Livestock diets are justifiably different than what’s on your dinner table. By consuming primarily forages, your animals are reliant on the unique geography of your area to provide them with the balanced nutrition they need.
Most of the time Mother Nature provides. However, there can be times when we need to step in and help.
Some farmers, depending on their management system, feed their livestock concentrate and mixed rations that already contain a balance of macro- and micronutrients, including minerals. If this is your case, you’re likely already aware of your animal’s needs and/or work closely with a feed supplier or nutritionist to make sure the balance is appropriate.
Many other smaller hobby farms, however, feed a forage-based (e.g., pasture, hay) diet. In these cases, minerals and other supplements may be provided free choice, meaning livestock animals decide for themselves how much to eat.
The time of year, the age and/or physiologic state of your livestock, and quality of the forage all influence an individual animal’s nutrient requirements, from caloric density to the need for minerals. And of course there are important species differences to be aware of, too. For these reasons, before making any change in your animals’ diet, discuss it with your veterinarian, university extension agent or nutritionist.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when considering supplements for your farm.
Read more: It’s important to know which minerals your goats actually need.
Salt (sodium chloride) supplementation is unarguably the most common you’ll see on a farm and it’s highly likely you are already providing it to your animals. Most diets are deficient in salt and adding it can be tricky as it impacts palatability. Ever had a meal where too much was added?
For this reason, salt licks or blocks are a very convenient method of salt supplementation. Animals can control their own intake, and the body is great at telling them when they need more and when they’ve had enough.
If you already supply a salt block, you’ve probably noticed some animals use it more frequently than others. This is a good example of the individualized tastes and needs of each individual.
You may notice that some salt blocks are pink, while others are white. The pink blocks are actually mixed mineral licks, containing more than sodium and chloride. Read the labels for these mineral blocks carefully as they may be only for a particular species based on what they contain.
Magnesium is a good example of how seasonal changes can impact an animal’s diet. In the spring, although pastures are lush with new grass, this grass is typically low in magnesium. This mineral is essential for muscle and nerve function and lactating ruminants, especially older animals, can become so deficient in the spring, they can succumb to what’s called grass tetany.
Frequently, these animals are simply found dead in the field. If you catch it early, they may lack coordination or appear twitchy. Talk to you veterinarian about your spring pastures to see if your herd is a candidate for spring magnesium supplementation.
Read more: Here are 5 basic principles to remember when feeding sheep.
This mineral is essential for many enzyme-based reactions in the body. Copper deficiency in cattle can result in reduced fertility and broken, mis-colored hairs in the coat. A “typical” copper deficient cow that is supposed to have a black coat will appear faded and red.
Copper, however, is a great example of important and differing species requirements.
Sheep are extremely sensitive to copper. Their bodies store this mineral in the liver so elevated levels pile up, resulting in an overdose. Copper toxicity in sheep results in yellow mucous membranes, weakness and “port wine” colored urine as a result of kidney failure. Usually by the time signs are visible, there is no cure.
The best practice is prevention. If you keep sheep and cattle together, do not provide a cattle supplement to the entire group.
Many parts of the U.S. are deficient in selenium. This mineral is closely tied to vitamin E, and both are essential for both skeletal and cardiac muscle function.
When deficiencies occur, this results in a condition called white muscle disease. Seen commonly in young stock, affected animals appear stiff and painful. If prolonged, they can die of heart failure.
However, this disease can be managed by supplements, dietary or injectable, depending on need.