Posted Thursday, 12/16/2021, 1:30 PM
"The Adventures of Laura and Harley"
How I Simplified My Livestock Mineral Program
A Story by Richard J. Holliday, DVM
Thursday, September 16, 2021 - My name is Harley. Some years ago, my wife Laura and I bought a livestock farm in the Midwest that was suitable for a small herd of beef cattle and a few dairy cows. It was purchased from the estate of the previous owner as an operational unit — land, building, equipment, and cattle.
As we became familiar with the cattle and the barnyard facilities, we were puzzled by a large number of small rubber feed tubs scattered about. Some contained an unknown residue, probably minerals or feed. We cleaned them up and stacked them in a storage room in the barn.
The tubs brought to mind the need for some sort of mineral supplementation. Being new to the area, I needed information pertinent to this locale. To that end I called the local ASCS office and left a request for someone to contact me.
The next morning, Gene, the area County Agricultural Agent, showed up at the farm. After introductions, Gene said, “I knew Ralph, the previous owner of this place. He was a nice guy but kind of eccentric. Some of the folks around here thought he was a real nut-case because he was so vocal about the way he fed minerals. He believed cattle have an innate nutritional wisdom to balance their mineral needs if proper choices were available. That’s why he put all his minerals out separately.”
I smiled and exclaimed, “Well, that clears up the mystery of all those rubber tubs.” After we both chuckled a bit, I asked, “Is it really necessary to go to such lengths feeding minerals?”
“Heavens no!” Gene answered, “The idea is intriguing, but there is no research to support it.”
“Well then, what would you recommend I use?” I asked.
Gene replied, “All you need is a good free choice general purpose cattle mineral along with a salt block. That’s what I do, and my stock seem to do just fine.”
As Gene was leaving, he paused for a moment and commented, “I think Ralph wasted a lot of time and money feeding minerals the way he did.” And then, almost as an afterthought he said, “His animals always seemed to be really healthy, though.”
I went to the local farm store and bought a couple of salt blocks and several bags of cattle mineral as recommended by Gene and the store manager.
On my way home, I stopped at the Happy Hour Bar & Grille, a popular cafe/pub located on the edge of town a couple of miles down the road from my farm.
It was a good place to stop for lunch, a quick cup of coffee, or a friendly chat with neighbors, especially if familiar pickups were in the parking lot.
As I became acquainted with this group, they became a rich source of local information and an excellent support group for me as a novice rancher and a newcomer to the area.
Things were going along pretty well, and then one of our milk cows came down with milk fever. I called the local vet clinic and shortly a vet, Dr. Paul, came out and treated the cow. As he was administering the IV treatment, we had an opportunity to chat for a time.
He said he was somewhat familiar with Ralph as he had been called to the farm occasionally for vaccinations and other routine vet work but never to treat such animals.
He was aware of how Ralph had been feeding minerals but said he could find no research supporting the self-select concept.
Dr. Paul did recommend I feed two minerals that were similar but one higher in Calcium and one higher in Phosphorus. This would allow both dairy and beef cows to
balance their calcium and phosphorus needs. He also suggested I put out some plain white salt. I grabbed a couple more of Ralph’s old mineral tubs and used them for the new recommended mineral formulas. (I thought it strange at the time. He could cite no research to support animal nutritional wisdom, yet he recommended giving them a way to self-adjust their Calcium/phosphorus ratio. Go figure!)
One cold afternoon, I stopped at the Happy Hour for a coffee. I took a seat across the table from Rodney, one of the regulars. Rod took a big gulp from his coffee cup, smiled at me and said, “Harley, your cattle are deficient in copper!”
Woah! Where did that come from? My first thought was to ask him what else he had added to his coffee with his cream and sugar. Instead I just inquired, “Why do you say that?”
With an even bigger grin on his face he said, “The hair on your black cows is showing a reddish tinge. That’s a sure sign of a copper deficiency. Look it up.”
I did look it up when I got home, and he was right. I never did find out how he arrived at that tidbit of knowledge.
So, off I went to the store to find a source of copper.
