Idaho -- With 2007 likely to be one of the last years that Idaho's cow-calf operators clear a noticeable profit before the 10- to 12-year cattle cycle once again levels and dips, Jason Ahola says producers should take a fine pencil to their trace mineral supplementation costs.
A national survey conducted in the mid-1990s-when the previous cattle cycle was bottoming-found that low-cost producers attributed their greatest savings to trimming their feed supplement expenses. That doesn't mean eliminating them, but it does mean using them as efficiently as possible, says Ahola, University of Idaho Extension beef specialist at Caldwell.
The four trace minerals in which cattle are most likely to suffer deficiencies and require supplementation are copper, selenium, zinc and manganese, Ahola says. Without enough copper, calves' immune systems can prove inadequate at weaning, leading to unnecessary sickness. Without enough selenium, they can develop "white muscle" disease, which weakens muscles throughout their bodies, including their hearts. Zinc deficiencies can leave calves shy in both immune response and muscle growth, and manganese shortages can take their toll on a herd's reproductive ability.
Nationwide, about two-thirds of forage samples are low in copper and/or selenium, more than two-thirds are inadequate in zinc and one-seventh fall short in manganese, says Ahola. Idaho cattle are often deficient in copper because their forages can contain too much molybdenum, iron or sulfur-minerals that are necessary to a point but that will actually prevent cattle from absorbing copper when they're present in moderate or excessive amounts. Selenium content in Idaho forages, on the other hand, ranges from inadequate to toxic levels. To supplement with just the right amount of trace minerals, Ahola recommends sampling forages every five years for copper, selenium, zinc and manganese concentration.
The University of Idaho Analytical Sciences Laboratory offers forage analyses, as do many private vendors statewide. "A $30 forage sample can save you a substantial amount of money," Ahola says.
To rein in expenses without jeopardizing herd health, Ahola also suggests that producers:
* use the forage analysis to develop a custom mineral mix for their herd, in consultation with their county extension educator
* provide feed supplements during the seven most critical months-from about 90 days before calving to the end of the breeding season-rather than year-round
* use inorganic minerals for most of their mix, sparing costlier organic minerals for animals under stress, such as calves at weaning and cows at calving
* keep track of their cowherd's intake of trace mineral supplement to make sure they don't eat more than they need, and discourage overconsumption by adding loose salt to the mineral mix
* keep mineral feeders covered and dry to avoid losses to molding, caking and spoiling
"It all comes down to coming up with a more precise strategy to supplement cows and keeping costs as low as possible," Ahola says. "If you cut your mineral supplementation costs in half, you can save $10 to $15 per head-and there are many years when that's your profit."
To help Idaho producers finetune their trace mineral programs, Ahola is conducting research on the feasibility of basing mineral status on liver biopsies collected via on-ranch necropsies from deceased animals rather than much costlier biopsies of cattle on the hoof. He's also investigating which liver sites in live animals should be biopsied for greatest accuracy and determining how much copper should be supplemented when molybdenum or sulfur are elevated.
"Ultimately, we're trying to help producers meet their cows' physiological needs for trace minerals while also remaining profitable during the lean times of the cattle cycle," he says.