Building a foundation

Forage is the foundation for grazing beef cattle diets. Unfortunately, the perfect forage simply doesn’t exist, even with ideal growing conditions. Depending on season and species, forage may provide sufficient energy and protein to meet brood cattle nutrient needs, yet that’s not enough for even the healthiest of animals to attain the best performance genetically possible. What’s lacking? Vitamins and minerals, plain and simple.

Fieser brian
Beef Field Nutritionist / ADM Animal Nutrition


Yes, minerals. And that’s more than just salt. Macrominerals include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium and chlorine (salt), and sulfur. Macrominerals are needed in greater quantities and are generally expressed in units of percentage on feed tags. Trace minerals (sometimes called microminerals) include iron, selenium, iodine, cobalt, molybdenum, copper, zinc and manganese. Trace minerals are supplemented in smaller quantities than macrominerals and are generally expressed in parts per million (ppm) on a feed tag. While all these trace minerals play a critical role, the dominant trace minerals of consideration to supplement grazing cattle are copper, zinc, manganese and cobalt.

Overall, body mineral status influences growth, reproduction, milk production and health. The importance of mineral nutrition cannot be overstated. Without adequate mineral nutrition, production and health are compromised. Mineral importance can be compared to adding rebar to concrete structures. Just like rebar gives a concrete structure considerably more strength than concrete alone, an animal fortified with proper mineral nutrition will have superior strength in the face of production stresses. The degree to which production and health are impacted will be dictated by forage mineral content/bioavailability and mineral needs based on production stage. Stress – whether it is from calving, weaning, shipping, immunological challenges or environment – places a greater demand on the body for minerals, particularly trace minerals. More often than not, mineral deficiencies go undetected because they typically manifest in subclinical forms in terms of lower forage intake, slower gains, poorer feed efficiency, lower reproductive efficiency and lower immunity.

One must also consider the fact that minerals interact with each other, often not in a friendly manner. Too much of a good thing (like a specific mineral) just might create a deficiency by tying up another mineral, making it unavailable. Consequently, it’s not only the amounts, but the ratios of various minerals that must be taken into account when formulating mineral supplements.

The rumen environment also impacts mineral availability. While there are rumen microbial mineral needs, these needs are small in comparison to the amounts needed by the body. One exception is the need for cobalt by rumen microbes for synthesis of vitamin B12. Rumen-soluble minerals interact with other components during rumen fermentation, resulting in forms of minerals that are less available for absorption from the small intestine into the bloodstream for distribution throughout the body. How well a chosen mineral supplement can fill the gap between what the forage supplies and what the animal needs will be the deciding factor impacting production, and possibly health.


Are all sources of minerals equal?

In a word, no. Mineral sources vary greatly in terms of bioavailability and concentration. Sulfate, oxide and carbonate-based trace mineral sources have been the industry standard for years. Oxide forms tend to be the least bioavailable, with the degree of availability varying by mineral source. Magnesium oxide can be fairly available, but availability can vary tremendously and, to add insult to injury, magnesium oxide is not palatable to cattle, creating the need to “mask” its taste. Minerals are also capable of antagonisms based on their chemical composition. These antagonisms reduce bioavailability and can take place not only within the animal but within the bag as well. Organic minerals (chelates, complexes, proteinates and polysaccharides) offer higher bioavailability; however, the cost is substantially more.

Due to cost, the use of organic minerals, namely trace minerals zinc, copper, manganese and cobalt, have historically been limited to periods where the animal is subjected to more stress, such as calving or weaning, and often a combination of inorganic and organic trace minerals is used in the mineral supplement. There is little debate regarding the superiority of organic, chelated trace minerals (specifically copper and zinc). Research has even shown that organic-complexed trace minerals are an effective component of generational nutrition, even benefiting the animal when the minerals are not directly supplemented. The ultimate biologically available form of supplementation (100% of copper, zinc and manganese from organic-complexed source) has historically been considered unattainable due solely to the cost of these mineral sources.

The payback

Agricultural economists widely agree that the most important determinant of profit in cow-calf operations is the production of a live, healthy calf. It is widely accepted that proper mineral supplementation is a key contributor to not only the production of a live calf, but in keeping that calf healthy and productive until time of sale. The production returns for adequate and effective mineral supplementation far outweigh the cost. While cost will always be an important factor dictating mineral supplement selection, the “cheapest” product doesn’t mean it will provide the greatest economical return. Producers need to consider the following factors:

  • Mineral sources used in the product
  • Research, formulation and manufacturing expertise backing the product
  • Consistency of product
  • Palatability
  • Consumption rate and reliability of consumption
  • Weatherization
  • Other additives
  • Results

Which product is the right product?

Mineral supplements are like puzzle pieces: They may look very similar, but each one has a place it fits best. Each forage and supplemental feeding program will set up specific gaps that mineral supplements are designed to close. Every customer gets to determine their own value proposition based on sourcing and additives available. Find the puzzle piece that best completes your operation.