Finding the Balance: Maintaining Health with Goat Minerals
Many signs of copper deficiency in goats can result from another syndrome.
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Why do you need to supplement goat minerals?
Goats are ruminants with a complex digestive system. They were designed to forage, not to be fed. Interestingly, when goats are offered a diverse environment, they will select plants with the nutrients they need and will vary their diet by their condition. Goats have even been shown to self-medicate. Many of the preferred plants in a goat’s diet have a deep taproot that accesses different parts of the soil — and more minerals — than shallow-rooted grasses. When goats are confined, the diversity of their diet is limited and results in deficiencies.
Supplementation of goat minerals is required for good health but improper supplementation can be dangerous, even deadly. While many symptoms of deficiency can be detected on visual assessment, determining the cause is more complicated. Unfortunately, many producers are quick to give supplementation recommendations without fully assessing a goat’s nutritional profile. Doing so is not helpful, it is harmful.
Too Much of a Good Thing
A breeder in Minnesota who has been raising goats for over 10 years, and has a dairy herd that ranges between 100-150 goats, shared her heartbreaking experience.
“I was following the advice of a breeder on a well-known and very popular Facebook group. My goats had bad coats, bald noses, and fishtail. I was told all those mean low copper. I overdosed my animals based on advice from someone who never saw my herd and is so sure copper is needed that she is blinded by any other needs or results.”
Those overdosed goats all died, and when necropsied, their livers showed high copper levels.
She says, “It is sad that there are others experiencing losses since, if the goat does not look better, [this producer] recommends more copper. I used copper bolus. I will never again give more than one bolus at a time or more than three times a year. Too much copper presents just like not enough or like a parasite load. The goats will start to pee red or orange. Giving more copper was recommended and is still often recommended on that group going by visual only.”
A goat’s diet in captivity consists of hay, water, and possibly pelleted feed mixes. Since minerals are critical to a goat’s overall health, they should also have free-choice loose mineral specifically formulated for goats, available to them at all times. Supplements designated for other species risk excess or insufficient quantities of critical nutrients. Nothing should be added to the loose mineral, as they are salt-balanced to regulate intake. Any additional supplements should be offered separately, and there should be no other sources of salt. Tubs and blocks are available, but we at Kopf Canyon Ranch do not recommend them. They can limit intake and damage teeth. We have had goats develop chapped, sore lips from persistent friction against the mineral tub, and seen teeth marks on the hardened surface. In the summer months, the tub contents can melt and become a hazardous tar pit — we know from experience. Some blocks and tubs use flavor, molasses, or combine protein with the minerals, which can alter consumption beyond the need for mineral supplementation, especially if their feed has inadequate protein levels. This can lead to overconsumption and even toxicity.
If goats are showing signs of possible deficiencies, it is important to determine the nutritional profile of their hay, through hay analysis, as well as their water, through water testing. What is in the soil appears in their forage, in their hay and in their water, which then compounds with their mineral supplement. The nutritional value of hay varies by species, as well as the soil it is grown in, which can vary from field to field and crop to crop. Water can also have a variety of nutritional profiles. Each supplemented feed also has a composition that must be factored into the total nutrients consumed.
What are the signs of mineral deficiency? While each mineral has classic symptoms of deficiency, many of these symptoms can result from another syndrome in the body. Some affect metabolism and will appear as low thrift, which can also be attributed to parasitism or disease cycles such as CAE and Johne’s. Some appear as skin and coat conditions, reproductive challenges, low milk yields, lethargy, musculoskeletal issues, and anemia. Some impact immunity and result in lowered resistance to disease and parasites. Before supplementing, it is important to rule out any other health conditions that present with similar symptoms. The primary means of diagnosing general mineral status is through a blood panel. To determine copper levels requires a liver sample, through biopsy or necropsy.
Which mineral supplement is best? There is no single answer to this question — which is why many formulas exist. Melody Shaw of Narrow Gate Nigerian Dwarf Goats in Colorado has created a spreadsheet of the various formulations for quick comparison.
What works for one herd will not necessarily work for others, even in the same area! In Latah County, Idaho, our soil is deficient in copper and selenium. Since we buy local hay, our feed does not address the deficiency. We offered a mineral supplement to address this but found our goats were still deficient. Selenium was added via injection by veterinary prescription, but we found it challenging to resolve our copper issue. Other goat producers using similar management were not experiencing the deficiency. It was only through testing that we discovered that we had mineral antagonists in our hay and well water. We had to feed and supplement differently. Then we moved. Everything had to change again — what had worked for us five miles up the road was no longer working. A different well, with no antagonists, and supplementation to compensate for antagonists created new deficiencies.
Synergy and Interference
Animal nutrition and supplementation is a science. Some goat minerals are needed in only trace amounts, others in high quantities. Synergists work together to increase absorption. Antagonists work against each other and the minerals become unavailable. Sulfur, iron, and molybdenum bind copper. Our water was high in sulfur and iron. Molybdenum is sometimes used to green alfalfa, and it will show up in the nutritional analysis. We feed alfalfa. Because of our antagonists, the copper in our feed was inadequate and needed supplementation. When we moved, the copper became available, which created a new problem — a zinc deficiency. Copper and zinc are antagonists. Calcium also interferes with zinc … and alfalfa is high in calcium.
The Role of Vitamins
In some cases, a goat receives an adequate amount of mineral but cannot absorb it because of other deficient nutrients. Increasing the mineral will not resolve the deficiency. Many minerals depend on vitamin pairing. Vitamins classify as either water-soluble or fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins (B and C) metabolize quickly and the body excretes the excess. Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) do not easily metabolize, are stored, and can be overdosed. Vitamin D is essential to calcium absorption; vitamin E is essential for selenium. Some goats appearing to have a selenium deficiency actually have a vitamin E deficiency that supplementing selenium will not resolve. Green, leafy forage contains adequate oil to metabolize fat-soluble vitamins. Hay does not. Goats that are fed hay for longer than three months will likely experience a deficiency in vitamins A, D, E and K; they will need supplementation of these vitamins and also the fat required to absorb them. Mineral deficiencies are not always a lack of minerals: selenium needs vitamin E, and vitamin E needs fat. Calcium needs vitamin D — whether from sunlight or supplementation — which also needs fat. Many sources of fat are high in phosphorus, and an imbalance of the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio can lead to urinary calculi in bucks and wethers … so if fat is supplemented, the ratio must be rebalanced.
For these reasons, if you have symptoms of deficiency — if you have complex feeding needs such as ours on dry lot with hard water — it is important to work with a nutritionist or veterinarian. Some feed co-ops have a staff nutritionist who will help formulate supplements specifically for your needs. If you aren’t sure where to find an animal nutritionist, check with your university extension office.
Proper nutrition is foundational to herd health and is a recipe for success or disaster.
To determine soil toxicity and deficiencies in your area, see soil maps: https://mrdata.usgs.gov/geochem/doc/averages/countydata.htm
Originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.