The Beginning Farmer’s Guide To Animal Nutrition

Your livestock will live healthy productive lives if you pay attention to the nutrition you provide them.

by Ryan Ridgway, DVM

Work with your vet to figure out the best nutritional plan for your farm animals.
Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr

Nothing is more important to your farm than your animals’ nutrition, regardless of whether they are cattle, chickens or pigs. Without proper nutrition, the livestock species on your farm will not thrive: Their growth and production suffer, as does their immunity, leading to increased disease outbreaks. Thankfully, proper nutrition can be easily achieved by anyone with a little research, consulting with your veterinarian or licensed nutritionist, utilizing feed and water tests, and being critical of your feed.

The best way to understand how nutritional deficiencies work was taught by one of my professors when I was working on my animal science degree. Envision that each nutrient is a barrel stave in a rain barrel and the length of the stave is the amount that the animal needs. Any deficiency of a nutrient shortens that one stave and no matter how much you increase the length of the other staves—or nutrients—the barrel will only hold so much water. The water, in this instance, is an animal’s production or growth, and no matter how much you compensate with other nutrients, one deficiency will always hold you back while toxicities develop in the other nutrients.

Each animal species has different nutritional requirements so always talk to your veterinarian or a licensed animal nutritionist to find out what what nutrients your animals need and what imbalances are common in the feed in your area.

Top-Quality Feed

When it comes to the feed you select, always look for high quality. It never pays to try and save money on poor feed. Things to avoid in your feed include:

  • Dust or mold: Molds can cause diseases, such as sweet clover poisoning, which causes bleeding disorders. Dust can lead to allergic bronchitis and pneumonia in many animal species.
  • Rancid or musty odors: Our animals can get food poisoning from bacteria, such as Listeria and Clostridial, just like we can. Off-smelling feed is also an indication that the feed will be less nutritious and will likely have mineral and vitamin deficiencies.
  • Ergot: Ergot is a fungal disease of grains and grass seeds. Rye is classically infected by it, though grasses and other grains can suffer, as well. Ergot causes sloughing of an animal’s extremities and, once you see one animal affected, it won’t be long before you see others affected.

Recognizing Nutritional Imbalance

Make sure the feed or hay you provide your livestock isn't moldy, dusty or otherwise contaminated.
Nick Thompson/Flickr

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The exact signs of a nutrient imbalance depends on the nutrient. It is important to remember that overdoses of vitamins and minerals can be just as dangerous as a deficiency. A classic example of this is selenium: Overdoses, as well as deficiencies, can cause weakness and death, and more is not necessarily better when it comes to treating a deficiency—I’ve had clients give an overdose of selenium to treat a deficiency in their calves, only to kill them with a selenium toxicity. Copper is another common mineral overdose because of species differences between cattle, goats and sheep. Often producers don’t realize that they can’t feed cattle trace minerals to other animals because goats and sheep are prone to copper toxicity, which can be fatal.

Signs of mineral imbalances are vague and often missed because they show up slow and gradually until animals are not milking, laying eggs or reproducing or they’re simply dying. The most common signs of nutritional balance consist of:

  • weakness
  • poor growth
  • poor reproductive performance
  • reduced production, such as lactation or egg laying
  • increase in disease outbreaks

Many mineral imbalances have neurological signs, such as tremors, seizures, muscle stiffness, coat color changes or hair loss. Other subtler symptoms are reduced immunity and fertility, leading to slow increases in the number of sick animals on the farm and increased number of non-pregnant animals.

Don’t Overlook Water

Many farmers forget about the impact their water can have on their animals. Water can contain many minerals, such as sulphates and molybdenum, that can bind up copper, preventing its absorption by the animal and leading to a copper deficiency. High sulfates can also create a thiamin deficiency, leading to nervous disease. The concentrations of minerals in water change year to year, just like they change in feed, and environmental factors like drought can concentrate the minerals to toxic levels.

If in doubt, test your feed and water. This can save you a lot of expenses and lost revenue and keep your animals healthy, happy and thriving.

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