Most of the time we don’t think of minerals when it comes to keeping our animals healthy. We think of food, water, shelter, and maybe even bedding, but hardly does it cross our mind to think of minerals — at least, not for me. I used to think, “Where are the mineral feeders in nature? Wild goats aren’t getting manufactured minerals.”
The reality is wild goats freely roam for their browse and pick out the best quality, but domestic goats, kept in a pen with dried hay or in an over-grazed lot, depend on the farmer for every nutritional need. Wild goats seek out salt licks which are rich in minerals, but domestic goats can’t. Wild goats have the ability to seek out their mineral needs, while domestic goats are completely dependent on our provision for them.
Why Livestock Need Minerals
In general, goats have a higher nutritional need for minerals than sheep or cattle. This is part of what makes goats browsers. Their mineral needs will be met from the branches of bushes and trees. The roots systems of trees travel much father down into the soil to pull up minerals. Grass roots only pull up what is on the surface. Thus, the grass doesn’t carry as high of a mineral content as trees and bushes.
Couple that with the fact that our soils are minerally depleted anyway, we must provide minerals for our animals.
Many diseases afflict livestock simply stem from a mineral deficiency.
What Type Of Minerals To Provide
Most of farmers tend to go with a general mineral mix if they provide anything at all. Something is better than nothing. If you can help it, it would be ideal to deliver each mineral solo without the addition of salt or grains. For a mixed mineral, I use Fertrell’s Goat Nutri-Balancer.
Manufacturers add salt as a way to stop the animal from eating more. However, despite the popular theory that animals have lost their nutritional wisdom and will overdose and consume a toxic amount. The reality is that they instinctively know how to self-regulate. The book, Nourishment by Fred Provenza thoroughly discusses this topic with the most fascinating research behind his studies.
Grains act as a medium to hold the minerals, but it can also encourage the animals to eat more as they love those sweet grains.
Individual minerals allow the livestock to taste the pure, stand-alone mineral, and judge how it feels. If they are deficient in one mineral, then they don’t risk overdosing in another mineral just to get the proper amount of the first because the minerals are all separated.
Minerals Are Not A One-Size-Fits-All
If you have ever looked up a list of plants that are toxic to cattle, goats, or sheep, you’ll find that nearly every plant is listed on one list or another. This is because in particular circumstances any plant could be poisonous. According to Pat Coleby, in her book, Natural Goat Care, duckweed becomes poisonous to goats after the first rain following a drought. Someone is then going to add duckweed to their list of plants that are poisonous to goats. However, by providing minerals individually, goats can mitigate toxicity on their own.
Each farm is different. What minerals work for my farm may not work for yours. Lactating does tend to need more calcium than bucks. Alfalfa tends to deplete copper faster in bucks than in does. Dark pigmented goats need more copper than their lighter counterpart. Merino sheep need as much copper as goats, but white hair sheep need the least. By providing individual minerals, each cattle, goat, or sheep can get what it needs without compromising the rest of the herd.
Keeping Cattle, Goats, and Sheep Together
Likewise, ranchers that keep cattle and/or goats together with sheep most often provide a sheep mineral mix, as sheep generally have a lesser need for copper than goats and cattle (except for Merinos), but then they supplement the other with copper. Otherwise, the goat or cattle mineral mix would kill sheep from a copper toxicity.
Sheep will self-regulate each mineral they need as well so providing free choice minerals will save the rancher time and labor from supplementing all the goats and cattle. Each animal receives the mineral it needs as it needs it. If it doesn’t, then is it really a genetic trait that you want to keep propagating?
What Minerals To Provide
All animals need salt. Salt is a necessary mineral for basic biological function. I prefer using Redmond’s salt or Sea-90 salt. Redmond has many varieties to include trace minerals and/or selenium.
While kelp is not a mineral, it is, however, the only feasible source of iodine for livestock. Kelp is essential to provide free choice, year-round, to all your animals. Not only does kelp provide and excellent source of iodine, but also it provides selenium and Vitamin A. Even if kelp contains a smaller dose than supplementing with minerals, the vitamins and minerals in their natural form are far more effective.
For a free choice minerals, I chose the copper sulfate as it absorbs quickly. Never give copper sulfate as a drench. Many people do when their goats are in dire need of copper, but it is far too easy to overdose. If one’s goats become deficient enough to need a drench, then they most likely do not have minerals out free choice. That means they usually don’t have dolomite on hand as free choice either. Thus increasing the chances of overdose as dolomite is an antidote for copper toxicity.
For boluses, copper oxide wire particles are better to give as it is harder to overdose on. It seems to work a bit slower though. Sometimes it is hard to know if enough was given in the first place as it will stagnate the signs of deficiency but then they’ll look deficient again instead of getting better.
I keep copper oxide wire particles on hand to give as needed (e.g. if I run out of copper sulfate as free choice). However, I never administer copper sulfate as it is too easy to give toxic amounts. I let the animals get it for themselves.
Dolomite is the antidote for a copper overdose. This must be kept on hand for goats to self-regulate, especially if they are free to eat whatever browse they want. Some plants may be higher in certain minerals at different times of the year so they need to have access to this to prevent toxicity!
Yellow sulfur works to keep the livestock’s’ skin and coat in top condition. They succumb to lice and ticks if they do not have enough sulfur in their diet. Sulfur is also the key to selenium absorption. Because they can’t absorb selenium without sulfur, a sulfur deficiency equates to a selenium deficiency as well.
However, on the other end of the spectrum, sulfur also consumes copper. Too much sulfur will lead to a copper deficiency.
Because of the complex needs of each individual animal, it is impossible to make one mineral mix for all, let alone different species. Individual free-choice minerals allows each animal to self-medicate as it needs. More variety of livestock can be housed together which reduces parasite load on the land, infrastructure costs, and labor overall.
While providing as many minerals as possible is ideal, sometimes it is not practicable. Our farming ventures must be practicable and economical, otherwise it will not be sustainable. When starting our with free choice minerals, at the bare minimum, start with the main ones I mentioned: salt, kelp, copper sulfate, dolomite, and yellow sulfur.
I would love to know how you mineralize your animals! Please leave your comments and questions below.
Read about other mistakes farmers make when it comes to chickens here.