But you’ve got to keep your eyes peeled for the signs
By Gilda V. Bryant
When producers check cattle, they may spot rough hair coats, lethargic newborns, or reduced gain in calves. Agitated or sick behaviors need immediate attention. Although some symptoms point to mineral deficiencies, water supply issues also occur. Learn which strategies experts use to spot problems and maintain animal health.
Katana Lippolis, Ph.D., Extension Cow-Calf Specialist at Iowa State University, says that when a rancher observes serious health issues in the herd, a mineral deficiency has been present for a while. “Stay on top of mineral supplementation, working to maintain adequate levels,” Lippolis advises. “By the time you see symptoms, your herd is likely in a wreck.”
Selenium is one trace mineral operators should watch closely because it can be toxic to cattle. In fact, it is the only mineral the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates with a legal limit of 3 milligrams or less supplemented per day for adult cattle.
Inadequate selenium in calves appears as white muscle disease. Often fatal, muscles have white streaks. Calves are weak, unable to nurse, and walk with a stiff gait. In severe cases, heart and respiratory muscles fail, causing sudden death. Older animals may experience a delayed onset with weight loss, diarrhea, poor reproduction, and distressed immunity. Toxicity symptoms include abnormal posture, fever, labored breathing, blind staggers, prostration, and death. Typically, folks know they live in areas with high selenium levels in soils or water. Always check with your veterinarian before feeding extra selenium.
“Throughout my undergraduate program in Colorado, I interned for a feed mill livestock nutritionist,” Lippolis recalls. “Before we formulated minerals and diet for cattle, we required a forage analysis of the ranchers’ pastures. Some areas are extremely selenium deficient, so animals needed more, while other regions are borderline toxic. If we had fed the same formulation to all animals, we could have made some very sick.”
Lippolis recommends checking cattle often. She examines them in the chute twice a year. “I feel their body condition and hair coats since some deficiencies impact hair quality and muscle tone. On a day-to-day basis, I like to ride or walk through the herd to observe their health and body conditions.”
Making inspections depends on the operation and the production stage, such as calving, when producers may evaluateanimals several times a day. Be observant with an eye for detail. Look for lameness, abnormal behaviors, or animals standing alone with droopy ears. Keep thorough records to help spot production changes.
All is not lost
Jason Russell, Ph.D., Research Beef Nutritionist with Zinpro Corporation, says by the time operators notice mineral deficiencies, cattle have lost performance, growth, reproduction and immune function, especially in calves. He says with a laugh, “All is not lost, but it will take time to recover the herd nutritionally. It took months or possibly years for animals to become noticeably deficient. Producers cannot fix the problem overnight but they can fix the problem.”
Although rare, if young calves display rickets, a condition with curved or poorly shaped bones, along with arched backs, stiff legs and tender joints, this is probably an extreme case of calcium deficiency.
Cattle producers may see cattle eating dirt, chewing bones or wood. Known as pica, this is a classic sign of inadequate phosphorous levels. The macromineral phosphorous works hand-in-hand with calcium and both are essential for healthy bones. Phosphorous deficiencies can be a chronic condition in grazing animals as plants mature and nutrients decrease in concentration or availability.
If ranchers notice lethargic bulls and/or steers standing alone, with a hunched back, obvious discomfort, straining to urinate, water belly (urinary calculi) may be the cause. This condition occurs when the calcium and phosphorous balance is out of whack, causing animals to develop kidney or bladder stones. Unable to pass urine, the bladder enlarges until it bursts and urine accumulates in the abdomen. This swelling gives water belly its name. Treatment options include dissolving stones or surgery.
“We often detect phosphorous deficiencies when a mineral supplement containing a slightly higher phosphorous level improves performance,” Russell explains.
If producers find small, weak newborn calves with enlarged joints, limb deformities, and malformed jaws, low manganese may be the culprit. Research shows this element is crucial for reproduction and fetal bone development.
During drought conditions, it is common for pastures to be overgrazed. Although animals prefer to avoid jimsonweed, which occurs in the continental U.S., they will eat it when hungry. If operators observe bloated cattle with dry muzzles, excessive thirst, and agitated behavior, they may suffer from jimsonweed poisoning. Also named Devil’s Trumpet, most cows will recover, unless they eat from .06 to .09 percent of their body weight.
Occasionally, animals appear ganted up, licking water, but not drinking. The water available may be too warm or has picked up a pollutant. In some areas, sulfur water is common and heavy concentrations, especially during dry spells, are unpalatable to cattle. Since cattle are sensitive to salt, they may not drink salty water that can also occur during drought.
In a dry lot or feedyard, electric shocks from faulty electrical wiring on water warmers during winter months produce stray or tingle voltage. As a result, cattle approach the tank but are reluctant to drink and eat, resulting in a significant economic impact to the feedyard. Operators should troubleshoot, repair, and maintain electrical equipment as soon as possible.
Producers should work with both their veterinarian and nutritionist to determine the cause of health concerns. Start with the area’s historical water analysis. “That’s where we often find our issue,” Russell admits. “We look at the history of the herd and health symptoms. If water contains high amounts of an antagonist, binding certain minerals, it’s a matter of adjusting the supplement. Give it a few months; we can’t make changes overnight.”
Stay ahead of the curve
Dale Smith and his business partner, Jay O’Brien, manage several historic properties in the Texas Panhandle, including the JA, Turkey Track, and O’Brien Ranches. Running cow-calf herds year ’round and stocker cattle seasonally, Smith provides additional supplements throughout the year, and stocker animals receive antimicrobial supplementation to increase gain.
The JA Ranch is located in the Palo Duro Canyon, where well water contains high levels of dissolved gypsum (calcium sulfate). Known locally as “gyp water,” this form of sulfur is an antagonist, binding copper and zinc in the rumen. Smith increases cattle performance by providing a mineral supplement.
“We feed a custom mineral mix that we incorporate into the cake during the winter and a custom loose mineral in the summer,” Smith explains. “We do not provide any hay; we’re on 100 percent native short grass pastures. During winter months, we feed up to 38 percent protein cubes, based on the nutritional needs of the cow.”
Smith checks cows twice a week and stockers any time from daily up to twice a week. “If you’re already seeing extreme signs of mineral deficiencies in cattle, you’re way behind the curve,” Smith warns. “Symptoms include hair coat being off-color, general unthrifty appearance, cattle eating bones, or lowered pregnancy rates. We take water and grass samples several times during the year and mix our mineral formulation based on that collected data. I use Texas AgriLife Extension Service personnel who provide unbiased, scientifically-based advice.” Check herds regularly with a critical eye. As soon as producers spot a health concern or unusual behavior, they should contact the veterinarian and nutritionist ASAP to get to the bottom of the problem.