Gene telephoned me one spring day and after the preliminary exchange of greetings said, “I’m calling to give a heads-up on a situation that might affect you. With the cool, wet weather we are having here this spring, the lush growth of pasture grass can be low in magnesium, leading to a condition known as Grass Tetany which can be deadly. I thought you might want to check your minerals for adequate magnesium and add some if you are low.”
As I headed out the door for the feed store, I said, “Thanks, Gene, I’ll get right on it.”
One evening after milking, I noticed a couple of our milk cows amble over to an exposed clay bank in the fence row and start eating dirt. I asked Laura, “How long have they been doing that?”
She answered, “I don’t know. I guess I never noticed it before. Why do you suppose they’re doing that?”
I didn’t know either, so I called Gus down at the feed mill. He’s the one who formulates and mixes our dairy ration. He said it could be a belly ache – rumen acidosis from feeding a ‘hot’ ration to increase production. He said he would lower
the protein in the next batch and suggested we put out some bi-carb as a buffer / Alka-seltzer for cows. When I put out the bi-carb, the dairy cows liked it. The beef cows were not interested.
The hot summer weather and the associated face-fly population resulted in an area wide pink eye problem. Even though Angus cattle, such as mine, were reputed to be resistant to pink eye, many of my cows and calves were affected. I had Dr. Paul out to treat the worst ones, but it really didn’t seem to help much.
A few folks in our Happy Hour group were discussing the outbreak when Clyde spoke up, “I used to work for a guy in Missouri who raised Angus cattle. The farm next door raised Herefords. Angus are usually thought to be resistant to pink eye and Herefords most susceptible. In this case it was reversed. Elmer’s Angus had pink eye – Evan’s Herefords did not.
One day I asked Evan how come his whiteface cattle seemed to be resistant. Here is what he told me, “A couple of years ago I had a bad outbreak of pink eye. I was treating them, but they weren’t responding well. A friend of mine, an old retired Vet, advised me to put out Kelp free choice. I did, and they ate a lot at first but it did seem to help their recovery.
After a while they tapered off eating so much, and I just left it out for them all the time. I haven’t had a case of pink eye since then. My calves can lay in the same fence row with Elmer’s almost blind Angus calves and never get it. If they run out of kelp, though, in a week or two their eyes begin to water, and they become susceptible. I don’t know what’s in it, but I think the kelp helps in other ways, too. I wouldn’t want to be without it.”
Well, that was a good enough recommendation for me. I was already in town so I went by the feed store and got some kelp for my stock.
We had a couple of other minor issues. A few cases of foot rot led us to add a source of iodine. When we discovered some excess nitrates in the water, we provided extra vitamins, especially Vitamin A.
I was beginning to wonder how long we could go on adding different minerals. One day, as we were restocking the minerals, it all came to a head.
“Harley, my love,” Laura said to me as she gently touched my arm, “I hesitate to mention this, but we are out of mineral tubs.”
“What? You’re kidding me! Right?”
“No, I’m afraid not. All the tubs crazy Ralph left here are being used. We need to buy some more.”
I was stunned. I looked around. Laura was right. The proverbial light bulb lit up in my head, and the jumbled worries and doubts about minerals rumbling around in my
brain finally crystallized. I realized Ralph’s basic concept of animal nutritional wisdom was correct.
I could also see the major flaw in my mineral program. I was using minerals to treat deficiency symptoms – leaving me always behind the curve, trying to catch up.
I needed a proactive system that offered the animals a full array of essential minerals, cafeteria style to choose from to meet their individual nutritional needs on an ongoing, day to day basis. One that allowed for variations in feed quality, weather, and reproductive status. Thanks to a tip from one of my friends at the Happy Hour, I knew where to look.
“Hey, Siri,” I said, as I pulled my iPhone from my pocket.
“What’s the phone number for the ABC livestock supplement company in northwestern Illinois?”
Siri quickly answered, “The only one I could find is Advanced Biological Concepts in Osco, Illinois. Their phone number is 800-373-5971. Would you like to call them?”
“Yes, and thanks for your help.”
Nothing in this article should be construed as diagnostic or therapeutic advice for livestock owners. Always consult certified animal health and nutrition specialists before making changes to your existing animal health program.
(Yeah! Right! Good luck with that!)