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Vitamin E deficiency and forage quality

Melissa Bravo for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 August 2018
Cow calf pair

We all know the best lessons are shared in hindsight. Last year was a wet one for northern Pennsylvania. For 38 days (from May 25 to July 1), it rained every other day.

Some of us got hay in over a four-day period after July 2, but the rest had to wait until July 25 for consecutive days of dry weather. Most of us intuitively realized late-made washed-out hay would be low on protein and high on fiber, making for some really tough orchardgrass and hard-chewing alfalfa. But how many thought about vitamin E levels?

Essential forage vitamins

Livestock essential vitamins are the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and the water-soluble vitamins B and C. The chemical name for vitamin E in the plant is tocopherol, and it is essential to reproductive performance and calving out healthy calves.

Effect of forage maturity

During seed maturation, levels of vitamin E increase with average temperature, total sunshine and decrease with total rainfall. A Czech Journal of Food Science study focusing on vitamin E content of cereal grains observed vitamin E levels (international units per kilogram) in dehulled small grains was highest for buckwheat (17.4), barley (9.8), wheat (8.1) and rye (5.5).

Whole oats only contained 3.73 international units per kilogram. By harvesting before seed maturation, vitamin E is retained in the forage biomass; however, keep in mind the fermentation process breaks down fat-soluble vitamins and the DSM Compendium in Animal Nutrition readily admits, “There are severe limitations in relying on average tabular values of vitamins in feedstuffs.”

The bottom line is: We need to be thinking about vitamin supplementation when forages are the worse for wear.

Forage supplements

The most common vitamin E used to supplement animal feeds and minerals is a synthesized chemical, rac-alpha-tocopherol acetate. According to the DSM compendium, it is manufactured by condensing trimethyl hydroquinone and isophytol through distillation to produce alpha-tocopherol. (Chemistry, gotta love it.)

Why vitamin E is important

Vitamin E is an antioxidant and becomes available as the cow needs it. Along with other fat-soluble vitamins, it is stored in fat. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry states vitamin E is involved with the control of nerves, muscles and senses. Contraction of muscles allowing movement, heartbeat, rumen and lung function are all influenced.

Excretion of manure, growth, feed conversion efficiency and reproduction are also affected. Incidences of mastitis and retained placentas increase when vitamin E is deficient in pre-calving rations. Reproductive performance of cows and bulls can also be reduced if vitamin E is deficient.

The role of sunlight

Here in Pennsylvania, pastured cows get 15 hours of summer daylight. That falls to 11 hours by October and nine hours by December. Most start calving in March, when it’s back to 11 hours – if the sun is shining at all. Depending on weather, replenishment of vitamin reserves from pasture may take another month.

The juxtaposition of two river valleys gives me enough daylight (13 hours, 48 minutes) by April 25 for pasture turnout. But even with 14 hours, 11 minutes of daylight, it was not enough to correct a vitamin E deficiency in a 21-month-old Angus heifer’s calf born May 11.

Signs of vitamin E deficiency

The first inkling I had a vitamin E deficiency might exist in my herd was demonstrated in a calf that could not stand or bend its knees. The problem? Contracted tendons. At this point, it was impossible to differentiate between selenium and vitamin E deficiency, or even BVD encephalitis.

The former deficiencies can be corrected in a few days; the latter diagnosis will not improve. After carefully looking for signs of curly calf syndrome (cleft pallet, curved backbone), I observed this newborn was gaunt and took into account her dam is only 21 months old (another “could-a, would-a, should-a”).

The story behind getting this calf dairy milk and to the barn via the open hatch of my Subaru and a nuisance nosy bull is for another day. Suffice it to say, I realized if this was a vitamin deficiency, the dam’s colostrum would also be deficient or, if neurological in nature, the calf would not improve.

The dam got what she needed on grass and a high-protein-concentrate grain with a vitamin pack. Within seven days, the scour-free calf was right as rain.

Vitamin E deficiency response

Vitamin E-deficient calves will respond to corrective measures if treated in time. Here was my action protocol:

1. Because energy is critical, this calf got milk from the neighbor’s pipeline within an hour.

2. After a call to the vet, a dose of Mu-Se was given. (Mu-Se is recommended for the prevention and treatment of selenium-tocopherol deficiency syndrome in weanling calves and breeding beef cattle. Each milliliter of Mu-Se contains the equivalent to 5 milligrams selenium and 50 milligrams (68 USP units) vitamin E.

3. The next morning, a tube of ImmuCell Corp. First Defense Technology Gel was delivered. What is that? “Derived from colostrum collected from grade-A dairies. Single-dose tube delivers a rapid source of targeted globulin proteins to newborn calves to help protect against disease.”

4. By that evening, this calf was up and on the udder getting colostrum.

5. On day three, I administered a vitamin bolus.

6. Days three, four and five: Once-a-day supplementation was given with CertiFeeD 20-20 AM OTC calf milk replacer (fortified with 26 essential vitamins and minerals, readily absorbed organic selenium, plus supplemental B and C vitamins to support a strong immune system and medicated with oxytetracycline for increased rate of gain and improved feed efficiency).  end mark

PHOTO: This calf, even though grazing a healthy-looking pasture, developed vitamin E deficiency and had to be supplemented. This photo was taken 14 days after treatment. Photo by Melissa Bravo. 

Melissa Bravo
  • Melissa Bravo

  • Certified Crop Adviser – Herd Health Specialist
  • Meadow Lake Farm Consulting
  • Email Melissa Bravo

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