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    Mineral Consumption and Cattle: Why Intake is Important

    Authored by Katie Navarra

    Proper nutrition is essential for all animals. Not only are nutrients and minerals needed for basic survival, but deficiencies can stunt growth, decrease production, and even lead to death. Therefore, cattle need meals that include vitamins, minerals, and water—an often-overlooked nutritional part. The type of ration cows need depends on their age, rate of growth, and, if applicable, pregnancy and lactation stage, and the farm’s preferred feeding method.

    Adrian A. Barragan, DVM, MS, PhD, a Penn State University extension veterinarian and assistant research professor, offers insights into how producers can supply needed minerals to their herds to perfect animal health and maximize production.

    Maintenance minerals for cattle

    Barragan said an ample supply of clean water is often overlooked as a key nutrient. Clean water, especially in dairy cattle herds, is critical as it helps animals cope with heat stress.

    “Quite often, the drinking surfaces are not large enough for all the animals in the pen,” he said. “That may mean submissive animals have to wait to get water, which can affect production, especially in dairy cattle, and negatively impacts their health.”

    In addition to water, cattle need several macro minerals, including magnesium, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, sodium, and sulfur, in their diet. 

    A cow needs several micro or trace minerals, such as:

    • Copper
    • Chromium
    • Zinc
    • Selenium
    • Iron
    • Cobalt
    • Chromium
    • Nickel
    • Iodine
    • Manganese
    • Molybdenum

    The level of each depends on important animal features such as breed, age and production stage. For example, dairy cattle need larger calcium concentrations during lactation, according to Barragan.

    “Vitamins are also important. For instance, research has shown the important role of Vitamin E and Selenium supplementation in decreasing the incidence of mastitis in dairy cattle around calving time” he added.

    “Copper, zinc, selenium, and manganese are the micro minerals that are commonly deficient across a wide range of environments,” adds Eric Bailey, PhD, assistant professor and state beef extension specialist at the University of Missouri, “They have numerous functions in the body and often deficiencies manifest as poor health and a lack of thriftiness.”

    Mineral feeding techniques for cattle herds

    Minerals and total mixed rations (TMR)

    TMR is a specially formulated feeding strategy that mixes forages, grains, protein feeds, minerals, vitamins, and supplements at precise levels. The ration is blended based on recommendations from a cattle nutritionist and is made available for consumption several times throughout the day.

    “It is the most accurate feed management approach for administering minerals and vitamins to a group of animals housed in pens” Barragan said. “Typically, minerals in a powder form are mixed in with the main diet, which include different feedstuff such as corn silage (dairy) and hay silage (beef).”

    A TMR ration is most commonly used on dairy farms, but beef producers raising cattle in pens may also use this approach. However, the ingredients must be properly mixed to ensure even distribution across the feed bunk.

    Minerals and grain feeding

    Formulated cattle feeds include the essential minerals and nutrients cattle need. The feed tag attached to the bag shows the minerals and nutrients included and the percentage of each based on a recommended feeding rate. It’s important to note that feeding more or less grain than suggested on the bag influences the volume of each ingredient the cow consumes.

    “When we think of beef cattle or steers, it is more common to use mineral supplements in a self-service approach; in this scenario producers rely on the animal eating what it is supposed to eat,” Barragan said.

    Supplying free choice access to mineral blocks, protein and fat supplementation tubs can fill in dietary gaps if an animal nutrition. 

    Minerals and grazing 

    Grazing operations rely on pasture forages, sometimes with some hay and grain supplementation, to supply minerals and nutrients to the herd. Pastures with dense growth and good soil health can likely fulfill an animal’s daily needs, but not all grazing lands have abundant mineral and nutrient levels. Therefore, like grain-fed operations, grazing producers must supply supplements in tubs or block form.

    “Phosphorus is the macro mineral that is most likely to be deficient in forage-based diets fed to beef cattle in most locations.  We have long known the impacts of inadequate phosphorus on reproductive performance,” said Bailey.  

    Bailey adds that the time of year that cattle are most likely to be deficient is when the grass is dormant or not actively growing.  

    “To put it in visual context when the grass has turned from green to brown,” he said. “It is common to keep mineral supplements out year-round but the months when forage is not actively growing is when I get most concerned about deficiencies.”

    Minerals through supplementation

    Barragan recommends working with a trained cattle nutritionist for help putting together an adequate nutritional program for your cows, including mineral and vitamin supplementation. A nutritionist’s input is especially important for dairy cattle, as Barragan likens them to high-performance athletes with higher dietary needs than the average person.

    “Dairy cattle are genetically ready for a high-performance race, and we need to make sure we provide the nutritional support they need for that race,” he said. 

    When choosing a supplement product, on top of working with a nutritionist, Barragan says looking at the mineral concentration levels on the label can help you decide which is best for your herd based on your management approach.


    More cattle raising knowledge

    Livestock feeds provide animals with the protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals they need. Learn more about cattle feeding and nutrition.