Understanding mineral nutrition brings benefits to beef cow herd

Like a kaleidoscope, mineral availability constantly changes in the environment. The complicated and interactive nature of minerals is one reason cattle producers work with Extension through the “Mineral Nutrition for the Beef Cow Herd” program. About 100 cattle operations have participated in this yearlong program since it first began as […]

Like a kaleidoscope, mineral availability constantly changes in the environment.

The complicated and interactive nature of minerals is one reason cattle producers work with Extension through the “Mineral Nutrition for the Beef Cow Herd” program.

About 100 cattle operations have participated in this yearlong program since it first began as an South Dakota State University Extension program in 2017. The program expanded to North Dakota State University in 2018, and to Montana State University and University of Wyoming in 2021.

The program is facilitated by Extension livestock specialists and agents in each state.

“Minerals aren’t always going to be a silver bullet for production issues, but they are an important component of beef cattle nutrition programs. When people do some sampling and testing, they can start to determine individual challenges on their ranch,” said Janna Block, Extension livestock systems specialist based at the Hettinger, N.D., Research Extension Center.

Ranches sign up and pay a small fee (less than $200) to participate in this program. The program begins with a series of evening webinars.

When the program began, in-person daylong meetings were held to discuss the basics of mineral feeding and testing. That changed to online webinars with COVID. Now, most cattle ranchers agree that attending webinars from the comfort of home is easier than fighting the weather and slippery roads to attend in person.

Those who register have access to recordings of the webinars, so they can rewatch sessions, too.

An initial forage test and a water analysis from Ward Laboratories are included in the registration cost. Some ranchers have also used a yearlong discount from Ward Labs to test forages biweekly or monthly throughout the growing season.

“Taking the time to collect the sample is really critical if you want to understand where your cows might be in terms of mineral status,” Block said.

Program leaders recently summarized mixed grass pasture samples collected over the years during the growing season (May-September) in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Out of 175 forage samples collected through the program, many of the samples were high for iron and sulfur, which are two minerals known to reduce copper availability and absorption in cattle.

Calcium was adequate in most samples.

Almost every sample contained selenium levels that would exceed beef cattle requirements of 0.10 parts per million (ppm) in the diet.

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Only 4 percent of the samples met the cow diet requirement for copper of 10 ppm. For zinc, only 22 percent of samples met the recommended 30 ppm.

Phosphorus levels were also adequate in only 14 percent of samples.

Block said some research suggests phosphorus plays a role in reproduction, and it also is important for many other body functions.

Phosphorus is also very expensive to supplement.

“You don’t need to overdo phosphorus, but without knowing what the phosphorus levels are in the forage, you could be either over- or undersupplying that,” she said.

Another benefit from this program is one in-person ranch visit, as well as follow up assistance, as needed, to evaluate the mineral program. Virtual ranch visits are available to producers outside the four-state region.

Every ranch has their own unique mineral program or system, Block said. There have been only a few times she’s seen the same mineral tag show up at various ranches. Smaller regional companies offer mineral products, and there are also national companies that have a presence. Ranchers sometimes mix their own minerals or purchase custom mineral mixes.

“Every single ranch visit is different and everybody’s situation is different,” she said. “We see so many different products being used. There must be thousands of mineral products out there. It is interesting to see how everyone fine-tunes their mineral programs.”

Additional webinars are held each fall to help producers continue to evaluate their mineral program.

In conjunction with the mineral nutrition program, two Mineral Field Days were held last summer – at Streeter, N.D., and Cottonwood, S.D. These meetings featured industry representatives and University researchers that talked about updates to research, as well as provided general mineral nutrition guidelines.

Ranchers were shown how liver biopsies are performed and completed for mineral analysis.

Blood samples can provide good information for some minerals in the live cattle, too.

Block gives a great deal of credit to the work of animal mineral nutrition researchers. There are many interactions in the body between minerals, and it’s not always clear whether a performance response is due to withholding/feeding a certain mineral. Not all minerals are stored in the body in the same way, and they are not all stored consistently. The environment, forage production stage, and stress levels of the cows are just a few of the factors that affect mineral utilization.

“The thing you hear over and over is how complicated the topic is,” Block said. “It’s part science, but also a lot of art. You must figure out what works in your situation.”

That starts, she said, by testing your forages for mineral content.

For more information about the “Mineral Nutrition for the Beef Cow Herd” program, please contact Janna Block at 701-567-4323 or [email protected]

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