I recently sat in on a roundtable discussion about using mineral supplements on ranches that are practicing managed grazing. It turned out that even though it is well known that our region suffers from some serious soil deficiencies, most of the people in the group had extremely modest mineral programs. The reasons folks gave for not using mineral supplement were all over the map, but most were what I’d call technical, rather than nutritional.
Here’s a sample of what I heard:
Minerals cost way too much. Moving minerals around in a grazing program is just too much work. They’re too heavy. The feeders don’t work. It rains too much here and it spoils the minerals. They’re too messy. I have goats that graze with my cattle. Minerals make the bed of my truck rust.
An additional set of complaints centered on problems with the science behind mineral nutrition. Turns out, many folks don’t believe that their cows really need mineral supplementation – they’re still alive, after all—or they believe that giving injections or putting out salt blocks or applying chemical fertilizer is “good enough”.
Since I am not a veterinarian or a ruminant nutritionist, I think I’ll leave the science part to someone else. What I am pretty comfortable discussing is the program we use here on our ranch to get mineral supplement into cattle. I run a fairly intensively-managed grazing operation, with grass and cattle scattered around on several different properties. During the grazing season I find myself moving cattle every day, and in my program I want my cattle to have constant access to mineral supplement. This brings some challenges, mostly related to the technical objections I mentioned above. Here’s what we do to solve the technical issues related to getting minerals to the cows.
First, a quick look at economics. I know, I know: people hate this stuff. It’s easy to just complain about price, and it’s hard to write a big check, especially when the cattle market is so fickle. But here’s the reality of our mineral supplement budget:
I purchase our custom-blended mineral package by the ton, delivered to the ranch in 50 lb. bags. The prescribed daily dose is 3 oz. per head per day. If we do the math, it turns out that the cost of supplementing a cow is about five cents per day; $15 per year. If a typical cow brings in $700 per year, the cost for mineral supplement becomes what my friend Big Mike calls a “hickey”: a small cost that is not a budget buster, especially if it actually makes your program work better. The result of spending that 5 cents per day for mineral supplementation are hard to quantify, but it certainly doesn’t take much of a change in pregnancy rate, morbidity or mortality to justify that expense. My conclusion: mineral supplements probably make good economic sense.
The remainder of this article is about overcoming the technical problems associated with providing minerals in a managed grazing program. Basically, the minerals need to be moved frequently, and this means they have to be light, mobile, easy to move, and also overcome the weather problems in a our environment. Also, we would like our animals to have constant access to free choice minerals, and a basic rule around here is that the mineral program has to be easy enough that my wife can enjoy putting out minerals. Here’s how we do it.
Our basic structure: we are a grazing outfit. During the grazing season, each herd of cattle move to a new paddock every day or two. This basic design means that someone has to check on grass, water and livestock each day. The fact that someone has to visit the site makes it easy to supply a daily dose of minerals on a daily basis.
We try to keep minerals in front of our animals 24/7. Because I know the dose is 3 ounces/hd./day, the calculation is pretty simple. If there are 50 cows in a paddock, I know they should be receiving about 150 ounces each day. I round this off to ten pounds. So, I would pour ten pounds of product into the feeder each day. Over the years we have tinkered with the % of salt and other ingredients in order to regulate intake. It works out pretty well. If old mineral begins accumulating in the tub, I occasionally toss the old stuff out, clean the tub and start over.
Yes, yes, I know: this is not a perfect system. Some individuals probably eat more than 3 ounces. Some eat less. Some eat none at all. Because I cannot do anything about this reality, I choose not to worry about it.
Most of the commercially manufactured mineral feeders I see are terribly heavy contraptions. Often the designs include opportunities for banging metal against shins or pinching fingers. These monstrosities are too heavy and ungainly for my wife to manage, so we don’t use them. Instead, we use simple, light, open tubs. Some are old supplement tubs, some are feed tubs from old 4-H projects. Currently, I’ve taken to cutting down old light-duty plastic water tanks. All of these tubs come from yard sales. Cutting off the top few inches of the tank gets rid of the lip and lowers the side wall, both of which makes it harder for cows to tip the tank over.
Yes, there are problems with tanks like these.
“When it rains, the minerals get wet.”
Correct. And so what? I’m only placing about one day’s worth of product out each day. Typically, my cattle drink the water that accumulates in the mineral feeder, then lick up the remaining solids. (Author’s note: I understand rain. I live in a wet climate, where we receive around 40 or 50 inches of precipitation per year.)
“Cattle tip open tanks over, and the minerals are lost.”
Correct, that can happen, especially if we’re using inflexible, hard tanks that have a rim around the top. My approach is to use soft rubber or plastic tanks with a relatively low sidewall. If I have trouble with a particular tank getting knocked over, I toss in a 10-pound steel weight. This usually solves the problem.
“My goats run in concert with my cattle, and I’m afraid to let them have free access to minerals.”
Please keep in mind that I am not a vet or a consultant, but I am happy to report that our goats have complete access to our cattle mineral tubs. For the most part, they ignore the minerals. On occasion, one will take a bite, and in moments the entire flock will mob the supplement tub. This causes my nutritionist to cringe, but so far, I’ve seen no problems, as in, no dead goats. Also, I can see no way to avoid the issue, other than getting rid of the goat enterprise.
“But don’t the open tubs get filled with mud and manure?”
Not really. Cows very rarely step into the tubs. Calves do much more frequently, but a calf’s hoof doesn’t collect mud and manure the way a cow’s does. Contamination is a very minor problem.
“Minerals are messy and cause corrosion.”
Agreed, and this is a real problem in wet country. We solve this by transferring our loose minerals into jugs. I swing into the local truck stop each spring and salvage a dozen or more empty fry-oil jugs from the recycling bin. Using a powder funnel, it’s pretty easy to transfer our minerals into the jugs.
Each jug will hold 50 pounds, but out of deference to my wife (and my advanced age) I usually try to stop at 25 pounds. The jugs are stored in the building with the bulk minerals, but each day or so I toss a couple of fresh jugs into the truck before I head out for the day. No muss, no fuss, no mess in the truck. In the field, I pour out a daily dose, then set the partially full jug under the nearest fence. Sometimes, I just leave the jug right in the field or even just set it inside the tub, if there is room.
The cattle will lick it and maul it around, but rarely break one. Typically, a jug will last for one or two seasons before I toss it back into the recycle bin.
Our mineral program is designed to serve our basic ranching system: managed grazing. If you have a ranch design that uses only a few different pastures and infrequent moves, maybe you can be successful with big, heavy, clunky feeders. Or perhaps even permanent structures. But if you want to move cattle every day or so, you might look at a program that features small, light, equipment like the tubs shown above. If you have reservations about using open tubs, rig one up and try it out in a back pasture where no one else can see it. Drop me a note and let me know the results!
Those are John’s suggestions. Do you have some ideas for other ways to get minerals to your stock?