Manage your cattle’s mineral menu

Consistent monitoring, proper salt use and location are all key to ensure 
minerals and supplements are effective

Minerals and supplements are necessary tools in cattle production but how do you ensure the herd has what it needs while avoiding expensive waste?

Animal nutrition expert D.J. Woodward says striking that balance means monitoring, proper rations and appropriate salt use.

“Cattle have to consume minerals in order to have all of the health benefits that we know that their rumen microbes need,” said Woodward, regional manager for ADM animal nutrition out of Lethbridge, Alta. “Overconsumption for long periods will be costly, with little or no benefit, and underconsumption can create deficiencies.”

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Focusing on free-choice minerals, as they are the most commonly used, Woodward provided tips for producers during a recent Going to Grass online presentation sponsored by United Farmers of Alberta.

Before starting out with a new mineral program, he suggests acquiring a feed analysis to determine what minerals you may need to supplement.

“Cattle require macro-elements such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sulphur, potassium and salt,” Woodward said. “Macro-mineral requirements vary depending on the class of animal and level and state of production.”

When selecting a mineral product, producers should consider the form (block or meal), the formulation (salt content, added carriers and sweeteners) and concentration (number of cows per tub and distribution in the pasture).

Woodward says concentration is a major factor in achieving proper intake levels and a common mistake he sees when using tub minerals is the improper amount of cows per tub.

“The right amount of cows per tub is critical. The more cows per tub will actually end up costing you more money.”

He recommends aiming for approximately 15 to 25 cows per tub.

“If we have 100 cows on a single tub, that tub is hardly going to get a rest between cows. There is going to be a lot of saliva left on top, which softens more of the top layer and the top inch of that tub will be very soft,” said Woodward. “The cattle will literally be able to lick chunks of it out with their tongue as opposed to having to work a little bit to get at it.”

If using feeders, he suggests one feeder for every 40 to 50 head, and leaving adequate space between them to avoid congestion.

Expect variations

When starting out on a new mineral program, producers should give their herd enough time to level off on consumption before making any changes to management that would affect intake.

“We need to be patient and wait the 21 days for cattle to acclimate to the new product,” Woodward said. “Sometimes they will start very slow, sometimes they will start very aggressive, every cow herd is different so we need to allow that three-week time period for them to do what they are going to do and level off before we make any changes.”

Once the mineral program has been established, don’t be surprised if you still see intake variations, as consumption levels can change for a number of reasons including change in season, temperature, forage quality, pasture rotation and environmental events.

Woodward notes that it is important to monitor mineral disappearance in order to have a good understanding of the daily feeding rate and to be able to properly judge intake tolerance.

“On any free-choice mineral, you should have a 25 per cent intake tolerance, plus or minus. So, on a 100-gram intake on your mineral, you are OK at 75 grams and 125 grams. It is your choice after that if you want to fine-tune it or not. So, when I say overconsumption, that would be anything greater than that 25 per cent window.”

Managing consumption

Salt is considered to be the main driver for mineral intake and can be used as an effective tool when trying to control intake levels.

“Salt is the only mineral that cattle crave. Therefore, salt becomes a tool,” Woodward said. “I tell producers all the time to use salt as both the brake and gas pedal for consumption. We can take it away to increase consumption or we can add additional salt to slow cattle down on the mineral.”

Most free-choice minerals contain 15 to 30 per cent salt or sodium and in cases where cattle may be underconsuming, additional salt offerings, such has free-choice salt blocks, should be taken away to encourage cattle to get their salt from the minerals.

If overconsumption is a concern, additional salt can be added to the mineral mix or a free-choice salt block can be provided to slow the herd’s consumption of the mineral mix.

Location should also be considered when trying to find an intake balance.

For herds that may be overconsuming, move mineral feeders or tubs out of high-traffic areas. This can also be beneficial to increase traffic in areas of the pasture that are being undergrazed.

“The cattle will chase these tubs,” Woodward said. “They will go and eat the tub and then typically graze around the tub, so it is also a way to better distribute the cattle throughout the entire pasture.”

To manage underconsumption, feeders and tubs should be moved to high-traffic areas, near the water supply or areas of congregation to encourage more frequent visits.

For underconsuming herds producers may consider removing any added medications for a short period as these may cause bitterness when starting out, or switching to a low-salt formula, as this will require more consumption to quench the cattle’s salt craving.

For overconsuming herds, Woodward warns to beware of cafeteria-style feeding, as it is not very economical and difficult to determine what the cattle are receiving. But also, don’t overlook forage supply.

“In many conversations over the years that I have had, the producer won’t think they are short of forage, but the cattle do,” Woodward said. “If you are short on forage, particularly when using protein tubs, you will see a rise in intake over a course of about one week to 10 days. It is like someone flipped a switch; all of a sudden the tub has become the feed source and that can become very expensive.”

About the author


Jennifer Paige

Jennifer Paige is a reporter centred in southwestern Manitoba. She previously wrote for the agriculture-based magazine publisher, Issues Ink and was the sole-reporter at the Minnedosa Tribune for two years prior to joining the Manitoba Co-operator.



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