Cattle Today

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SELECTING MINERALS REQUIRES MORE THAN READING TAGS

by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D, PAS

Part 2

As we discussed in the previous article, supplementing grazing cattle with free-choice minerals has been shown to be highly effective through years of research and experience. Mineral supplementation is well known to improve the performance of growing and breeding cattle, resulting in improved profitability of forage-based cattle operations. This improved performance is seen in terms of increased gain of growing cattle, improved reproductive performance, improved health performance and so on.

With the variety of products and claims associated with literally thousands of products on the market, how does the producer select a range mineral that is right for his operation? What characteristics can be used to assess the quality of different products, especially when the tags are basically the same? How can product characteristics, such as formulation, consistency, and resistance to environmental effects, be used to determine the best product for the dollar? Let's take a look at some of these issues and hopefully answer some of these questions.

What Defines a Quality Mineral Product?

When evaluating quality, it is important to define some terms so intelligent comparisons can be made. This definition should consider mineral supplementation of range cattle as a program or system, from formulation to consumption of the product. It's not enough to have a quality product in the bag, it has to reach the animal AND be consumed AND be absorbed to be effective. For range minerals then, a quality product is one that has the following characteristics:

*      Appropriate formulation.

*      Appropriate consumption.

*      Product consistency.

*      Unaffected by environmental conditions.

Having identified the characteristics of a quality mineral, let's take a look at each of them individually.

Appropriate Formulation is a Key Factor

Above all, a quality range mineral program is one that:

a) Matches the nutritional needs of the target animals.

b) Takes advantage of available forages.

c) Is consumed at the appropriate intake level.

In the last issue we discussed mineral intake and the inherent variability that is common based on seasonality, forage quality, etc. Subsequently, product formulation should be based on carefully conducted research trials to ensure the proper balance between cattle nutrient needs and forage nutrient content. Unfortunately, it's not possible to look at a mineral and determine if it has the proper nutrient composition. However, the product label, including the list of ingredients, nutrient guarantees, and feeding instructions, provides a wealth of information relative to the nutritional adequacy of the product. Coupled with a forage analysis, your mineral supplier's representative should be able to readily determine if the product fits the specific situation for which it is being considered.

Target Consumption

Over- or under-consumption reduces the benefits of mineral supplementation by increasing costs or reducing animal performance, respectively. Achieving uniform target intake, however, is not as easy as one may think. Consumption control begins with product formulation. Many products use salt at various levels as the primary means of controlling consumption. Other ingredients may be added to enhance palatability or to further modify consumption patterns.

Not all grazing situations or groups of cattle respond in the same manner to a given mineral. Subsequently, management of the product in the field is needed to fine-tune consumption. Practices such as relocating feeders closer to, or further away from, watering and loafing areas are used to achieve this objective. Management requirements of mineral products to achieve adequate consumption should be demonstrated through feeding trials conducted over a wide range of pasture conditions and cattle types. In other cases it may require a certain a amount of trial and error. Your mineral supplier or nutritionist should be able to provide accurate, reliable assistance in fine-tuning mineral consumption.

Target consumption rates can and do vary from one product to another. Evaluation of a mineral needs to take this into account so mineral cost is compared on a per head per day basis rather than on cost per ton.

Product Consistency -- Each Mouthful Must be the Same

Not only is it important to achieve target consumption, but the mineral consumed each time the animal visits the feeder should be balanced relative to the formulated level of each nutrient. Feed and mineral manufacturers strive to ensure the mineral going into the bag is uniformly mixed. However, this doesn't ensure the product will stay uniformly mixed. The tendency of a product to separate or segregate can be judged by close visual inspection and is affected by several factors. Segregation occurs when particles of the same size move to one part of the overall mix while particles of another size or density remain in place or move to another. Occasionally you will hear this referred to as Particle Size Dynamics (PSD).

Products that have a wide range of particle sizes and are dry and dusty tend to segregate readily. This can occur in the process of pouring the mineral into the feeder and is further enhanced by the sifting action that occurs as the animals bump and jostle the feeder. Many of the trace minerals are fine powders that become concentrated as segregation from the coarser macro-minerals occurs, which can lead to nutritional imbalance as the product is consumed.

On the other hand, products that are more uniform in particle size or that have been formulated and mixed in such a way that the product has a cohesive texture are less prone to segregation. Mineral products incorporating a molasses blend of some type of vegetable oils/fats can greatly reduce the level of segregation that takes place. Intake of the entire mineral product on each trip to the feeder is more likely to occur with products that possess these properties.

