Managing a mineral program for cattle

Nutrition with John McKinnon

Last month I wrote on the importance of a mineral feeding program and focused on some of the more common questions producers have on this topic. As we move through calving and into the breeding season, ensuring that your cattle have access to the right minerals is only one part of a successful mineral feeding program. You also need to ensure that cattle consume the minerals on a regular basis, particularly when you are relying on free-choice consumption. With this column, I will look at management of the mineral program and look at steps we can take to ensuring proper free-choice consumption.

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When you talk with beef producers about their program, particularly mineral consumption, you hear comments ranging from “cattle won’t stop eating that mineral — they eat it like it is candy” to “cattle won’t touch that crap!” Unfortunately, mineral consumption is influenced by a number of factors. Some are related to the mineral itself, some are related to the animal and others are related to the environment. A successful program takes all of these factors into account.

First, let’s look at the mineral itself. Different companies have proprietary mineral formulations that include various ratios of flavouring agents. It is a simple fact that some minerals are more palatable than others based on their formulation and are consumed at different rates as a result. As well, phosphorus content of the mineral will influence consumption. Phosphorus tends to be unpalatable to cattle and the higher the content, the less the expected consumption. Thus under a free-choice feeding situation, a 3:1 calcium to phosphorus mineral is likely to be consumed at a greater rate than a 1:1 or 1:2 mineral.

The salt content of the mineral will also influence consumption. Salt, more specifically, sodium, is one of the few minerals that cattle will crave and actively seek out. As a result, minerals that are salt-free will not be as readily consumed on a free-choice basis as one that contains salt.

Management of the salt program can be an important determinant of the mineral program’s success. Mixing salt with a salt-free 2:1 or 1:1 mineral can help ensure adequate mineral intake. Too much salt, however, can have a negative effect on mineral intake. Excessive salt intake can arise from a combination of free-choice salt blocks, minerals with added salt and the environment (for example, cattle may be drinking high-sulfate/saline water). Cattle with a high-salt intake due to one or more of these sources will not readily consume mineral on a free-choice basis.

While there are many factors related to the animal that influence mineral requirements including age, stage of pregnancy and lactation, perhaps one of the most important is the previous exposure of the animal to a mineral program. Too many producers still believe that mineral feeding is only required at specific times of the year (i.e. before calving or during breeding) or is only needed under deficiency situations or perhaps not needed at all.

In fact, cattle should have access to mineral year-round with the composition of the mineral changing with the stage of production (i.e. summer range, over-wintering, pre-calving and breeding). Only through a year-round mineral feeding program can you meet the changing needs of the animal over the course of the year. However, for those of you who don’t provide year-round access, does it really surprise you that when you do supply a mineral, they eat you out of house and home? If cattle have not seen mineral for an extended period, it is only natural that they will over-consume for a period until they adjust. In such cases, give the cattle free-choice access for a period of two to three weeks and see if intakes level off. If not, you can limit-feed the mineral. Simply provide a one- or two-week supply based on expected daily intake and the number of cows you are feeding. Set out a specific amount of mineral for that time period. Repeat this process as necessary until cattle are consuming at expected rates.

Management of the mineral feeder itself will also have an impact on free-choice consumption. Cattle need to find the mineral feeder to consume the mineral. Placement of the mineral feeders should vary with feeding/grazing areas and water sources. You also want to ensure that all animals have access to the mineral feeder. This can be accomplished by providing one mineral feeder per twenty to thirty cows. Ensure that there is fresh mineral available at all times. Letting the mineral clump or harden in exposed feeders is not a good practice from the point of view of free-choice consumption. To get away from such issues, some companies are now marketing weatherproof minerals that maintain their integrity in the face of a range of weather conditions.

Finally, don’t forget to monitor and fill the feeder on a regular basis — it is hard for cattle to consume adequate minerals if the feeder is empty.

About the author

Contributor

John McKinnon is a beef cattle nutritionist at the University of Saskatchewan.

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