Trace minerals for cattle

by Wiehan Visagie

Zambian calf producers have been faced with extremely volatile weather patterns over the past ten months, especially with the late rainfall in February. Thus, even if the calf price is good, success on a cattle farm is difficult to achieve at present. From a sustainable farming perspective, the best way to improve profitability is to reduce the overall cost on the farm without negatively affecting performance. Farmers will be able to achieve this goal when they manage the requirement of specific trace minerals in cattle feed, and subsequently shift their focus towards the reproduction of the herd. So, let us have a closer look at how to manage trace minerals on a cattle farm.

The most important trace minerals

You may argue that mineral deficiencies do not exist, but new published research shows that when cow performance declines, the cow is already experiencing mineral deficiencies. According to the research, supplemented zinc, for example, helps to retain nitrogen and is therefore critical in the biological growth of young animals.

Beef cattle farmers need to know the trace minerals status of their farm and to supplement accordingly to avoid deficiencies. For grazing cattle, there are at least ten essential trace minerals identified but only four are vital: selenium (Se), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu) and manganese (Mn).

Challenges among trace minerals

Many forages in Zambia contain minerals that are antagonists, meaning that they block the absorption or function of other vital minerals. When forages contain, for example, molybdenum (Mo) in combination with either copper (Cu) or sulphur (S), they tend to form a complex that prevents absorption within the animal that ultimately leads to mineral imbalance and deficiency.

To make the situation even more complicated, trace minerals are in general poorly absorbed by beef cattle; only 5 to 10% eventually gets absorbed in the body of the animal. There are many factors affecting the efficiency of trace mineral absorption. This could be related to stress periods or the stage of reproduction. As an example, the manganese (Mn) requirement for feedlot cattle is 20 ppm per animal per day, but gestating and early lactating cattle need twice as much (40ppm).

Practical guidelines

Cattle, by nature, are not able to voluntarily determine which minerals they are lacking. Neither are they able to modify their consumption behaviour based on their own physiological needs. When we feed the animals loose and free-choice mineral mixes, the availability of the minerals is dependent on voluntary intake. The best way to manage daily consumption is to add loose salt or to move the mineral feeders away from the water troughs. Farmers can also reduce the frequency of filling the mineral feeders.

Final advice

When farmers decide to supplement trace minerals, they should be aware that the requirements may vary during the year. The amount of calcium needed, for instance, can decline over the summer months, so the mineral mix must be changed accordingly. There is, however, no fool-proof method for supplementing minerals. The best way would be to follow the label recommendations.

Feedlots can distribute the minerals daily as they have the opportunity to mix them on a daily basis, but grazing cattle do not have that luxury. These animals might only be supplemented once or twice a week. Luckily, cattle do have the ability to store minerals in their livers, so farmers can place a week’s ration out in the field without causing deficiencies.

Recommendations before buying and using any supplement:

  • Take time to assess your herd''s mineral status (calving distribution; calf health; nutrient, blood and liver-tissue analysis).
  • Test the mineral content of the forage and determine the intake in relation to the animals’ requirements.
  • Work with your local Novatek Technical Advisor or Nutritionist to develop a mineral programme that is optimal for your herd and your management plan.
  • Always follow the label guidelines for mineral supplements and monitor consumption.

Do not risk the financial consequences of an inadequate mineral programme.

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