Let Your Animals Teach You Nutrition - By Richard J. Holliday

Let Your Animals Teach You Nutrition
Published in "Building a Holistic Foundation for Animal Health," By R.J. Holliday, DVM
I believe that a ruminant’s tongue is the finest nutritional, analytical laboratory in the world! Many experiences over the years have taught me to trust in the natural inclination of animals to seek out the best nutrition they can find and to know instantly when they have found it.  Let me relate a few examples to help you discover similar occurrences in your own animals.
When I first became interested in holistic animal care, I had a client that planted a large acreage of corn (maize) in a fertile river bottom area.  Everyone that farmed around him used chemical fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides.   He used only a trace mineral rich, gypsum (Ca Sulfate) substance that was mined in Colorado.   He experienced little damage from insects or weeds but the native deer would come from miles around to eat his organic corn, leaving his neighbor’s crops untouched.
I have seen cattle escape from their pens, wander past fields of lush looking “chemical” corn, and then, right to the row, begin to eat plants that were being grown according to natural principles.  
I have seen swine that were accustomed to eating organic corn, literally quit eating for 2 or 3 days until hunger finally drove them to begin eating a new batch of feed containing conventionally grown corn of inferior quality.
In their natural state American bison roamed over thousands of miles of range and thus had access to naturally occurring minerals from a variety of soil types.  A “buffalo” rancher in the upper Midwest must confine his herd to a few hundred acres. To duplicate as near as possible their former range of mineral choices, he provides continuous year-around access to 12 different free choice minerals.  Their consumption varies greatly, sometimes on a day-to-day basis, depending on the season, the weather and the quality of the other feeds available.  His animals are extremely healthy and productive.
Finally, one last example showing that ruminants can instantaneously detect minute changes in forage quality.  Research from England indicates that grazing cows prefer clover during the day and grasses during the evening, because sugar levels are highest in grass late in the day. (Research directly relating to preference of and production from ryegrass or clover in pure stands or in mixtures is found in the British Society of Animal Science,  Journal of Animal Science 1988, 67:195-202.  “The effects of including white clover in perennial ryegrass swards and the height of mixed swards on the milk production, sward selection and ingestive behaviour of dairy Cows” by Phillips and James at University of  Wales Bangor.)
Mainstream nutritionists tend to downplay this ability of an animal to balance its nutritional needs … possibly because they spend more time watching computer screens than observing the eating habits of the animals. I admit that this ability does not apply to all situations and to every type of feed.  Some feed items (grain and concentrates) may be so tasty that most animals would overeat if fed free choice. Other ingredients are so unpalatable that voluntary consumption may not meet their requirements. Any attempt to increase the consumption of any one item by adding flavorings only seems to compound the problem. Nevertheless, this natural trait can be used to improve animal health and nutrition. And, in fact, there are many successful commercial suppliers of free choice mineral feeding programs wherein the major components are fed separately.
No prepared ration can match the exact needs of every animal or group of animals. In any given group being fed the same ration, some will get about what they need, some will get too much and some will get too little.  This is especially true of mineral components.  For example, to provide trace minerals, most nutritionists disregard any trace minerals that may already be present in the feed and add a trace mineral package that provides the total trace mineral requirements.  In theory, this assures that adequate amounts will be present. However, it does not address the possibility of interference caused by any excess thus created.
If you really want an education in mineral nutrition, and want to give your animals a chance to balance their own mineral requirements, try this program.  Partition off your mineral feeder and provide the following in separate compartments on a continuous, free choice basis.
   1.  A mineral mix that is high in calcium with little or no Phosphorus.  You could use ground limestone (Calcium Carbonate) or oyster shell flour or combinations.
   2.  A mineral mix that is high in Phosphorus with little or no Calcium.  
   3.  Loose salt (not block salt), the more unrefined the better.  
   4.  Kelp.  This is a rich source of all trace minerals and iodine.
Providing Calcium and Phosphorus separately allows them to maintain the critical Ca/P ratio. 
