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Feeding minerals: Pay now or pay later

Progressive Cattleman Editor Carrie Veselka Published on 24 April 2019
Feeding minerals

When operating costs are high and cattle prices are low, cutting back on nonessentials is often the first step to tightening the purse strings. So what counts as a necessity? What should be cut? Answer: Not minerals.

There is an ongoing discussion on the merits of feeding minerals consistently throughout the year or pulling them out of the lineup during certain seasons. Minerals are of critical importance during most of the year, but during the “off season,” it can be tempting for the thrifty producer to cut down on minerals to save money.

Providing minerals during breeding season and through calving makes sense because many minerals play an important role in reproduction and overall animal health, but when the budget is tight, cutting minerals can seem like a good place to start. Producers with access to good forage in the summer months are presented with a seemingly ideal opportunity to trim their costs for a few months.

Covering your assets

Kent Tjardes, a nutritionist with Purina Animal Nutrition, says that if producers are only considering macrominerals, it seems like a decent strategy, but oftentimes, forages can’t cover all the bases.

“During the summer, a lot of our grasses are good for phosphorous and calcium and some of the other macrominerals, but when you start looking at trace minerals and their impact on reproduction and health, most of our grasses are deficient in some areas,” he says. “To get the most performance out of cattle and to keep them healthy and avoid deficiencies where you’re trying to play catch-up later, it’s better to supplement year-round.” Selenium, zinc, copper, iodine, manganese, iron and cobalt are seven vital trace minerals that can be hard to come by during grazing season.

Tjardes advises producers to take a look at the downside to see what they risk by not feeding minerals. “You’re going to impact health, you’re going to impact reproduction, and those areas can get costly in a hurry,” he says.

He compares a mineral program to an insurance policy. “You really hate paying for it, but if you don’t have it, you can get hurt in a hurry. You’re banking on the fact that hopefully you won’t drop reproduction or have health challenges. You’re hoping not to have to use that insurance policy, but most of the time, you will in the cattle industry because we’re going to have drought, we’re going to have wet years, we’re going to have heat stress, cold stress and everything else.”

That doesn’t mean producers are confined to using the same mineral the whole year. “Phosphorus is the most expensive part of the mineral package, so if you’ve got times of the year when you have enough phosphorous in your feedstuff, then you can use a low-phosphorous mineral and save some money,” Tjardes says.

Beyond the short term

Daniel Rivera, beef nutrition specialist with Mississippi State University Extension, says the importance of feeding minerals year-round can be difficult for producers to grasp because the benefits of feeding minerals are not immediately apparent, especially in the short term and especially on the feeder and/or stocker level.

“I think a lot of times, minerals tend to get lumped into the idea of ‘we can fix it right now with minerals,’ but really, minerals are more of a long-term investment or strategy where you’re feeding the mineral now, understanding that you might not see immediate responses, but that response will come later on down the chain,” he says.

Rivera says producers quit feeding minerals because they don’t see a benefit. “A lot of the benefits of minerals are going to be intangible unless you are looking very hard for them.” Minerals require a more long-term vision, especially with feeder or stockers when reproduction is not the main concern.

“If you’re doing things like retaining ownership or working with a specific feedyard to ship your cattle to, you may want to do everything you can to ensure that those animals have the best start they can when they get on to that next phase of production,” Rivera says. “If you’re retaining ownership, that’s going to hurt you with medicine costs and possible morbidity or mortality rates at the feedyard, or, if you’re working with a specific feedyard and supplying them with cattle, if you start sending a lot of problems their way, they’re going to be less likely to come back to you in the future.”

If producers are determined to trim their mineral feeding, collecting several forage samples in order to get an accurate pasture profile is key. “If producers are going to start strategically supplementing at certain times, they need to take pasture samples to get an idea of what minerals are available in their forages before we start trying to strategically remove the loose mineral from the cattle,” Rivera says.

“You have to use common sense. What producers need to do is identify times when they think they may want to pull the minerals and take samples around those times to see what you would be missing out on.” Rivera recommends contacting a local extension agent for help collecting samples and working with a lab to get your pastures analyzed.

He says producers should also be extra careful when grazing cattle on fertilized pastures. A strong presence of ammonium sulfate or potassium sulfate in forages can have an antagonistic effect on a cow’s nutritional state. “[Sulfates] bind copper, making the animals unable to absorb it,” Rivera says. “Those types of things all need to be examined before I would recommend anybody trying to just remove minerals or say that they don’t need them anymore. You might think they don’t need it, but more than likely, they do.”

Tjardes encourages producers to also change the way they look at cost of feeding minerals. “A lot of times, producers look at the cost of mineral in dollars per ton, but a cow will never eat a ton of mineral in her lifetime,” he says. “We need to really look at the cost per head per day or the cost per year instead.”  end mark

PHOTO: Your cow herd has different mineral needs throughout the year. Photo by Carrie Veselka.

Carrie Veselka
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