New findings are forcing even the cattle-feeding industry to take an entinrely new look at trace mineral supplementation.

Don't overlook the importance of trace minerals and trace mineral supplementation. That's the message spreading around the country following some landmark cattle nutrition research conducted over the past few years.

All classes of cattle need trace minerals for vitamin synthesis, hormone production and enzyme activity. These functions, along with collagen formation, tissue synthesis, oxygen transport and energy production, are processes important to growth, reproduction and overall animal health.

The problem for ranchers and cattle feeders is that most times there just aren't enough minerals or mineral combinations in forages and grain-based rations to meet the demands we place on cattle in today's production environments. Further, it's becoming increasingly clear there are regions of the country where some important minerals are critically low in pastures and harvested forages - and these mineral deficiencies follow cattle all the way to the feedyard.

Recent forage survey data show large areas in Texas, Montana and Arkansas where copper and zinc, especially, are deficient in many common forages. Data show that more than 60% of the forages across the country are short in recommended levels of copper, and nearly all regions are deficient in zinc.

John Paterson, Montana State University-Bozeman (MSU), Extension beef specialist, and MSU researcher Ray Ansotegui went a step further though, coordinating liver biopsy testing of 1,200 cows in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Texas. The biopsies were used to determine variations in copper, zinc, manganese and molybdenum in cattle livers.

They report a large percentage of cows from Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota were considered to be of marginal copper status. Copper is an element that plays an important role in fighting infectious diseases. More than 55% of the cows from Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota had liver copper levels below 30 ppm, which is considered deficient. Approximately 69% of the cattle surveyed in these states had marginal (less than 60 ppm) copper levels in their livers.

"We can certainly see reproduction problems, as well as reduced disease resistance, with sub-clinical mineral deficiencies," says Connie Swenson, Eden Prairie, MN, a research nutritionist with Zinpro Corp. "Growth, feed intake and feed efficiency may also be adversely impacted."

Swenson, a former research associate at Montana State University (MSU), believes sub-clinical mineral deficiencies may be a larger problem than acute deficiencies because producers simply cannot see the problem in individual animals. When decreased rates of gain and feed efficiency are realized, or when pull rates rise, feedyard operators might begin to suspect mineral deficiencies.

Meeting All The Specs These trace mineral deficiencies are becoming better understood as animal diagnostic methods improve and producers fine-tune management to shave health treatment costs, according to Paterson and Ansotegui, who have worked extensively with Swenson.

"This work builds on the foundation of other research across the country - especially research by Jerry Spears at North Carolina State University," says Paterson. "We've also worked with ranchers, feeders and veterinarians to make sure we're asking the right questions. There is definitely a link between trace minerals and the immune system."

It's this business of immune response that hit home with Al Perez last summer. For the past several years, Perez, general manager of ConAgra Better Beef, LLC, Greeley, CO, has insisted on a vaccine-based pre-conditioning program for calves coming into his finishing program. But, Perez has continued to see health "breaks" in pens of cattle from some regions.

Last summer, Paterson happened to be in the Greeley area and walked through some of the ConAgra pens with Perez.

"John suggested there might be a mineral deficiency with some of these cattle," explains Perez. "As we looked further into it, the only difference we could come up with was in mineral programs - the calves met all the other specs."

Trace mineral deficiencies were then identified and addressed. Perez and Paterson saw a tremendous improvement in overall pen health.

"A lot of the cattle we saw with health problems were otherwise big, strong calves from areas noted for good genetics and top-notch management," adds Perez. "But, they were actually quite naive when it came to their immune system."

Given his experience, Perez emphasizes that an adequate calfhood vaccination program needs to be coupled with carefully planned trace mineral supplementation.

Feedyard owner Bob Capser, Edgar, MT, agrees with Perez.

"I can't emphasize enough the importance of a good trace mineral program," says Capser. "If your cattle are trace mineral deficient, or if the mineral balance is out of whack, you're just throwing vaccines and antibiotics away."

Capser goes as far to suggest that priority be placed as much, if not more, on trace mineral supplementation as on vaccination in a pre-conditioning program.

From Ranch To Feedyard Unless he's sure the mineral program a rancher has been using is working properly, Capser will automatically include a chelated copper supplement to starter rations as calves come into his feedlot. His trace mineral regime costs about $1.50/head for 30 days. Compared to shelling out $15-20 to treat a sick calf, Capser says that's not a bad investment.

"Everybody wins when you can cut costs like that - especially when you figure you're getting more from your health program." He notes that in his area the copper/zinc balance is important - and feels most Montana forages already have enough zinc.

"This business of trace minerals is one of the most critical management factors we're facing today," adds Capser. "We've fed cattle from two neighboring ranches - one with a good trace mineral program and one without - it's not hard to figure where we had the wreck. We know where we'll go looking for calves next year and where we won't bother going back."

Long story short: Paterson, along with Capser and Perez, suggests ranchers consider testing their forages for mineral content or screen their herd for mineral deficiencies through liver biopsies - then work with a nutritionist to match the trace mineral needs to the needs of the cattle.

"We've done a great job developing and using vaccines," says Paterson. "Now we need to use what we are discovering about minerals and put it to work in a complete herd-health package - from ranch to feedyard."

For more information contact MSU's John Paterson at 406/994-5562.

Traditionally, trace mineral supplements have been fed in the form of inorganic sulfates, oxides, carbonates and chlorides. But, John Paterson, Montana State University Extension beef specialist, leans more toward organic trace minerals because he sees evidence of improved feed efficiency, growth, reproduction and immune response.

"We need to define the conditions where performance or health responses can be expected with organic trace minerals," he notes. "But, there's data out there that show organic minerals have higher bio-availability than inorganic forms."

The organic forms appear to have greater value when an animal is under nutritional, disease or production stress, according to Connie Swenson, Eden Prairie, MN, a research nutritionist with Zinpro Corp. "There is significant data which show enhanced immune function and reduction in respiratory disease when feeding organic trace elements as opposed to inorganic trace elements - as well as increased average daily gain and feed intake."

Looking beyond the feedyard, Paterson and Swenson agree that attention to mineral supplementation should follow the production cycle - from breeding to weaning.

"The most important time to pay close attention to trace mineral supplementation appears to be just before calving and just before weaning," says Paterson. "There's a lot we don't know about fine-tuning trace minerals in beef cows. But, what we do know is we need to pay more attention to this part of cattle management."