Think Before Supplementing Sulfur for Goats
Consider Adding a Sulfur Block for Goats to Your Herd
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There seems to be particular misunderstanding and uncertainty in about sulfur for goats. Vitamins and mineral nutrition can be overwhelming and confusing in livestock. A common recommendation is to provide sulfur-containing blocks or loose minerals to prevent deficiency and reduce ticks. However, how this mineral actually works is often misunderstood.
Sulfur is a specific mineral that is present in all living tissue. It is essential for major biological functions because it is a component of sulfur-containing amino acids. One of the most notable examples is its role in the production and maintenance of milk and hair.
Like many naturally occurring minerals, sulfur nutrition can be a bit difficult to pinpoint without testing. Also, its availability in feed and forages will vary according to region. Unnecessary supplementation is financially inefficient and potentially toxic, but deficiency can have life-threatening consequences. To help avoid either case, let’s look at sulfur through a nutritional lens and understand its role in a healthy caprine diet.
What is sulfur anyway?
Sulfur is considered a macromineral, meaning it is among those that are found over 100 parts per billion in an animal’s body. Because it is an essential component of amino acids and B vitamins, sulfur is a major player behind many different bodily functions and systems.
Adequate sulfur is essential for hair growth and quality (especially important for fiber breeds) and also supports healthy skin. A topical application of sulfur powder has been shown to be an effective way of controlling external parasites including flies, ticks, and fleas.
Some breeders and online resources suggest it promotes better external parasite resistance, especially when animals are supplemented with sulfur-containing mineral blocks. In reality, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support this belief.
Goats can meet their entire sulfur requirements from organic sources — that is, by eating enough foods that already contain sulfur. This includes green forages like alfalfa and clover but also different grains including corn, soybeans, barley, and even ingredients like molasses. Dried distillers’ grains — a byproduct from industries that use distillation and commonly fed to livestock — are an especially good source of natural sulfur as well.
Is there a need to feed?
Cases where goats actually need to be supplemented with inorganic sulfur sources may be less common than you’d think. But how do you know if your goats need more or less of this in their diets?
Reduced feed intake is one of the big signs of a sulfur deficiency. This happens because too little sulfur in the diet can prevent proper microbial digestion happening in the rumen, making goats disinterested in eating. In severe cases, animals will steadily lose weight and even die. Excess salivation and tearing of the eyes can also indicate a lack of sulfur.
The best and only way to be sure of sulfur levels is with a blood analysis. When sulfur is low, the blood will be higher in urea nitrogen. If you suspect a sulfur issue, you or your vet can have a sample lab-tested to confirm. In most of these cases, your vet or nutritionist will recommend adding more feedstuffs that naturally contain sulfur.
A case where direct, inorganic sulfur supplementation might be necessary is a diet where non-protein nitrogen, such as urea, is fed. With these diets, a sulfur ratio of 10:1 likely needs to be directly supplemented to the animal. However, this circumstance is rarely seen in goat herds.
So, what makes for true cases of excessive or even toxic sulfur levels?
In high concentrate (grain-based) diets, excess sulfur is above .3% and above .5% in all-forage diets. When the mineral exceeds this threshold, it can make the rumen more acidic and increase the sulfide form of sulfur which is toxic in the body. Too much sulfur can also interfere with utilization of other key nutrients like copper and selenium.
Symptoms of toxicity may include diarrhea, muscle tremors, a tell-tale hydrogen sulfide odor on the breath that smells like rotten eggs, along with difficulty breathing and even death.
Offering sulfur-containing mineral blocks is rarely necessary, despite their growing popularity. However, providing them for goats has not had a known toxicity effect — it is extremely difficult if not impossible for them to consume enough to become sick from a block.
Because sulfur for goats has many essential functions, it’s worth knowing the warning signs of deficiency and test as needed. But despite differing opinions in the goat world, the science points to special supplementation being an unnecessary expense.
Jaclyn Krymowski, and Steve Hart. “Steve Hart – Goat Extension Specialist, University of Langston.” 15 Apr. 2021.
Avoiding the Sulfur Trap.” Sweetlix, 1 Sept. 2003, www.sweetlix.com/research-articles/goats/avoiding-the-sulfur-trap/.
“Goat Nutrition Sulfur.” Goats, 14 Aug. 2019, goats.extension.org/goat-nutrition-sulfur/.
Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.