202 10th Ave. Edgemont, SD 57735 US

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Cheyenne River Animal Hospital

By Dr. Erica Koller DVM


Man’s Eternal Metal: Copper


Ranchers, this is copper. Copper, this is the cattle producer. Now that introductions are done take the advice of an area veterinarian and become best friends! #mybffiscopper

I can’t think of any other mineral that becomes a “major” concern than copper. While most places in the country do not need to worry about deficiencies with Copper, we do! Minerals required by the bovine body are split into Macro minerals; those needed in large amounts, and Micro minerals; those needed in small amounts. Examples of Macro or Major minerals would be Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, Chlorine and Sulfur. The Micro or Minor minerals are Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Selenium, and Zinc. It can be argued that mineral focus should be directed at the macro mineral, especially Calcium and Phosphorus. Certainly during third trimester of pregnancy and lactation, calcium levels can be low and cause detrimental problems for the cow and newborn calf. So why are we so focused on copper? 

Even while supplementing with proper levels of mineral, your cattle can still be deficient of copper. This is due to so many antagonists that stop the body from absorbing copper from the diet.  (An antagonist is something that binds to or blocks the absorption of another mineral). Some antagonists to copper include molybdenum, sulfur, iron, selenium, alkaline soil, and zinc. Copper needs to get past the stomach to be absorbed into the body. Picture the stomach as a place where a bunch of “thugs” are waiting, outnumbering the copper. Once there, the copper is trapped and pushed out as waste, never to be utilized or absorb by the body. Cattle that are deficient in copper do not grow, do not respond well to vaccines, get sick easily, do not reproduce effectively, and die suddenly, just to name a few problems. So what can we do?  Minerals can work with or against one another, making supplementing and getting the actual levels utilized in the body a true art form (or just pure luck). 

By supplementing with the proper level of absorbable copper, we can help cattle succeed and produce at their peak performance. The way to make copper absorbable, is by binding it to something that the antagonists won’t touch and body will absorb. We call this more absorbable copper CHELATED. Think of it as wearing a disguise by holding hands with another more intimidating compound. Chelated bonds are usually made with amino acids (proteins) which the body also needs to function. How do you know if your mineral has chelated copper?

Looking at mineral tags or listening to mineral “sale representatives” can be a challenge. It can be foolish to focus all your attention on just one element because minerals work with and against each other. Some toxicities or deficiencies can still be present, even with the best “proven” mineral. Please work with a nutritionist to make sure you are meeting your cattle’s needs. The information here is very simple and focuses on only a small area of what needs to be considered. 

Steps to reading a mineral tag for absorbable copper:

1. DO NOT focus all your attention on the Copper (CU) number at the top. Even a high number (like 5000 ppm) may not have the best absorbable copper compared to one that has a smaller number (like 1000 ppm). 

2. The only exception to looking at the ppm of copper is to compare this number to zinc. The ratio of copper to zinc needs to be close to 3:1 because the two compete for absorption. 

3. DO look at the level of Selenium and Molybdenum. Since both interfere with absorption of copper, it would be great if you can get mineral without these added in our area. Some places need additional selenium but our cattle tend to be high already in both. We are just lucky that way (ok, not really!).  

4. DO look at the ingredient lists for what is included. This is the only way to see if your ingredients are chelated. While it is very important for the copper source to be chelated, this is also a good chance to see what other minerals are also chelated. 

5. DO NOT stop at the first copper ingredient you see and make sure you find all the cooper ingredients used. Some minerals will use a combination of copper sulfate, oxide, or chloride (all inorganic “not chelated” forms of copper) and chelated copper (with various names like those below). Look for these ingredients:

        a. Copper Amino Acid Complex (the most common amino acids are Lysine,    

            Glycine or Glycinate, Methionates, Aspartate, and Citrate)

        b. Copper Proteinate

        c. Copper Polysaccharide Complex

6. DO look at the ingredient lists and what order they are listed. The quantity of elements will be listed in order from higher amounts being first then decreasing order. For example, if Copper sulfate is listed before other forms of copper, there is more sulfate forms than any other.

There is no good way to evaluate your mineral program in your cattle. Even best looking cows that never get sick could be functioning below their best potential. The best way to know is to test. A true test of the copper level in an animal is a liver sample. This gives a clear understanding of how the copper is being used. The level of copper in the liver indicates the level the body has to utilize after consumption, uptake by antagonists, and absorption. Liver samples can be obtained through biopsies on live animals or a small piece (1 inch cube) of liver tissue from any cattle that have died for any reason, included aborted fetuses. 

That brings up the issue of newborn calves and their copper. The only time calves receive copper is prior to birth from the cow. They must live with that inherited copper until they start eating grass on their own. Copper does not transfer through the milk so those calves are not replenishing any deficiencies they may have been born with. If a fetus or newborn is deficient or low, we know that cow was also deficient. We can also see sick calves in a couple months when their own copper levels are even further depleted, which is usually around vaccination or summer turn out time. What a terrible time to be immune deficient! (Remember, the “do not respond well to vaccines” and “get sick easily” parts from earlier?)

So, in summary:

· Make sure your mineral is sufficient with ABSORBABLE copper.

· Make sure your mother cows have adequate copper levels prior to calving.

· Test any liver samples (anything that dies should be tested) to evaluate if your mineral program is sufficient.