The crucial function of trace minerals in cattle

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Balanced trace mineral supplementation plays a key role in livestock nutritional plans and beef cattle health programmes. A deficiency in one or more trace minerals may negatively affect the health and immune system of animals. It also affects production and reproduction.

According to Dr Brian Kernick of Feedtek, trace minerals such as copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn), cobalt (Co), selenium (Se), iodine and iron (Fe) play an essential role in almost all biochemical processes in the animal’s body. Alheit du Toit, ruminant nutritionist at Feedtek, also emphasises that trace minerals have a complex function – they form an integral part of specific tissues and act as enzyme and hormone system activators.

Trace minerals and immunity

Dr Kernick says Cu, Zn, Mn and Co perform an important function in cattle’s immune system. Copper in particular is an essential element for grazing animals, for the following reasons:

  • It assists in antibody production.
  • It is a key element of antioxidant enzymes that help to eliminate pathogens.
  • It assists in fighting infections and inflammation.

Copper is essential for hoof integrity and the synthesis of collagen and elastin fibres, which give structure and elasticity to connective tissue and blood vessels. Antagonists such as calcium (Ca), Fe, sulphur (S) and molybdenum (Mo) can negatively affect Cu absorption.



The elements Zn, Mn and Se are essential for the body’s antioxidant enzyme system, which contributes to combatting oxidative stress. Along with optimal levels of Cu, these elements are also essential for fertility and growth.

Zinc plays a role in immune response and enzyme systems. It is a key component of the enzymes necessary for epithelial tissue integrity, cell division and repair, and transport and utilisation of vitamin A. Signs of Zn deficiency include reduced feed intake and weight gain, excessive salivation, a coarse hair coat, and swelling of the feet and legs.

Role of specific trace minerals

An article on mineral nutrition, trace minerals and interaction management in cows, published by South Dakota State University, unpacks the crucial role Mn plays in growth and reproduction. It is also necessary for immune function and wound healing.



According to the article, Se is important for preventing white muscle disease. Antagonists such as Ca, S and Fe negatively affect absorption. Vitamin E supplements compliment Se, but do not replace it. In addition, Co is an essential component of vitamin B12 and is utilised by the rumen microbes for the production of this essential vitamin. If vitamin B12 is deficient, Co may also be deficient – this is characterised by suppressed appetite, lethargy, impaired growth and milk production, and a coarse hair coat. Among other things, vitamin B12 is used by the rumen microbes in metabolic processes to produce propionate – a volatile fatty acid that provides energy to cattle.

Iodine plays a key role in maintaining the metabolic rate through the production of the thyroid hormone, thyroxine. Low levels of iodine lead to reduced thyroxine production, giving rise to a lower metabolic rate. This may have a snowball effect on declining milk production, weaning weights and overall herd health. The calves born from cows with an iodine deficiency may be blind, weak, hairless or stillborn. Another sign in cows is an enlarged thyroid gland.

Judicious supplementation

Dr Kernick says trace minerals must be supplemented judiciously. There are several factors playing a role that must be considered to prevent complications. These include:

  • Availability of trace minerals from feed sources.
  • Antagonistic effects among different trace minerals.
  • Other feed components that may inhibit trace mineral absorption, such as high levels of S, Mo or Fe in the ration, which seriously impair Cu absorption, leading to Cu deficiency. Excess Cu, on the other hand, is absorbed by the liver until it reaches a level that may be toxic.

Du Toit believes the most suitable way of supplementing trace minerals in extensive conditions is through a balanced lick supplement programme. Various feed products are available on the market for this purpose. These products typically contain essential trace minerals at the correct levels and ratios.

Read more about mineral supplements for ruminants.

Regions differ in respect of the trace minerals naturally present in plants, but lick supplements that contain highly available forms of the most important trace minerals can have a positive impact. A good place to start, says Du Toit, is supplementing a basic level of the important trace elements given in proportion, and in balance. This is the best medium- to long-term approach. – Christal-Lize Muller, Plaas Media

For more information, email Dr Brian Kernick at brian@feedtek.co.za or Alheit du Toit at alheit@feedtek.co.za.

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