Environmental Effects

Both wind and rain (even heavy moisture or humidity) can affect the mineral once it's in the feeder, leading to difficulties in achieving adequate consumption. Exposure of the mineral to prevailing winds can lead to significant losses through wind erosion, in much the same way that exposed soils are eroded by wind. These losses are more likely to occur if the mineral is dry in texture and contains a high percentage of fine and/or light particles.

The fine particles are often trace minerals that are critical to the animal's nutrition. Light materials are generally organic ingredients, such as grain products (distillers grains, wheat midds, rice bran, etc.), that are added to improve palatability or as a filler to help match target intake to the product formulation. Loss of these ingredients lead to imbalances in the nutrient intake of the product. On the other hand, minerals that have a more uniform, coarse particle size with a cohesive texture will experience little or no loss when exposed to wind.

Exposure of a mineral product to rain can modify consumption patterns due to leaching of nutrients and/or caking of the product. As with wind losses, minerals that are a dry blend of the individual ingredients are more prone to leaching when exposed to rain. Some of the trace minerals used in these products are fine powders that are highly water soluble, making loss of these key nutrients more likely. Salt losses can also be high in these minerals when exposed to rain. Upon drying, the remaining minerals may cake and become hard and difficult for the animal to consume.

In some areas of the country, minerals are typically fed in open box feeders. Losses due to wind and rain exposure can be significant in these situations. Covered feeders are often used (and should be) to provide some protection from these elements. Losses can be substantial in some instances and every precaution should be taken to protect this investment.

The bottom line, however, is that the provision of a good quality, palatable mineral product, adequately consumed does not encounter the same risks of being damaged by or lost to the elements as one that is not well consumed and sits in the feeders for extended periods of time.

Some Economics

Mineral products can be found priced in a wide range of dollar figures. Products ranging from a couple of hundred dollars per ton up to $1000 or more per ton are not unheard of. The question is, what is right? By experience most producers find that the ultra economical products typically do not deliver much. They often use high levels of calcium and salt as carriers (very inexpensive) and subsequently do not include particularly high levels of other necessary nutrients. The super expensive products in many cases do not carry exceptionally higher levels of basic minerals, trace minerals and vitamins but often are designed to support a higher margin for the manufacturer and retailer. To help support these prices these products will often include a wide array of "specialty items" such as B-vitamins, probiotics (bacteria, fungi, yeast products, etc.). While yeasts have been found to be useful in increasing palatability and potentially improving rumen function, there is not a lot of definitive research into the use of live bacterial and fungal cultures. This is mainly true due to the fact that it is very difficult to maintain the viability of a live culture of these organisms in a free-choice mineral.

So what is right? A pretty good free-choice mineral can be purchased in the $400 to $600 per ton range. What does this mean in cost per head per day and then cost per head per year based on an average consumption of 4 oz. per head per day. Many mineral manufacturers will promote a 2 oz. per head per day feeding rate but this is typically pretty difficult to achieve and can produce some questionable results when assessing the nutritional status of the animal.

As you can see the difference in cost per head per year in the least expensive mineral product and the most expensive product on the chart is $15.98. For a herd of 100 head this would be equal to an added cost of $1598 annually. However, on today's market if the use of a better product (higher quality, increased nutrient density, better bioavailability, etc.) only increased your calf crop by 5 percent (5 additional calves), your gross return would be approximately $2500 resulting in about $1000 more revenue. This doesn't include other benefits such as improved calf growth rates, reduced sickness and subsequent vet expenses and as well as other production-cost reducing factors. While it is important that you do an informed comparison of mineral products the benefits of a higher quality mineral program are obvious.

Conclusions

Selecting an appropriate range mineral requires more than just reading the tag. While sound nutrition provides the foundation, a high-quality product is one that also reaches the animal in the proper amount and in the proper proportions without being affected by environmental conditions. Segregation of the product, over- or under-consumption, and losses due to wind and rain are factors that can create significant differences between the nutrition in the bag and what reaches the animal. A high-quality mineral is one that minimizes the effects of these factors, allowing the maximum benefit to be achieved from mineral supplementation which is, without a doubt, an improvement to your bottom line.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or e-mail at sblez@peoplescom.net.

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