by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

As cattle producers one of our main tasks in day-to-day and overall management is providing for the nutritional requirements of the herd. We spend countless dollars (hopefully providing a positive return on investment) making sure our cattle receive the necessary nutrients for good re-production, health, milk produc-tion and growth. Overall this requires providing the necessary forage base in terms of pasture, hay and silage along with the necessary supplements as needed when forage sources are short in specific nutrients or forage sup-plies are short in general.

Unfortunately, despite all the time, effort and expenditures it is not uncommon for even the best managed herds to encounter a nutritional deficiency from time to time. There are a wide range of reasons for this. Some of these may include:

1) Forages, have not been test-ed and evaluated to determine nutrient content, therefore sup-plements have not been matched to the shortages and do not meet the cow's requirements.

2) Nutrition program has not been matched with production stage of cows and or calves.

3) Certain individual animals in the herd have specific needs that are not addressed. This may be related to age, illness and breed type

4) Intake of self-fed supple-ments are inherently variable. Some individuals in the herd will simply not or inadequately con-sume self-fed supplements (typi-cal biological bell-curve) meaning these individuals will likely come up deficient in which ever nutrients are being supplemented.

5) High levels of one nutrient may be antagonizing the absorp-tion of another.

6) Improper internal parasite control programs may result in a heavy parasite load which con-sumes a great deal of the animal's nutrient supply.

7) Overall quality of nutrient sources (forages, feeds, supple-ments) may be of such poor quality that digestibility is low and nutrient absorption is also inadequate to meet the animal's needs.

Nutrient Specifics

The primary nutrients the ani-mal requires and the producer seeks to supply are protein, ener-gy, minerals and vitamins. The other two are water and air alt-hough, hopefully these are given. However, water quality can come into play in some instances.

Each of the basic nutrients has specific functions in the mamma-lian body. Let's review a second:

Protein – Protein is commonly seen as the most important nutri-ent. Protein is required in virtually every system in the body. It is required for growth, milk produc-tion, immune response, enzymat-ic activity, etc. So, a basic amount of protein is needed every day for a.) normal body function maintenance and structural (muscle and bone integrity) and b.) for any productive purposes such as fetal growth, milk production and breeding.

Energy – Energy is the fuel that makes the body run. Energy is measured as the calories the cow consumes daily. Again, there are energy requirements for maintenance purposes and for productive purposes. Energy is needed for maintaining or in-creasing body weight and condi-tion, one of the primary visual signs of adequate energy intake.

Minerals – Minerals are the nuts and bolts of the animal's system. Minerals are involved in some manner in every system of the body either as a structural component such as bone and muscle or in the thousands of enzyme systems in the body. For instance, Zinc is involved in around 500 different enzymes.

Vitamins – again, a very criti-cal nutrient as a group. Vitamins are largely involved as co-factors in countless enzyme systems.

For nutrients in general the concept of first limiting nutrient applies. This means that assum-ing the maintenance levels of the nutrients are provided, that is the amount of nutrient for the cow to walk around, graze, breathe, poop, etc., above this she will produce (milk, fetal growth, etc.,) to the limit of the nutrient provid-ed at the lowest level. Perfor-mance past this level is inhibited since not everything needed is provided.

What to look for. . . .

A lot of deficiency signs are difficult to see. In many cases, they are not noticeable until we find that a cow is not breeding back or that her calf is really not growing to par with the other calves in the herd. Perhaps she gets sick a little more than she should. These types of symptoms are long term symptoms. Anoth-er factor here is that many symp-toms do not develop or become noticeable except after a longer period.

Let's consider a few of the more easily observable symptoms of some type of a nutritional deficiency:

1) Manure is very firm and “stacks up” in the pasture. As you walk around the pasture be-tween the cow herd, always look at manure consistency. Very firm, dry manure where large forage particles can mean several things:

a. Protein deficiency – for the rumen bacteria to break down forage particles properly an ade-quate amount of protein must be provided. When protein is short, rumen bacteria activity decreases and forage particles are not bro-ken down as well. This reduces the nutrient supply to the animal and will ultimately create defi-ciency related problems.

b. Low quality forages. This is largely related to hay or silage that is harvested at an excessively mature stage. When grasses are allowed to mature beyond a certain point the less digestible or indigestible fiber components (hemicelluloses, lignin) accumulate and make up a larger percentage of the plant. Other, more critical, digestible nutrients such as protein, cellulose, soluble carbohydrates decrease as a percentage of the total but are also bound up to some degree in the poorly digested fractions. This is an ex-ample of producing greater vol-ume of a given forage but signifi-cantly less quality, digestible nu-trients.

2) Manure is very loose. Loose, water stools can indicate a variety of problems, all of which can create a nutritional problem and some are a result of nutritional problems.

a. Internal parasites – an ex-cessive load of internal parasites will upset digestive tract activity and function. One result is diar-rhea or very loose manure. Treating for internal parasites (worms) will help alleviate this problem.

b. Mineral imbalance – certain mineral imbalances will lead to diarrhea in cattle. A sound miner-al supplementation program can help eliminate this issue.

c. While not really a deficiency consumption of lush winter pastures (wheat, rye, oats, ryegrass) can also produce very loose manure. These pastures are commonly very low in dry matter (high in moisture, 85% moisture is not uncommon), high in soluble protein and high in Potassium.

3) Another protein deficiency (hypoproteinemia) may be noted in cattle by an apparent swelling underneath the jaw. This will be accompanied by weight loss and a gaunt appearance. One major cause of this, as noted previously, is a high infestation of worms. At high enough levels, worms con-sume very large amounts of the nutrients fed to the cow, in par-ticular, protein. In certain cases, the parasite load can create acute nutrient deficiencies.

4) Energy deficiency – this is commonly observed by the loss in body condition. When it be-comes apparent that weight loss is significant the first concern is adequate dietary energy levels. This can come about as a result of poor forage quality, inadequate supplementation and once again, internal parasites.

5) Mineral and Vitamin defi-ciencies – the list of signs here is longer than we have room for here. This list will be published shortly on our Facebook page (Facebook/Reveille Livestock Concepts). Mineral and vitamin deficiencies are caused by a number of factors including:

a. No mineral program or min-erals put out sporadically.

b. Mineral program consisting of red, yellow and white blocks. These do not provide an adequate source of needed minerals.

c. Highly variable mineral in-take. In situations where the mineral is poorly formulated and palatability is low, many cows will simply not eat the minerals adequately. Some will not eat it at all. In these cases a different mineral supplement must be used.

d. Poor mineral formulation. If minerals are not formulated to match the forages or pasture a given cow is fed on, the intake of minerals and vitamins will com-monly be inadequate or out of balance.     


Nutrient deficiencies are not uncommon. Every producer should educate themselves on the signs to look for preemptively. In many cases if not noted, a great deal of lost performance can occur (an worse). Take the time to research nutrient deficiencies and how to recognize these in your area. Consulting with your local nutritionist of vet is also a good place to start.

Copyright – Stephen B. Blezinger, Ph.D., PAS – Febru-ary 2017. Dr. Steve Blezinger is and nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sul-phur Springs Texas. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at For more information visit us on Fa-cebook at Reveille Livestock Concepts.

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