What is the real cost of mineral supplementation?

Selenium is the only mineral we supplement to cattle that the FDA regulates

October 6, 2022

6 Min Read
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For some management practices calculating the return on investment is straightforward. Unfortunately, determining the cost vs. benefit of mineral supplementation is not always clear. This is why it seems when input costs go up, the mineral is one of the things that can be easy to cut out or replace with a less expensive, lower quality option. The problem is that early signs of mineral deficiencies can be hard to identify and often go unnoticed. Eventually, in cases of severe mineral deficiency, producers could see widespread issues throughout the herd that has us making phone calls to our veterinarian. But those early and often sub-clinical deficiencies can also eat away at performance, productivity, and, yes, profitability. Sub-clinical deficiencies might look like a few more open cows this year compared to last or needing to treat a few more calves this time around. Of course, there are several reasons we would see lower pregnancy rates or higher pull rates from one year to the next, and we shouldn’t always blame it on the mineral. However, ensuring the herd is protected against mineral deficiencies is a simple practice in a business where so much is outside of our control.

Think about the mineral program as a good insurance policy. The problem is that many of our common feedstuffs are deficient in one or more minerals. The table below shows the mineral requirements for a lactating cow and typical mineral concentrations for common feedstuffs for select minerals.

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Failure to provide a good quality mineral supplement leaves the herd susceptible to developing mineral deficiencies. So, what is a good quality mineral supplement? My definition is a mineral supplement that provides all the required minerals that need to be supplemented in adequate amounts to prevent mineral deficiencies without over-supplementation. I like to tell people when it comes to a mineral program, pay for what you need but not for what you do not need.

Minerals that typically require supplementation include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, cobalt, copper, iodine, manganese, selenium, and zinc. However, if our mineral program consists of only a white salt block, we are only supplementing sodium and chloride and forgetting the other nine minerals that also require supplementation. Even when supplementing with a trace-mineralized block, we still miss three or more minerals altogether. Additionally, these products are 95-99% salt, meaning the concentrations of the other minerals are so low that cattle are still susceptible to mineral deficiencies. Some mineral supplements will also include a source of iron, which makes the product red. Iron is one mineral that is abundant in the feed and does not require supplementation. This is a prime example of paying for something that is not needed.

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Selenium deficiencies can be common in parts of the United States, including the southeast. Selenium is the only mineral we supplement to cattle that the FDA regulates. This is why you see something like “not to exceed 3 mg of selenium per head per day” on a mineral tag. In cases where cattle are especially susceptible to a mineral deficiency, the source of the mineral in the supplement also matters. Cattle are not able to absorb and utilize all sources of a mineral the same, which is why some sources are more bioavailable than others. This is especially important in the case of selenium because we cannot simply add more selenium to the supplement. Therefore, I typically recommend a 50:50 blend of sodium selenite (inorganic source of selenium) and Selenium yeast (organic source of selenium) for cattle at risk of selenium deficiency.

Table 1. Mineral requirements for lactating cow, and average mineral concentrations for common feedstuffs

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Something else that a good quality mineral supplement will also provide is vitamins. Cattle being ruminants, can rely on rumen microbes to produce some vitamins, but Vitamin A and Vitamin E often require supplementation. Leafy green forages are an excellent source of both vitamins, but we know that cattle often do not consume leafy green forages year-round especially during the winter months or during drought. Look for the inclusion of both Vitamin A and E in a good quality mineral supplement.

Hopefully, by this point, you are convinced that supplementing minerals and vitamins is a necessary part of the nutrition program, but what is the actual value of this practice? The table below shows an approximate cost for various mineral supplementation products and the annual cost per cow per year based on target intakes. Although some supplementation options are cheaper than others, remember that failing to provide a good quality mineral can lead to lost performance and productivity of the herd. So when asked what the actual cost of mineral supplementation is, I often start thinking about the price of a couple of open cows or the cost of increased morbidity or mortality on the operation. When looking at the value of a calf in today’s markets, I can quickly make a case for providing a good quality mineral supplement to the herd.

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Shop around for the best value for their mineral program but remember this doesn’t always mean the cheapest option. Sometimes working with a nutritionist to create a custom mix can be more economical than you might think. Especially if you remember my advice, pay for what you need but don’t pay for what you do not need. Like other feed ingredients, buying in bulk can also cut down on price. Keep in mind that vitamins lose their activity over time, so only buy a 3–4-month supply of mineral at a time. For smaller producers, consider partnering with other small producers or local cattlemen’s associations to take advantage of bulk discounts on mineral.

Lastly, remember it takes the same amount of labor to put out a poor-quality mineral as it does to put out a good-quality mineral. Keep an eye on mineral intake to ensure the herd gets the most out of the mineral you provide. A 50-lb bag of mineral with a target intake of 3 oz per head per day should last 25 cows for about ten days. Cattle have a desire to consume salt, so salt is the driver behind mineral intake. If cattle consume too much mineral, consider placing a bag of white salt out for a day or two to allow the herd to cost-effectively meet their desire for salt and then return to providing the free choice mineral. If cattle are not consuming enough mineral, ensure that the mineral feeder is located near the water source or shaded area where cattle will be more likely to visit it.

Source: University of Kentucky, who is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. 

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