Anyone who has been around cattle for awhile soon appreciates the importance of a good cattle trace mineral program. These nutrients are only required in minute amounts, but they play critical roles in many vital body functions, growth in young animals, lactation, reproduction and fighting disease. Deficiencies of even a single essential mineral will adversely limit cattle health and performance in your cowherd. Producers should learn to recognize the subtle signs of a hidden trace mineral deficiency, how to make sure a potential mineral problem exists, and how to implement a good strategy to correct it.
One should understand that many marginal or sub-clinical trace mineral deficiencies simply can hide amongst cattle in any given beef herd. This trait makes it difficult and at times frustrating to isolate them in order to implement even the best effective solution. Unlike an acute trace mineral deficiency, such as a high incidence of goiter in a cowherd (a severe iodine deficiency), a specific, but obscure trace mineral deficiency, could go unnoticed for a long time or be mistaken; for another mineral deficiency, another nutritional problem or an issue that is non-feed related.
Producers who strongly suspect a possible hidden trace mineral deficiency (or deficiencies) underlies poor performance in their cowherds, should consider a more focused and unbiased approach as outlined in the following 10-point checklist. By sticking to this action plan, one can avoid many premature or wrong conclusions during a good mineral investigation as well as have a better chance of uncovering the true root causes, before tackling it further with a viable and practical solution.
1. Review your cowherd performance history. What were the herd problems during the last few years? What was the past calving season like (re: specific calving difficulties, calf mortality, cows and heifers return to estrus)? Were the spring calves, healthy and growing? How many cows and replacement heifers showed strong heats and conceived during the early part of the breeding season or remained open at the end? How many cows were culled and for what reasons?
2. Take a current physical assessment of cowherd. Evaluate body condition scores of all cows and take an inventory of the disease status in your herd from foot problems to more serious pathogenic disease. Ask more questions: What diseases do you most often vaccinate and treat in your herd? What effect does your herd’s current body condition and health status play on overall cattle performance?
3. Review your current feeding program. For most of the spring/summer season, the cowherd is grazing pasture: What is the condition of your pastures? Do you have enough pasture for the season? What is your current mineral feeding program? Do you feed a balanced commercial mineral, molasses-blocks with minerals or mineralized-salt blocks? More questions: What is the source and quality of water that is available to the cattle?
4. Collect and analyze feed data. Trace mineral deficiencies are common on the western Canadian prairies (re: 90 percent of all feeds grown in Alberta are deficient in copper and 65 –75 percent of all forages do not meet the dietary zinc requirement of cattle.). Determining the mineral profile of one’s own feedstuff is a good idea, but the common practice to feed commercial mineral to help cattle meet all their trace mineral requirements might not always justify the analytical expenses.
5. Set up a good animal testing protocol. With the assistance of your veterinarian, blood samples can be taken for trace mineral analysis (mainly copper, zinc, and selenium). Keep in mind that blood mineral profiles are not always a true reflection of mineral status in cattle (re: liver mineral profiles are more accurate, but not practical) and are erroneously affected by many internal diseases. Furthermore, it’s also a good idea to sample and test many animals in the herd (at least five percent) and those that have relatively good health status to get a good cross-section of mineral status among the herd.
6. Interpret your results from your feedstuffs and animal data. Are you ready to examine this information and propose a possible cause(s) of a mineral problem in your cattle operation? For example: an analysis of your pasture grasses shows that dietary copper is adequate, but several cattle are anemic and have low plasma copper. Is there an antagonistic element at work in the forages (such as molybdenum) tying up copper and making it biologically unavailable to the cattle? Normally, more information seems to generate more questions, and vice-versa.
7. Develop and implement your mineral solution. According to the Penn State animal science department, effective problem-solving includes applying five boundaries to each proposed solution; be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. Let us imagine your beef operation with a marginal copper deficiency, primarily caused by poor mineral consumption. The proposed solution encompassing these five parameters might be: purchase a new well-fortified commercial cattle mineral (S) containing 4000 mg/kg copper at the rate of 70 g (M, A) per head (R) per day (T).
8. Monitor and evaluate your mineral recommendations. At this step, you should determine if an implemented solution is working. Following the copper case outlined in Step #7, we would be more confident in our solution, if follow-up blood samples are taken and they show elevated plasma copper levels. It’s best to remember that the final weight of our success proves somewhat intangible (better general herd health status) and often is long-term (a better next-year calving season).
9. Draw sound conclusions and resolutions. Simply stated: Was the problem identified and was the solution effective in solving the problem?
10. How much did our working solution cost in money and time? We should always ask ourselves; “Was the money spent determining the problem (in this case of a hidden marginal copper deficiency in a beef herd) solving the problem, worth it?”
When trying to solve an identified subclinical or hidden mineral deficiency, not all proposed solutions will be successful. Some dietary mineral problems are multi-faceted with other nutritional and non-feed issues and are often complex. These situations may have one, many or no solution. Sometimes, “it’s back to the drawing board”, once or several times.
Fortunately, solving subclinical or hidden trace mineral deficiencies on many farms is often not that complex. It might be a matter of reviewing and upgrading one’s mineral program to better cattle mineral that helps the cows meet all of their respective trace mineral requirements. Sometimes, it does not require feed and animal mineral testing, but simply opening up and pouring a bag of beef mineral and making sure that the mineral feeders are full.
Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]