copper boluses can be administered, and these are effective for six months. Still another alternative is an injectable mineral solution, typically containing three to four minerals.
7. Be Aware That Animal Needs Change As Conditions Change
Supplement according to season and stage of reproductive cycle. “I'm a strong believer in not using a single supplement year-round, because the requirements of the cow change with the production cycle of the herd,” says Wright.
“At certain times of the year, producers might want to feed a little more expensive mineral supplement and a cheaper supplement at other times,” he says. “But that's not a one-size-fits-all approach, either. It all depends on the water, feed, and forages of the individual ranch.”
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