The yearlings crowded around the pan, butting each other for the best spot. You'd think the pan contained yummy grain, but instead, I had filled it with a mixture of minerals. Cattle, just like humans, need minerals to survive, and the yearling herd had been without loose minerals for a few days.
My cattle get most of the 10 minerals they need by eating hay or grass, but that diet is deficient in three necessary minerals – copper, zinc, and selenium. Without minerals, cows may lose appetite, their hooves may deteriorate, and in extreme cases, they can die. Bottom line: Cattle perform better and utilize feed more efficiently with minerals in their diet.
About 10 years ago one of my 4-month-old calves seemed a bit sluggish but was otherwise healthy. A few days later he was dead, with his distressed mom standing over him. Devastated, I called the vet who, without a lot of costly tests, was unable to determine a cause of death. The next year another calf died in the same way.
With two cases to analyze, the vet was able to point the finger at selenium deficiency. When a third calf showed similar symptoms, the vet ordered injections of selenium. Selenium deficiency causes “white muscle disease” (similar to muscular dystrophy) in newborn calves. Selenium deficiency can also cause calves to be weak at birth and increases their susceptibility to diseases like scours. New England soil is devoid of selenium, so it must be provided to cattle in either a mineral block for licking or granulated for regular chomping. Other sources of selenium are seafood and nuts, but sadly they are not on the bovine menu.
While selenium is essential for calf health, it can also be toxic. Cattle need just the right dosage of the correct minerals to thrive. And what is the best way to administer the proper dosage? Consult the calf!
Cattle have brilliant digestive systems that tell the animal what and how much to eat. Given the opportunity, a cow will always make the right choice – not too much and not too little. So we provide loose minerals in a pan, and they help themselves. Most minerals are not stored in their bodies in significant amounts. So the consistent intake of a balanced mineral supplement is essential.
We also provide a solid 20-pound mineral block called a “salt lick,” which the cattle can lick when the loose minerals have been eaten up. The licks come in red (trace minerals), white (just salt) and green (trace minerals, including selenium), and one block can last six months or more.
Just like cattle, humans need a daily intake of minerals to survive, but the human digestive system not as discerning as a cow's. For instance, I'd prefer getting my salt and potassium from a Triscuit - not a salt block. The difference is that I'd keep eating long after my system's need for minerals is satisfied. Triscuit anyone?