Mineral management considerations
Over the last few weeks I have been working with my fellow ag economist and graduate students in developing new, updated beef cow-calf financial budgets for Wyoming. It’s been sobering work. Market price trends over the last several years, when evaluated with the increasing land, labor, fuel and equipment costs continue to make beef production a very challenging industry. Evaluating these budgets and working with producers has also brought out a few key points that I think are worth addressing. Let me start by making a few obvious statements.
Beef operations rely on a large amount of resources. The cost and management of these resources are significant, and these are necessary “fixed” expenses. Ranchers who try to reduce costs often first look at out-of-pocket expenses as a way to reduce overall “spending” and improve short-term economics of the herd. The problem is that two of the largest out-of-pocket expenses are also some of the most important, especially feed, mineral and herd health costs.
There are ways of reducing overall costs without neglecting the herd or jeopardizing herd production. One of these areas is critically evaluating the herd mineral program. Addressing a few items here may help reduce costs while more specifically addressing the herd’s mineral needs.
Phosphorous levels – the best way to manage mineral costs: Phosphorous supplementation is often necessary for grazing animals because of the low phosphorous content of forage in relation to the animals’ requirement. However, over-supplementation of phosphorous is probably the most common error when managing a year-round mineral program. Because of most producer’s awareness of the importance of phosphorous, the tendency is basically to focus on the higher phosphorous minerals without any real regard as to the necessity of it. It is simply easier to buy a product that will almost always meet – and, in fact, usually exceed – a cows requirement than to bother with trying to determine what the exact level of phosphorous needed might be. The biggest overriding reason to evaluate mineral phosphorous levels is COST. Phosphorous is by far the most expensive part of a mineral supplementation program.
For example, the cow-calf industry has for a long time revolved around a 12 percent phosphorous mineral. The table below is a tool to help producers cut costs by determining the proper level of phosphorous needed in mineral to meet a mature beef cow’s requirements taking into account the forage or basal diet phosphorous level. To use the table simply determine what stage of production the cows are in on the left hand column the go across the table until the basal diet forage phosphorous level is lined up. The number in that place is the proper phosphorous level of a mineral with a targeted intake of 3 ounces.
To get the most accurate recommendation it would be wise to take forage samples periodically. It is interesting to note that while the industry is based around a 12 percent phosphorous mineral how few times a 12 percent phosphorous mineral is actually needed.
To put the cost of this in perspective, every 1 percent change in phosphorous of a mineral costs about $15. So if by feeding a 12 percent Phosphorous mineral when really an 8 percent was all that was needed, the mineral savings would be close to $60/ton without sacrificing any nutrition.
Managing phosphorous levels by season, or by stage of production, is an important way of reducing overall costs without jeopardizing performance or herd health. Additional considerations would include:
Trace mineral recommendations: Because of variation in supply of minerals from the feed and forage, and different demands for trace minerals based on the stage of production, most recommendations are to simply supply supplemental trace minerals at or very close to the animal’s requirement. It might be necessary in certain situations to supply certain minerals in excess of the reported requirements because of excessively low basal levels, higher production levels or the presence of interfering agents referred to as antagonists. When looking at overall mineral costs, it appears logical to supply greater amounts of inorganic trace minerals because it can be done relatively cheaply in comparison to phosphorous costs.
Secondary mineral deficiencies, antagonistic mineral relationships: In some instances the actual level of supplemental trace mineral needed may be well above the reported requirements because of other compounds present in the feed or the water. Copper, in particular, is very susceptible to binding with certain elements, which effectively renders it unavailable to the animal. Elements, which are commonly found to cause absorption interference, are referred to as antagonists. The three primary antagonists are: sulfur, molybdenum and iron.
Quality and sources of minerals: It is particularly important to see by what source a particular mineral is being supplied. Some sources are very available to the animal and other sources are almost totally unusable. An easy way to reduce mineral costs is to look at alternative sources for the minerals. As a general rule, sulfate and carbonate forms of trace minerals are more available than the oxide forms.
Mineral management considerations: With any free-choice type of product there will be variation in intake within animals and throughout the year. Formulations are inherently variable in terms of palatability and therefore have either positive or negative effects on intake. While the palatability of a particular mineral will undoubtedly have some effect on intake, it is ultimately salt which will drive intake. Because salt is the only nutrient in a mineral that cattle crave, it plays a critical role in both encouraging and limiting intake of a free-choice mineral. The use of free-choice salt is an effective way to help achieve proper intakes.
If mineral consumption is too high then provide free-choice salt on the side. Similarly, if intake is not high enough, make sure the cattle do not have access to any other salt sources. Sometimes cattle will persistently not eat mineral because of external salt sources such as water or soils high in salinity. In these cases a low-salt mineral may be necessary to encourage consumption. Most people recommend providing additional salt on the side and not use it to dilute the mineral.
Another factor that is often overlooked in determining if cattle are eating the proper amount of mineral is getting a true head count of mineral consumers. Often cows are considered the only animals to be eating the mineral, when in fact, the calves – especially as they get older – will start to consume significant amounts of mineral and should be figured into the equation.
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Drought stressed forages can be high in nitrates and may be potentially toxic to cattle. Photo credit Troy Walz.