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How expensive is ‘cheap’ mineral?

Stephen Blezinger for Progressive Cattle Published on 28 September 2021

As discussed in countless articles on the topic over the years, every cattle operation has a mineral program, whether they realize it or not. These range from well-designed and implemented programs to nothing at all.

Some programs are excessive where producers are feeding components that are unnecessary or not well researched. Others are very minimal and are simply fed because the producer may not recognize or understand what a good mineral program truly means.

Yellow, white or red blocks are not a mineral program. There are countless products on the market ranging from very expensive to relatively “cheap.” We’ve discussed before how expensive is too expensive (September 2020, “How expensive is too expensive for your mineral program?”). In this article, we are going to examine the flipside of that coin – how expensive is a cheap mineral supplement?

Some quick reminders

Minerals and vitamins are the basis for a cattle operation’s overall nutrition program. They are essentially the nuts and bolts that hold the machine together. All minerals are necessary at certain levels (values in the 2016 Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle report are a starting place) for normal metabolism, health, reproduction, growth and milking performance.

Compromising or shorting the animal of even a single mineral will, at some point, result in lost performance at some level. This may not always be obvious, but, depending on mineral profile and composition, a variety of performance “derailments” may be noted. These can include:

1. Reproduction

  • Failure to cycle and rebreed on schedule
  • Problems with delivery
  • Problems with clean out post-calving
  • Hypocalcemia (milk fever)
  • Bulls – reduced sperm counts, integrity, mobility

2. Health

  • Failure to respond to vaccines/antibiotics
  • Depressed immune response
  • Elevated stress susceptibility
  • Increased foot/hoof issues
  • Increased incidence of pinkeye

3. Growth

  • Reduced milk production

  • Depressed or improper bone and muscle growth and development

  • Long-term calf development issues, which can be a result of improper mineral and vitamin levels during pregnancy and can include reduced reproductive performance in replacement heifers and less-than-optimal carcass performance in feeder/finishing cattle.

If we consider only the items on this list, the net result from compromising the mineral program is fewer calves with lower weaning weights and more unhealthy animals. All of this will cost the producer money in terms of lower production or greater costs with fewer, lighter calves; more vet or medical expenses; shorter cow longevity; etc.

Keep in mind that minerals and vitamins are involved in virtually every reaction in the body. Their importance cannot be overemphasized.

There are many individual minerals that may need to be supplemented in any given operation. In some cases, this may not be because a given mineral is deficient. It may be because another mineral is excessive and prevents, or at least reduces, the absorption of another. For instance, high levels of sulfur in the animal’s diet are antagonistic to copper absorption, even more so in the presence of molybdenum. Other minerals that can be antagonistic to copper are iron and zinc.

One of the main minerals that requires supplementation in many areas is phosphorus. Phosphorus is critical for energy metabolism, bone growth, etc. It is also not always readily digestible. On this note, it must be understood that just because a given mineral is listed at a given level on either a forage analyses or on a feed tag, it is not 100% available for absorption by the animal. Some are very poorly absorbed under normal circumstances.

So, what is a cheap mineral?

Depending on location, what products are available and where mineral supplements are purchased, price can vary quite a lot. In general, the typical, average free-choice mineral purchased in a 50-pound bag will cost about $25. The cost of a good-quality, well-designed mineral will include costs for the following:

  • Ingredients – depending on the formula, this will vary from product to product but is contingent on meeting tag guarantees. Hopefully, tag guarantees are established to meet typical needs of cattle in the region in which the product is sold, and hopefully they are based on many forage samples from that region.

Certain sources (i.e., organic or hydroxy chloride sources) that are more available to the animal are more expensive but deliver more nutrient per unit fed. The more of these sources included, the higher the cost of the finished product.

  • Nutrient specifications – All included nutrients come with a cost. Some are higher than others. Calcium is the cheapest, by far. A cheap mineral will commonly be higher in calcium than a better product. Salt is normally the second-cheapest ingredient. Some companies will include high salt levels, justifying it with the statement that these levels are necessary for intake control. This is generally only marginally true; high salt levels are used to reduce cost.

Trace minerals are normally more expensive, but it will depend on the source. Oxides are the least expensive. The problem with oxides is that in ruminants, they are normally the most poorly absorbed, if absorbed at all. Sulfate sources are the normal standard for inorganic sources. Organic or hydroxy chloride sources, as mentioned above, are more available and are more expensive. In general, if formulated properly, these are worth the cost. But it does depend on actual product chemistry and absorption in the small intestine.

  • Additives – if specific ingredients are fed to serve specific functions, these ingredients are normally more expensive. These can include probiotics or prebiotics, enzyme sources, medications, fly control, etc. Each of these carry a cost, some of which are substantial. It is important the producer understands how each of these works, what the cost is and if that cost is justified. Does the additive provide a positive return on investment?

  • Carrier – many mineral supplements use a grain-based carrier of some type. Commonly, this may include something like dried distillers grains, but it can include significantly less expensive ingredients.

  • Conditioners – minerals will tend to be dusty, and unless carefully designed, they can tend to separate (by particle size or density). Manufacturers will include liquid molasses, vegetable oil, mineral oil or something else to control dust and help the particles stick together. Some of these materials may also be employed to help shed water or prevent blowing.

  • Intake controls – For many supplements, this is salt. In some cases, it is used to increase intake; in others, to decrease it. Salt is inconsistent as an intake modulator. Cattle are like humans when it comes to consuming salt – some will eat considerably more than others.

  • Bagging costs – bags can range in cost from 25 cents each and up. Brightly colored bags with extensive artwork can be assumed to be more expensive.

  • Freight – there is always a cost of getting the product from the manufacturer to the end user.

  • Profit margins – this can vary greatly, depending on the situation.

Cheap minerals are often characterized by high calcium and salt levels, inexpensive carriers and low levels of vitamins and other minerals, especially trace minerals. If they contain any additives, they will be at very low levels and will probably be included as “tag dressing.” This is also true with any of the better-absorbed trace mineral sources; if they are included, most likely it will be at very minimal levels.

So while these products may be considered mineral supplements, their ability to meet some or all mineral requirements of the cow herd is questionable. Some money is being spent on a product, but some or many of the earlier-mentioned problems may still be occurring, thus making that supplement considerably more expensive from lost performance. As the old saying goes, “pay it now or pay it later.”

Building and utilizing a well-designed, value-added mineral program is the foundation of a well-managed cattle operation. end mark

Stephen Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Industry, Texas. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475.

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