The other day when I had my van in for service, I noticed the fine array of wrenches and other tools available for use by the mechanic. Since I am a guy who feels fully equipped if I have more than one adjustable crescent wrench, I was impressed not only by the sheer numbers of the different tools but also by the specific applications for some of them. Given the necessary skills, the mechanic had all the tools he needed to take apart and put back together the complex engines that power today’s vehicles.
I remembered then some things I learned years ago from my good friend and veterinary colleague, Dr. Bob Scott. Bob had a unique way of looking at things and could translate complicated subjects into an easy to understand broad overview using simple analogies. Here is his view of the role of minerals in plants and animals.
Plants are basically made up of air and water. If you combine carbon, as from carbon dioxide with oxygen and hydrogen (also from air or water) you have the basic building block for starch, sugar or carbohydrates. Add nitrogen to this basic formula and you have an amino acid or a basic building block for protein.
If you burn a plant thus reducing it to ash you are left with that part of the plant that came from the soil … usually around 5 %. Therefore, 95% of the makeup of plants comes from air and water, combined together by the sunshine generated miracle of photosynthesis.
Minerals are nature’s “tools” that enables this process to proceed. They are basic to the enzyme systems that catalyze the storage of the sun’s energy into the chemical bonds within the plant itself. The major elements are the big wrenches and the smaller ones are the trace minerals. All are essential. Any deficiency or imbalance limits the production and the quality of the crops grown. If some elements are lacking in the soil they will be lacking in the crop. If they are lacking in the crop, they will be lacking in the animal that eats the crop.
When an animal consumes plants the same tools used by the plant to combine the CHO & N to store energy are needed to break down chemical bonds and release energy to power the metabolic processes of life and production. If the plant doesn’t have enough built-in tools (minerals), extra tools must be provided. Most of our soils are so depleted in minerals that it is almost a given that some sort of mineral supplementation is necessary, especially to arrive at the high levels of productivity that we strive for today. Without the mineral tools proper digestion and assimilation of the energy in the feeds simply does not take place.
Even without computers, animals are smarter than man when it comes to balancing their individual needs for the elements of nutrition, especially the major, minor and trace minerals. Providing a choice in mineral supplementation allows the animals to pick the tools they need without being totally locked-in to only the tools recommended by the computer.
Most farmers probably wouldn’t think much of a mechanic that tried to overhaul a tractor with a screwdriver, a pair of pliers and a couple of crescent wrenches. Unfortunately, in their role as animal caretakers, some livestock men seem to think that a cheap sack of high calcium minerals and a trace mineral salt block are all the tools needed by our livestock to fully utilize the energy stored in our feeds. They are wrong!