The Confusion With Copper for Goats

When Should You Supplement a Copper Bolus for Goats?

The Confusion With Copper for Goats

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Copper, for goats, is arguably one of the most talked-about trace minerals, and for good reason — it’s essential for healthy bone and muscle growth. When it’s deficient, especially in growing kids, there can be major consequences. 

However, dietary copper for goats can be tricky. Because it accumulates in the liver, toxicity is a serious concern. However, anecdotal and clinical research is indicating its requirements in goats may likely be well above what was originally believed.  

Due to widespread misinformation and misunderstanding in the goat community, it isn’t uncommon for many herds to be either deficient or toxic in copper.  

Dietary Significance of Copper for Goats 

While copper is only a micronutrient, it is absolutely essential for the function of all organisms, including plants, animals, and even people. In addition to muscular-skeletal support, it also aids immunity and, especially of interest, parasite resistance. 

Severe and long-term copper deficiency can lead to bone fragility, disorders, or abnormal formation. It can also cause to cardiovascular issues, poor and rough hair growth, swayback, and poor reproductive performance.  

Copper is especially important for unborn and newborn kids as deficiency can stunt growth and cause abnormal spinal cord and nervous system development.  

Overall, research points to goats having significantly higher copper requirements than sheep — an important consideration for mixed species herds sharing feed and/or trace minerals. 

Specific Needs 

Like just about all minerals, copper requirements and utilization can be impacted by a variety of different dietary factors.  

One of the most important things to consider is that copper absorption, not concentration in the diet, of the micromineral is what’s most important. Research says that young animals may be absorbing as much as 90% of the copper fed to them in their diet.  

However, an overabundance of other micronutrients in the diet, including iron, molybdenum, and sulfur, are all known to have an adverse effect on copper availability and absorption.     

For goats, copper should be provided between 10 and 20 parts per million. There may be some different requirements across breeds — which has been found true in cattle and sheep — but research in goats for this hasn’t yet been done. 

On the flip side, the exact toxicity levels for goats are not yet formally established. What is known is that the toxic level for copper starts at around 70 ppm, with allowance for things like size and stage in life.  

Unfortunately, the most accurate way to determine any specific copper levels is post-mortem via liver analysis. If you suspect copper issues, this can be done either after slaughter or taken from a dead goat. A liver sample can be frozen and sent to a diagnostic lab for analysis — Michigan State in particular is highly recommended for liver samples. 

Should I Supplement Copper for Goats? 

A lot of goat breeders recommend looking for “fishtails” or a split in the hairs on the tail, but this isn’t backed by science and is highly subjective. A better indicator of deficiency is fading hair coat colors but, again, the only way to really know specifically is with a postmortem liver analysis. 

A good practice is to always have all forages, including pasture, supplements, and grains professionally evaluated (lab analyzed if possible) for nutritional content with special attention given to copper. Copper levels in the soil and therefore local grass/hay can vary greatly, meaning you may or may not be meeting the recommendations with diet alone.  

A good goat-specific trace mineral can provide the additional copper these sources might lack. However, keep in mind that the amount each goat consumes will vary, and they may exceed recommended levels or go far under what they need. Offering trace minerals should always be done with the full diet in consideration. 

Copper oxide (the needles in boluses) will be released slowly into the system over a few weeks. However, copper sulfate (that comes in a powder) is rapidly absorbed and can be acutely toxic in a short amount of time, making it an undesirable option.

Feeding cattle or sheep minerals are never recommended as copper sources for goats, as they will be much too high or too low. 

Research has evidence supporting additional copper supplementation as a means of controlling Haemonshuc contortus, the barber pole worm. One study found animals fed two or four grams of copper oxide needles had a curative efficacy rate of 75%. 

But it’s important to be aware that one of the biggest contributors to toxicity in goats is giving copper oxide boluses that are much too large. Kids should only ever receive two grams and large adults no more than four grams. 

Copper oxide (the needles in boluses) will be released slowly into the system over a few weeks. However, copper sulfate (that comes in a powder) is rapidly absorbed and can be acutely toxic in a short amount of time, making it an undesirable option.  

Even with a complete diet, annual or semiannual bolus supplementation — given at appropriate doses — should still keep the animal within the desirable 10 and 20 parts per million range. 

Sources  

Spencer, Posted by: Robert. “Nutrient Requirements of Sheep and Goats.” Alabama Cooperative Extension System, 29 Mar. 2021, www.aces.edu/blog/topics/livestock/nutrient-requirements-of-sheep-and-goats/.  

Jaclyn Krymowski, and Steve Hart. “Steve Hart – Goat Extension Specialist, University of Langston.” 15 Apr. 2021.  

“Final Report for FS18-309.” SARE Grant Management System, projects.sare.org/project-reports/fs18-309/.  

Copper Deficiency in Goats By Joan S. Bowen, et al. “Copper Deficiency in Goats – Musculoskeletal System.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, www.merckvetmanual.com/musculoskeletal-system/lameness-in-goats/copper-deficiency-in-goats.  

Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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