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Shelley: Mineral supplementation should be carefully planned to benefit the cowherd

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Walking the aisles of the local feed store may not be the best way to purchase mineral supplements for cattle. According to Chris Shelley, Colorado State University Extension livestock specialist in Wray, Colo., each herd is unique and has different needs. The key is to tailor a program to meet those needs, he says.

“The program we have for our cattle needs to be built specifically for our cattle,” he tells producers. “There has been a lot of research done, and a lot of technology has come out regarding minerals since the 20th century.” 

“Today, we know a lot more about minerals than what we used to,” he explains.

Critical minerals

Shelley says 17 minerals are critical for cattle health. The seven macro-minerals are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chlorine, magnesium and sulfur. The 10 trace minerals are iron, iodine, zinc, copper, manganese, cobalt, molybdenum, selenium, chromium and nickel.

Because of differences in how cattle are managed, there isn’t a one-fits-all solution when it comes to selecting a mineral. Shelley says age, sex, breed, stage of production and the feeding program also affect what minerals the cattle need. 


During certain times of the year, the mineral program will change, Shelley continues. 

“We should evaluate multiple times during the year if our animal’s mineral needs are being met,” he says. “For example, during lactation, cows need more calcium, potassium and magnesium. During spring grass growth, cattle will need magnesium and calcium to prevent grass tetany.”

“When the grass goes dormant in the fall, it will lose its crude protein, available energy and total digestible nutrients, as well as some minerals,” he continues. “Basically, any time there is a major change in the diet, the mineral program needs to be re-evaluated.”

Planning and testing

Shelley also recommends developing a plan before moving cattle to summer pasture. He says producers should use a soil map and possibly have a soil analysis to determine what minerals are in the grass. 

“It is possible for the soil to have a deficiency in one mineral or another,” he says. “Since grass quality can fluctuate year to year, so can mineral requirements.”

Testing the water is also important. 

“Producers should test the water just to see what the salt content is,” he explains. “Cattle can tolerate a lot of salt, but when combined with a lot of salt in the water, it can be harmful to them.”


Cattle have a baseline requirement that needs to be met to maintain proper health. They also have a toxicity level for each mineral. The key is finding the range where they are efficient, without becoming toxic, Shelley explains. 

“The goal is to meet their requirements but not to overfeed them. Minerals are expensive,” he says.

Shelley recommends building a mineral nutrition program from the ground up. 

“The first step is to understand what the cattle’s requirements are and what’s in their feed,” he explains. “We want to find that balance between deficiency, overfeeding and cost.”


Minerals can be delivered to the cattle different ways. Pastures can be supplemented, so grasses take in the minerals they are deficient in, Shelley says. 

In dairy feedlots, many producers choose to mix the minerals into the feed to develop a complete diet. 

Cow/calf producers typically feed a free-choice mineral. 

“The problem with that is some cattle won’t eat it, or others over-consume it,” he explains. “Sometimes, more salt has to be added to the mineral to keep consumption down.”

Shelley also shares with producers a method of injecting the cattle with the minerals they require. 

“The advantage is in knowing exactly how much mineral the cattle are getting,” he says. 

The disadvantage is bringing them in and committing to giving them another shot. 

Depending upon what minerals are needed, producers may have to rely on a veterinarian to give the injection, since some minerals are considered controlled substances.

Finding a program

Shelley encourages producers to compare different mineral programs to find the one that is right for them. 

“Producers may find the program that is more expensive initially is actually less expensive in the end because they have to feed less of it,” he says. 

“I also don’t recommend buying all the mineral supplement for a year at once. The stage of production changes, and the vitamins in the mineral tend to go bad,” Shelley says. “Keep the animals in mind. We should know their requirements and know what we’re feeding them.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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