Custom designed mineral programs can save money while enhancing cattle health
Custom designing a mineral program could save ranchers money by eliminating costly minerals the cattle don’t need.
Mary Drewnowski, University of Nebraska beef systems specialist, pointed out the challenge of developing a mineral program is realizing that concentration doesn’t equal availability.
“A nutrient is not in the body until it is actually absorbed,” she said. “Think of an animal as a doughnut. If I stick my finger through the doughnut hole, is my finger actually in the doughnut? It is the same way with something an animal is eating. It is not actually in the animal until it is absorbed. Our first barrier is absorption, and bio-availability, which is how well can it be absorbed.”
Antagonisms can present another challenge. It occurs when one element is inhibiting the absorption or transport of another. “A classic example is sulfur and molybdenum antagonizing copper, and making it unavailable to the animal,” she said. “Secondary deficiencies occur when the concentration of a mineral is making it adequate in the diet, but other things are interfering with its absorption causing a deficiency. Minerals are all inter-related. For instance, if you have something high in phosphorus, it can negatively impact magnesium absorption.”
Because everyone’s soil profile is different, it can impact what minerals are most beneficial in the diet. “You will have a different profile than your neighbor because of the different pH levels in the soil,” she said. “It impacts uptake, plant concentrations and plant species. What your animal selects to eat even impacts concentration. Plant maturity also impacts concentration, mostly because as plants mature, the concentration goes down.”
Because everyone’s needs are different, Drewnowski said it could be beneficial for ranchers with more than 100 cows to start taking samples of their forages over time during several different seasons throughout the year. “I would recommend collecting samples for at least three years before making any huge adjustments to the mineral program,” she said. Once armed with that information, she encourages producers to work with an extension specialist or an animal nutritionist to create a custom mix that targets their specific animal’s needs. “It allows you to supply something you need to, but can save you money by no longer supplying something you don’t,” she said.
One of the most expensive ingredients in a mineral supplement is phosphorus. “Producers need to figure out when they actually need it,” she said. They also need to determine if trace minerals, like manganese, zinc and copper, are excessive in the mineral supplement. “Most of our mineral supplements are salt-driven,” she said. “Some cattle find salt more palatable than others and may eat more than they need. It is similar in humans. I don’t always balance my diet that well, or eat what I should.”
By developing a custom mineral formulation, producers can make changes in the diet based on what their cattle need. “Some cattle can exhibit peculiar behaviors when they are deficient in certain minerals,” she said.
Customizing a mineral formulation can also rule out mineral deficiencies as a production problem. “One of the typical challenges I see in the cow herd is a decrease in immunity in calves that are 2 to 3 months of age. It coincides with the decrease in the maternal antibodies in the calf, so the calf has to start to rely on its own immunity,” Drewnowski said. “That’s why many times producers don’t know if a disease outbreak is caused by an antibody issue or a mineral issue.”
Drewnowski shared a story of one producer with 400 cows that had a scour problem at calving for four years. “To him, and the people who sold him the product, it was a mineral issue,” she said. But, it actually turned out to be a pathogen problem, and he just needed to move to a different calving pasture. He had calved in the same pasture for the last four years.
“These programs don’t solve all your issues, but a good mineral program is insurance and a good risk management protocol for handling those immunity problems,” she said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.