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Balancing copper content a challenge for shepherds

Some soils provide too much, some too little, and both can be deadly

Varying rates of copper in the soil across Canada has been giving sheep producers a tough go.

In September, the Manitoba Sheep Association reported that through June and July, processing plants in Ontario saw an increase in the number of adult carcasses being condemned due to jaundice.

“Copper toxicity is what is causing the jaundice being found at the slaughter plants in Ontario, which is caused by an overload of copper in the animal’s system,” said Jonathon Nichol, chair of the Manitoba Sheep Association.

Copper toxicosis can occur when sheep are fed rations that are high in copper. If animal feed is grown in soil containing high levels of copper, chances are copper levels in the feed are also high.

Complicating things further, copper content in soil varies greatly across Canadian geography, and according to Nichol, Manitoba has a reduced level of copper in its soil in comparison to Ontario, and has seen more reports of copper deficiency in sheep than copper toxicity, which can be equally harmful to herd productivity.

The gums of this sheep display the typical yellowish colouration.

The gums of this sheep display the typical yellowish colouration.
photo: NADIS.org


“We know that Ontario is having an issue with jaundice but Manitoba has a different copper content in the soil and in our feed than in Ontario, so we have seen multiple producers within the province that are on the opposite side of this problem, with a copper deficiency,” Nichol said. “This is something that producers need to be aware of. Yes, too much copper will kill a sheep but not enough copper will also kill a sheep.”

There are several locations within Manitoba that are known to be copper deficient and the province is also known to have molybdenum present in certain areas, which binds copper from being used effectively in sheep.

“The symptoms of a copper deficiency look similar to that of a high parasite load. The animal becomes anemic, some of them will go lame and some will get what is called wire wool, which creates a difference in the wool texture. But the end result, if the animal is too low in copper for too long, they start to do very poorly and if you do not catch that problem they won’t survive,” Nichol said.

Nichol says he has personally had a deficiency issue on his own sheep farm near Manitou.

“I assumed I had a worm problem and eventually, when I ran out of options, I started to look at every other potential possibility and narrowed it down,” Nichol said.

If producers are seeing several anemic animals and have been deworming regularly but have not seen an improvement, Nichol suggests that they may want to talk to their vet about testing for copper deficiency.

Jaundice is seen here on the sclera of the eye.

Jaundice is seen here on the sclera of the eye.
photo: NADIS.org

Producers can test soil and feed to get an inkling of the trace levels of copper the herd is receiving, however, the only way to determine the true level of copper in the animal’s system is by testing a liver sample.

“A blood sample can’t really tell you. The only true way to find out what your copper level is in your sheep is through a liver sample and typically that is post-mortem,” Nichol said. “Liver samples are the best bet. It costs me approximately $200 a lamb to send in a piece of liver to be sampled and that will tell me pretty quickly the amount of mineral and the amount of copper I am feeding them. The expense of having a couple of samples taken and tested is far less expensive than losing a bunch of animals.”

After testing liver samples and getting an understanding of copper levels, sheep can be supplemented copper, however, it takes time for the copper to both accumulate or leave the animal’s system.

“Copper builds slowly and also takes a long time to get out of the animal’s system. You can’t cure it overnight. It is not going to be a five-day course of antibiotics to solve the problem, it will take an extended period of time.”

On his own operation, after taking a number of liver tests and consulting his veterinarian, Nichol began supplementing his herd with copper and has seen positive results.

“I have had a lot of people who are concerned about what I have been doing on my operation, in terms of managing the copper deficiencies. Some people were very skeptical, as we have been told for many years not to feed copper to sheep. But, I have done a lot of liver tests to see where my animals are at and why my problem is where it is,” Nichol said. “I have noticed significant changes in the animals since I began supplementing copper. It takes three to five weeks to notice the big change but the anemia goes away and there are certainly less deaths.”

About the author

Reporter

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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