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Cow Tales: Copper imbalances and the cowherd

Kenny Barrett Jr., DVM, MS
For the August 20, 2011 edition of Tri-State Livestock News.

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Recently it seems we have diagnosed a rash of trace mineral imbalances in our practice. We have had blind heifers, neurologic cattle, sheep with paralysis, and even animals die from polioencephalomalacia. Some groups of animals seem to experience increased rates of pinkeye and hoof problems. All of these problems can be directly or indirectly related to trace mineral imbalances, especially copper and sulfur metabolism.

Copper is one of nine known trace minerals required for optimal growth and performance. Copper is used to activate enzymes powering biological pathways. Its involvement in this capacity is second only to zinc. Consequently, copper is involved in many biological processes including reproduction, immune system function, growth and many others.

Copper status in the body is a result of copper consumption through feed and absorption from the intestines. The level of copper in feed is greatly influenced by soil type and less so by soil pH, water saturation, fertilizing practices and interactions with other minerals in the ground. Absorption from ingested feed is typically low and further reduced by the presence of antagonistic minerals in the rumen. Sulfur and molybdenum are the primary antagonists.

These minerals alone inhibit copper absorption but together they bind with copper in the rumen to form insoluble precipitates rendering the copper unavailable. Water sources of sulfur and feed sources of sulfur and molybdenum are important considerations when developing copper supplementation strategies. Soils high in molybdenum will produce forage and feed with high molybdenum concentrations. High molybdenum concentrations tend to be regional problems. These areas need increased copper supplementation to meet cattle requirements.

High levels of sulfur can be found in corn byproduct feeds such as distillers grains, fish meal and other packaged feeds. Sulfur in drinking water can also contribute a significant amount of sulfur especially during hot periods with increased water consumption.

In our region we have diagnosed sulfur toxicosis in both dry and wet years. Toxicosis can occur during the summer and winter alike. Water levels of 250 ppm sulfate sulfur are considered safe. Levels greater than 250 will begin to inhibit copper absorption and act as a mild laxative. Levels above 1,500 should serve as a warning. At this level copper absorption is inhibited and clinical sulfur toxicosis may occur. Levels above 2,500 ppm will lead to sulfur toxicosis.

Inadequate tissue levels of copper will lead to losses in the areas mentioned above. The greater the deficiency the greater the loss as it is a continuous gradient of clinical signs. Cows may experience greater levels of early embryonic death and more open cows in the fall. The function of white blood cells are inhibited and groups of animals may experience a greater incidence of disease. A set of yearlings may experience an unusual incidence of footrot or some other ailment.

The formation of melanin, the black pigment of skin and hair, will be hindered causing black cattle to appear reddish. In our experience, copper deficiencies become apparent in groups of cattle with disease problems. Calves may develop diarrhea despite intense management. Post-weaning pneumonia breaks that occur in well-vaccinated low-stress calves are frequently traced to a primary copper deficiency.

The copper requirement for the animal depends on its stage of production but typically ranges from 6 to 10 ppm of their diet’s dry matter intake. The amount required in the trace mineral depends on the animal’s requirement, form of supplementation, level needed to offset antagonistic levels of sulfur and molybdenum, and the daily consumption of trace mineral. In general, chelated copper is the most available followed by copper chloride, copper sulfate, and lastly copper oxide. Chelated copper is bound to an organic molecule such as an amino acid. In this state, the copper molecule is theoretically unavailable to interact with sulfur and molybdenum in the rumen allowing it to enter the intestine for absorption. Commercial products are available with many different levels of copper, forms of copper, and various additives such as an antibiotic, insecticide, and other supplements. A mineral with 5,000 ppm copper supplied as copper oxide is not the same as 5,000 ppm from copper chloride.

Supplementation of copper in trace mineral is both art and science. There is not one commercial product that fits all production systems and environments. One producer may need bottom-tier inexpensive mineral while his neighbor requires a more expensive mineral with chelated trace minerals. Each operation needs to establish a baseline of copper status by testing a combination of animal, feed and water samples.

In general, deep wells are quite stable followed by feeds and surface water – which need to be tested more regularly. Liver copper levels are required to establish copper status in the body. The liver is the copper reservoir for the body that releases copper into the blood stream as needed. Consequently blood copper levels can remain adequate even while the animal plummets into deficiency. Liver samples can be collected relatively easily from live animals or during postmortem examination. Producers should work with their veterinarian, extension agent, and/or feed representative to establish a testing program.

It can be easy to overlook the importance of trace mineral nutrition. Deficiencies of one or more trace minerals cause a continuous gradient of clinical signs that begin with suboptimal performance and end with death. Most often it is impossible to detect a deficiency by physical appearance but performance may be hindered. It becomes increasingly important to manage trace mineral balance as we push the boundaries of performance.

The cattle of today have different nutritional requirements when compared to animals of the sixties and seventies. Make sure a trace mineral deficiency is not causing a consistent drain on your herd.

