by Sally Colby

When producers consider minerals and other supplements for beef cattle, there are numerous options – all of which should be based on reading and understanding the tag.

Nutritionist Steve Stafford said the tag is the key to knowing what’s in the bag, and urged producers to determine whether they’re selecting a product from the shelf or selecting a product based on a program. Producers sometimes choose minerals based on cost per ton or per bag, but the cost per head per day is what matters most. Stafford added that meeting the requirements for merchandising and marketing programs may restrict the options for some producers.

“We’re selling into some sort of program to attain a premium or export ability – whatever that may be,” said Stafford. “Understanding what’s on the product you’re purchasing is important information that comes from the tag so you aren’t sitting at the kitchen table after you’ve already signed a contract on calves and find out what you’ve been feeding disqualifies you from the program.”

Feed tags are designed and standardized by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AADCO). The primary goal of the organization is to “safeguard the health of man and animal.” AADCO provides consistent guidelines and regulation across the industry in trade and feed safety, and provides a standard for the consumer to select and follow as a means for the appropriate and safe use of a product.

Reading tags can be tedious and confusing because mineral requirements often involve very small amounts, but Stafford said tag layouts are consistent, so it’s all about perspective. Units include percentages, ppm (parts per million), IU/lb (International Units per pound of feed) and g/ton (grams per ton of feed).

“Animals eat quantities, not concentrations,” said Stafford. “If a cow eats three ounces of a mineral that’s 2,000 ppm of copper, and another cow eats four ounces, they’re eating the same product. That product has the same concentration of copper, but one cow is eating more copper per day than the other.” Another important factor is that additive dosages may be based on a per head or body weight basis.

Mineral tags include the brand and product name, purpose statement, drug guarantee (if applicable), ingredient statement, usage instructions, precautionary statements, responsible party’s name and address and quantity statement.

The guaranteed analysis, which is easiest to view, includes a list of minerals by percentage, ppm and IU/lb. The ingredient statement may include ingredients in the product that are not in the guaranteed analysis. “Just because they’re not in the guaranteed analysis doesn’t mean they’re in the product,” said Stafford. “Just because it’s on the tag doesn’t mean it’s not in the bag.” Stafford said this is where producers may have to ask questions to determine if the product meets their needs.

Tags for medicated supplements will indicate such at the top of the label. A cautionary statement follows, then the active drug ingredient(s) are listed. The label will also include any warning statements, such as “contains copper – do not feed to sheep” or “do not feed to monogastric animals.” The medication portion of the label is important for producers whose cattle are in a program that may prohibit the use of antibiotics and/or certain other additives.

Products containing monensin include the amount in g/ton. Stafford said a shortcut for ingredients labeled as g/ton is to divide by two to get milligrams per pound.

“Most ingredients have an official definition by AADCO, but not all ingredients do,” said Stafford. “They should be listed in descending order of quantity by weight – not by concentration of the nutrient they’re representing. Some ingredients may be listed as ‘collective terms’ versus ‘individually named.’ Collective terms can be grain products or grain byproducts; individually named will be individually named on the list.” The exception is products cannot be listed as both – corn can be listed as either corn or corn byproducts. State requirements for this portion of the label may vary.

The quality of ingredients cannot be mentioned in the ingredient section. For example, designations such as #2 corn or Grade A are not allowed. However, “organic” may be identified for any ingredient that is certified organic, but that doesn’t make the entire product organic.

Ingredients can increase or decrease intake. Salt, phosphorus and magnesium are the most likely to affect intake. Physical characteristics of the ingredients are also important. “When we present it to the animal and the particle size is off, that affects the uniformity of mixing, how the product stays uniformly mixed during transport and how it looks and tastes to the animal,” said Stafford. “There’s also some environmental resilience based on particle size – there are products on the market that have weatherability.”

Some products have a variety of particle sizes, which may cause lower intake. Odor and taste strongly influence animals’ consumption. Cows may refuse to return for mineral consumption based on a single bad experience.

A frequently discussed ingredient is salt. “Cattle don’t have a specific requirement for it,” said Stafford, adding that salt is not technically a nutrient. “However, cattle do have a requirement for sodium. Salt can affect intake, good and bad, not only in the supplement but in the environment.” Salt intake can vary with forage quality, water quality and feeder placement, and that intake can be influenced by behavior and/or preference. But where does that behavior and preference originate?

“An example is a group of cows with plenty of ground to move around,” said Stafford. “They’re in a daily behavior routine of feeding, they become gregarious, they come back to water, they eat salt and minerals. There’s one feeding station for salt and one for minerals. One group of cows stands by the minerals, and we think they’re eating minerals and like the minerals. Another group of cows, maybe younger or more timid, stands by the salt.”

Stafford’s point is that cows don’t know the difference between salt and minerals – they only know what they can access. This is now a behavioral issue versus a preference issue. One solution is to provide five or six pairs of feeding stations (salt and minerals at each) that are spread out to allow adequate space for animals to move around. Without restriction based on herd dynamics, cows will eat salt or minerals based on preference rather than based on their only option.