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Beef Special: Mineral deficiencies can cause serious calving difficulties

Nutrient deficiencies are a common cause of fertility and health problems in cattle, and can also cause serious calving difficulties. Jane Brown looks at the main nutrients to consider.

Many calving difficulties and health problems can be avoided through correct mineral supplementation
Many calving difficulties and health problems can be avoided through correct mineral supplementation
Most farmers are aware of the impact of nutrient deficiency on cow fertility, but its effect on calving ease is less commonly understood. When severe nutrient deficiencies arise the consequences can be catastrophic.

According to George Dart, partner at the Vale Veterinary Practice, Cullompton, Devon, the most common deficiencies to look out for are selenium, iodine, cobalt and manganese – particularly in grazed stock.

Farmers are therefore advised to get their grass and silage fully analysed for mineral and trace element content, and make sure to add in the data for purchased feeds to accurately plan any required mineral supplementation.

Iodine deficiency can increase stillbirth rates by 15-20 per cent, as it is needed for rapid lung expansion and function in the calf after birth.

Mr Dart says: “Calves are either born not breathing or breathing very ineffectively. The birth is often prolonged as well, as the calf activity is poor.”

The more active a calf is during birth, the more it triggers the cow’s contractions – so an inactive calf will usually take longer to be born, says Mr Dart.

“An active, faster birthing means the calf is born wetter as it is still surrounded by the birthing fluids – everything is easier.”

Selenium – which also interacts with Vitamin E – is a key nutrient for muscle development, so a deficient cow may have weaker contractions and is more prone to infections after birth.

“The calf is likely to be either stillborn or weak, and may suffer from white muscle disease – it will usually die within a few days,” adds Mr Dart.

Cobalt affects the immune system and is vital for the manufacture of vitamin B12, whichis involved in metabolism. Deficient animals may have reduced growth and anaemia as well as higher worm burdens and disease.

Foetal development

Manganese is important for foetal development. Calves are born deformed, often knuckling over on the forelegs, which can in turn cause calving difficulties, says Mr Dart.

“Any calf which has a prolonged or difficult birth is likely to become acidotic, so its ability to absorb colostrum drops off. It is then more prone to getting cold and to neo-natal infections – the death rate will increase markedly up to 40 days of age simply due to a difficult birth.”

Such calving difficulties and health problems can be avoided through correct mineral supplementation. However, farmers should not forget the micro-nutrient balance, says Tom Butler, technical manager at the Denis Brinicombe Group.

“Supplementing at grass is key, particularly on new leys with mainly single variety grass species, which have a much lower mineral content than older mixed pasture,” he says.

“Nearly all the silage samples we analyse are deficient in trace elements and vitamins which are vital for animal health.”

Although many farmers use boluses, the drawback is they only supply a handful of trace elements, whereas good-quality mineral licks provide the full range of essential minerals and vitamins, according to Mr Butler.

“The tub principle allows a low labour, concentrated balance option with a low molasses content, so intakes are due to nutrient requirement and not for sugar.”


If the cow is healthy she will produce good quality colostrum and pass on immunity to her calf.

“A healthy calf and fertile cow are lynchpins to profitable beef farming, so it is essential their nutritional needs are met throughout the year.”


case study

Case study: Dunsland Farm, Okehampton, Devon

Dennis and Margaret Boles, who have farmed at Dunsland Farm, Okehampton, Devon, for more than 40 years, suffered with serious calving problems in 2011.

Mr Boles says: “We had occasional problems before that, but in 2011 we calved 35 Limousins and lost three cows and three calves.


“We had tremendous problems with uterine prolapses. It was just horrendous and it cost a lot of money,” Mr Boles adds.

As the Boles’ vet was unsure of the cause, they had their silage analysed to see if there was a nutritional cause. The silage turned out to be deficient in selenium and other trace elements, exacerbated by the wet nature of the hill pasture.


In an effort to address these deficiencies, the couple – who farm with their son Andrew - invested in a calver tub, a concentrated mineral supplement targeted at transition cows.

“It completely solved the problem,” says Mr Boles. “We have had four years of calving to the same bull since then and only had one prolapse, which was due to a mis-presented calf. The calves are definitely born a lot wetter than they were, so they come out a lot more easily.”

With the couple now seeking a slightly easier life, reduced calving interventions are particularly welcome.

“It is much kinder on the cows and heifers because they are not struggling, and we hardly ever have to intervene,” says Mr Boles.

“Getting the feeding right matters more than anything.”

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