Supplemental Magnesium and Potassium may not be necessary in all areas, but it does not hurt to make a feed-grade source available and see what happens. 
Magnesium Oxide and magnesium sulfate are common sources.  Both are relatively unpalatable.  
They can be mixed with salt to improve palatability so long as a separate source of plain salt is also available.  An alternative is to provide dolomite limestone that contains Mg carbonate as well as Ca carbonate.
In many areas, potassium is already adequate or excessive. Potassium chloride or potassium bicarbonate is commonly used in commercial mixes to supply this mineral.
Sulfur is often deficient.  Elemental sulfur can be provided free choice or mixed with salt.
Baking Soda or Sodium bicarbonate free choice may be beneficial, especially if a lot of grain is being fed. 
If not already present in some of the other mixes, provide a source of vitamins A, D & E and some B vitamins.
At first, put out only small amounts and watch closely what they eat.  More than likely, your animals will show a preference for one or two items, indicating a need.  If your current ration is well balanced, they probably will not eat much.  Even so, leave it out for them and watch what happens to the consumption patterns over time when pasture conditions change or when feeding hay or grain from a new or different source. I have seen daily changes in mineral preferences for no discernible reason.  
Avoid sudden changes to the ration. If they seem to grossly over-eat any one item, it may be prudent to partially limit that item for a week or so to let them catch-up gradually. 
If possible, avoid mineral mixes that are flavored to increase palatability. 
If you are already feeding a complete ration with minerals added, do not change the ration.  Use this program as an add-on, free choice, monitoring system to let the animals tell you what they think of your ability as a nutritionist!  This allows us to use our science and computers to at least get close to a balanced ration and still provide a way for the animals to fine-tune for their individual needs.  

If you are not comfortable compounding your own separate mineral mixes, contact: Advanced Biological Concepts, 201 North Railroad Street, Osco, IL, 309-522-5505, www.abcplus.biz. They have a kit containing 12 different minerals and trace minerals to be fed separately. In the long run, it is probably more economical and safer to buy from a commercial source than have the hassle of doing it yourself.
 •  If you are growing crops for your animals, farm organically or as close to it as you possibly can.  If you buy your feed, try to find organically grown feed or feed that has been grown on fertile soil with a minimum of chemical inputs.  
 •  From time to time, test some of your feed, especially if you buy feed or if you suspect feed related problems.   The lab test may quickly identify gross excesses or deficiencies in the feed and thus enable you to make adjustments before problems occur.  It does not hurt to have two opinions ... one from the lab and one from the consumers, your animals.  I will leave it to you to 
decide which one is the most reliable. 
 •  Don’t forget that even with the best feeds you can still have malnutrition …  if the ration is not balanced and the ingredients are not appropriate to the species, age and purpose of the animals being fed.
 •  Excess protein is often more common than a protein deficiency and can be more damaging.  Do not add sources of non-protein nitrogen (NPN’s) like urea or ammonia compounds to the ration.  Test your feeds and water for nitrates.  Nitrates in the feed or water, plus NPN’s in the feed plus excess protein in the total ration, can all add up to nitrogen intoxication with a variety of symptoms.  One of my clients experienced a devastating storm of abortions within a week after he began feeding some purchased hay that was later found to contain over 5000 ppm nitrates.
•  Always feed a source of kelp ... free choice if possible.  Trace mineral deficient animals will eat a lot until their needs are met.  After that, they consume very little.  If they continue to eat kelp at high levels, it may indicate a more severe deficiency of one or more individual trace minerals such as Zinc, Copper, Manganese, Cobalt or others.   It is possible to self-feed individual sources of these vital trace minerals (usually the chloride or sulfate forms) but greater care must be taken to avoid toxicity from over consumption.
 •  Provide a source of probiotics ... lactobacillus, yeast or other direct fed microorganisms (DFM’s). A healthy gut is the first line of defense against many bacteria. Probiotics also increase feed efficiency.