From the June issue of Cow/Calf Producer.

Keep mineral available to the cow herd at all times during the year. Don’t cut corners; minerals are worth the investment. We don’t have problems, when we provide minerals.

Those sentiments were expressed by three Ohio cattle producers: Keith Kauffman has a purebred herd of 40 Angus cows that includes spring and fall calving near Danville; Bill Lawhon runs 60 head of fall-calving, commercial cows near Mount Vernon; and Scott Payne has a spring-calving herd of 75 commercial cows in partnership with his parents near Vinton, while also overseeing a 150-head cow herd as manager for the Jackson Agricultural Research Station operated by The Ohio State University.

Although each of these producers has different scenarios with his herd, they each recognize the boost to herd health and animal performance that minerals can provide.

Producer perspective

Lawhon notes that he works closely with a nutritionist to monitor which trace minerals his herd may need, depending on time of year, such as offering more magnesium in the spring and early summer to reduce incidence of grass tetany. Prior to breeding season is another critical time where he may offer a slightly different mineral mix to boost reproductive health.

Lawhon has learned from experience that minerals truly have an impact. He shares that a few years ago he had an issue in his herd with cows not passing their placenta quickly after birth. “It turned out to be a calcium deficiency. Mineral fixed it and we haven’t had any issues since,” he reports.

Similarly, Kauffman works closely with a feed company nutritionist to monitor the needs of his herd. Kauffman offers free-choice mineral year-round but will fortify the mineral mixes during the different times of the year, such as breeding season. He also likes to offer a mineral with fly control included during the summer and fall months.

Payne cites reproductive health of the cow herd as the primary reason he sees the need to include a high-quality mineral supplement year-round. “Getting cows bred and keeping them lactating and staying healthy is important, and minerals can certainly help ensure nutrition,” Payne says.

He happily reports that he has not experienced many herd health issues with either of the two herds he works with and attributes that to “the minerals we have fed.”

He cites magnesium as an important spring addition to manage grass tetany and also notes that selenium deficiency is common in his area — so he pays attention to selenium being offered year-round. But he also cautions, while one or two of these minerals may be particularly important at a certain time of year, “you can’t overlook the other minerals. If you don’t have everything in there, you might miss something that is important by just focusing on one.”

That said, he encourages producers to work with the resource people available, such as Extension or private industry nutritionists.

Additionally, Payne credits commercially available minerals for being quality products. He shares that until recently, the research station fed a custom mineral mix created at the Ohio Feed Mill, but they are switching to a commercially available mix from the industry. Payne says, “We’ve found that many of today’s mineral companies have in-depth product research and superior products.”

Design your program

How can you determine an effective mineral supplementation strategy for your own herd? Steve Boyles, a beef specialist with Ohio State University Extension, and Shane Gadberry, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas, offer the following suggestions.

“Start by visiting with county Extension agents.  They often have a good idea of forage types, quality and soil characteristics in the area,” Gadberry explains.

Boyles also suggests visiting with feed companies working in your area. They can usually provide some ideas and options on what might be working for other producers in the region, he explains.

Both Boyles and Gadberry are also proponents of forage testing. “I recommend some forage analysis throughout the year and over time. This can give you a benchmark for your land/forage,” Boyles says.  He adds, “Since nutrition is a major cost and mineral supplementation is a relatively minor cost in the total nutrition program, it is worth the investment.”

As one example of knowledge gained from forage analysis, Boyles cites a project done about a decade ago with forages from several cow-calf operations in Ohio.  He reports, “We found the average copper level to be about 2 ppm, while the minimum levels of copper required for a cow are 10 ppp and even higher for higher producing/lactating cows.”

As a result of these findings, Boyles says over the years several commercial mineral supplements have increased the copper content offered.

Regarding forage analysis, Gadberry emphasizes that forages need to be tested seasonally and be representative of what the cattle are grazing to create a general baseline. He notes that most major and minor minerals can be measured inexpensively. However, some nutrients, like selenium, require a separate analysis to detect lower levels and this can add to the cost.  

Gadberry also points out that a challenge to interpreting forage test results is that the level tested doesn’t necessarily mean it represents the amount utilizable. “Mineral digestion and absorption is affected by other components of the forage, including other minerals and even water,” he explains.  

In critical situations where a mineral deficiency is suspected, testing animals is an option. With animal testing, blood samples are adequate to evaluate the status of some minerals; however, tissue samples, such as liver tissue biopsy, may be needed to adequately assess copper.  

Additionally, Boyles issues a caution in designing your mineral program if distillers’ grains are fed. He explains that distillers’ grains can be quite high in certain minerals and may alter what you need to supplement.

Don’t rely on sight

Lastly, with regard to minerals, Gadberry emphasizes that producers should not rely on “seeing” a deficiency. He explains, “Deficiencies are often subclinical, meaning that we can’t necessarily ‘see’ the results of a deficiency or response to supplementation without good records of calf weight gain, health following weaning stress and herd reproduction.”

He continues, “In the South, my experience in Arkansas has been that forage testing and animal testing suggest marginal deficiencies in trace minerals, in particular copper, followed by selenium and zinc. Thus, rather than waiting to ‘see’ a problem, producers should rely on what testing suggests and what research has shown to be effective for improved mineral nutrition.” 

Looking to the future, Gadberry adds, “I think we still have a lot to learn about mineral supplementation in cow herds — especially in nutrient surplus areas, mineral interactions and optimal levels for different forms.”