Recently it seems we have diagnosed a rash of trace mineral imbalances in our practice. We have had blind heifers, neurologic cattle, sheep with paralysis, and even animals die from polioencephalomalacia. Some groups of animals seem to experience increased rates of pinkeye and hoof problems. All of these problems can be directly or indirectly related to trace mineral imbalances, especially copper and sulfur metabolism.

Copper is one of nine known trace minerals required for optimal growth and performance. Copper is used to activate enzymes powering biological pathways. Its involvement in this capacity is second only to zinc. Consequently, copper is involved in many biological processes including reproduction, immune system function, growth and many others.

Copper status in the body is a result of copper consumption through feed and absorption from the intestines. The level of copper in feed is greatly influenced by soil type and less so by soil pH, water saturation, fertilizing practices and interactions with other minerals in the ground. Absorption from ingested feed is typically low and further reduced by the presence of antagonistic minerals in the rumen. Sulfur and molybdenum are the primary antagonists.

These minerals alone inhibit copper absorption but together they bind with copper in the rumen to form insoluble precipitates rendering the copper unavailable. Water sources of sulfur and feed sources of sulfur and molybdenum are important considerations when developing copper supplementation strategies. Soils high in molybdenum will produce forage and feed with high molybdenum concentrations. High molybdenum concentrations tend to be regional problems. These areas need increased copper supplementation to meet cattle requirements.

High levels of sulfur can be found in corn byproduct feeds such as distillers grains, fish meal and other packaged feeds. Sulfur in drinking water can also contribute a significant amount of sulfur especially during hot periods with increased water consumption.

In our region we have diagnosed sulfur toxicosis in both dry and wet years. Toxicosis can occur during the summer and winter alike. Water levels of 250 ppm sulfate sulfur are considered safe. Levels greater than 250 will begin to inhibit copper absorption and act as a mild laxative. Levels above 1,500 should serve as a warning. At this level copper absorption is inhibited and clinical sulfur toxicosis may occur. Levels above 2,500 ppm will lead to sulfur toxicosis.

Inadequate tissue levels of copper will lead to losses in the areas mentioned above. The greater the deficiency the greater the loss as it is a continuous gradient of clinical signs. Cows may experience greater levels of early embryonic death and more open cows in the fall. The function of white blood cells are inhibited and groups of animals may experience a greater incidence of disease. A set of yearlings may experience an unusual incidence of footrot or some other ailment.

The formation of melanin, the black pigment of skin and hair, will be hindered causing black cattle to appear reddish. In our experience, copper deficiencies become apparent in groups of cattle with disease problems. Calves may develop diarrhea despite intense management. Post-weaning pneumonia breaks that occur in well-vaccinated low-stress calves are frequently traced to a primary copper deficiency.

The copper requirement for the animal depends on its stage of production but typically ranges from 6 to 10 ppm of their diet’s dry matter intake. The amount required in the trace mineral depends on the animal’s requirement, form of supplementation, level needed to offset antagonistic levels of sulfur and molybdenum, and the daily consumption of trace mineral. In general, chelated copper is the most available followed by copper chloride, copper sulfate, and lastly copper oxide. Chelated copper is bound to an organic molecule such as an amino acid. In this state, the copper molecule is theoretically unavailable to interact with sulfur and molybdenum in the rumen allowing it to enter the intestine for absorption. Commercial products are available with many different levels of copper, forms of copper, and various additives such as an antibiotic, insecticide, and other supplements. A mineral with 5,000 ppm copper supplied as copper oxide is not the same as 5,000 ppm from copper chloride.

Supplementation of copper in trace mineral is both art and science. There is not one commercial product that fits all production systems and environments. One producer may need bottom-tier inexpensive mineral while his neighbor requires a more expensive mineral with chelated trace minerals. Each operation needs to establish a baseline of copper status by testing a combination of animal, feed and water samples.

In general, deep wells are quite stable followed by feeds and surface water – which need to be tested more regularly. Liver copper levels are required to establish copper status in the body. The liver is the copper reservoir for the body that releases copper into the blood stream as needed. Consequently blood copper levels can remain adequate even while the animal plummets into deficiency. Liver samples can be collected relatively easily from live animals or during postmortem examination. Producers should work with their veterinarian, extension agent, and/or feed representative to establish a testing program.

It can be easy to overlook the importance of trace mineral nutrition. Deficiencies of one or more trace minerals cause a continuous gradient of clinical signs that begin with suboptimal performance and end with death. Most often it is impossible to detect a deficiency by physical appearance but performance may be hindered. It becomes increasingly important to manage trace mineral balance as we push the boundaries of performance.

The cattle of today have different nutritional requirements when compared to animals of the sixties and seventies. Make sure a trace mineral deficiency is not causing a consistent drain on your herd.

kenny barrett jr. is a veterinarian at the belle fourche veterinary clinic in belle fourche, sd and pens “cow tales” monthly. learn more about the clinic on the web at http://www.bfvetclinic.com, or drop them an e-mail at: office@bfvetclinic.com to suggest a topic for the next installment of “cow tales.”




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