How Now Brown Cow – Copper and Calving

Every once in awhile we get a brown calf. Our cattle are black angus…..so brown doesn’t really fit in.

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I’ve been told the brown coat color is due to a lack of copper in the dam’s diet. We try to avoid this by supplementing mineral mixed with salt. However, some cattle eat more than others and I’m sure every cow has her unique nutritional needs. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Hay and Feed, our mineral mix is made specially for our area, soil type, and ecosystem (we have 65 cows to every human in my county of 6,000 square miles of non arable pasture land so you can see why).

A feed store will tell you your cattle need a lot of things. Since they sell the stuff, what they say may hold merit but has to be taken with a gain of salt (haha, get my joke? (since we mix our mineral with salt…)). Our feed store has invited us in for a steak dinner while watching a marketing show on ADM cake. So how does a person know if their cattle are lacking, or if the feed store is just trying to make a sale?

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I did some research. In my opinion, the proof is in the pudding (pudding being preg checking). Cattle have to be in good health and nutrition to be bred. If your cattle have a poor body condition score, copper deficiency, and other problems,  odds are your percentage of open cows at preg check time will be higher.

While we occasionally get some brown coloring in our cows and a few brown calves every year, our preg checking typically turns up at 96% bred. We’ve even had 100% bred in our heifers before which is hard to do. So apparently our cattle have the adequate nutrition.

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But there is another aspect of copper deficiency. Even if proper nutrition is provided, cattle can eat certain forages that have other minerals that  can prevent copper absorption. In my personal opinion (I am not a vet, nor nutritionist, just a guessing ranch wife), I have discovered why some cattle may have brown calves while others do not.

First assumption is that the coloring at birth is somewhat genetic. Eventually the calf’s coat will turn black. To prove this I would have to track and make notes about which calves are born brown year to year and see if I could locate any trends.

Second assumption is that cows have different taste. Perhaps one cow likes a certain forage more than another. My husband has told me that younger cows like legumes better. Some forages can be high in a mineral called molybdenum. This mineral can prevent the proper absorption of copper.

Maybe some cows like the taste of mineral better and thus eat more. We offer the mineral mixed with salt at free choice to our cattle. The mineral has molasses and other grain by products to make it palatable. In some cases, too palatable. If cattle get too much copper they can suffer from copper toxicity. This is why we mix ours with salt.

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The brown is mineral, the larger white pieces are ground salt rock from Kansas.

I don’t think our cow that had the brown calf is at all nutrition deprived, the cow is in great condition and has been bred every year for the last eight years.

Some links I found helpful talking about copper deficiency and mineral supplementation:

Beef Cattle, Is That Copper Deficiency
University of Nebraska, Mineral Supplementation for Beef Cows
Oregon State Extension, Copper Deficiency Fact Sheet
Cattle Today, Copper Deficiency and Profit

Some articles I read talked about using copper oxide boluses (a big pill) for cattle and calves. Sounded great so I did some more research. Turns out they’re not that great and had at the very best, little effect. Here are a couple studies that show how useless copper boluses are:

University of Florida, Copper Oxide Boluses for Grazing Cattle
Arkansas State University, Effects of Copper Oxide Boluses on Productivity

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