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Organic selenium has numerous benefits for beef cattle

By Paul A. Davis, Ph.D., PAS, Dipl. ACAS 1/12/2012

In the never-ending quest to help cattle unlock the potential in available forages, mineral supplementation is a widely accepted practice. Perhaps none of the components in a commercial cattle mineral mix has such a storied and colorful history as selenium. In the realm of animal nutrition, selenium has truly gone from goat to hero. Once feared as a carcinogen, selenium is now recognized as an essential mineral. The benefits of its inclusion in cattle diets are numerous and economically beneficial.

Feeding supplemental selenium has been shown to improve fertility in males and females, increase growth rate, and enhance immune function. In synergy with vitamin E, selenium provides an integral part of an animal’s cellular antioxidant defense system. Whereas, selenium deficiencies are detrimental to fertility and appear as cystic ovaries, retained placentas, abortions, stillbirths, and reduced sperm motility. Infertility in cattle can be costly in terms of time and money. It has been estimated that there is a potential for reducing beef production costs by about $800 million through improved reproductive efficiency. As cow-calf producers, we all strive to get a high percentage of cows bred and to shorten the overall calving season. It seems that maintaining cows in adequate selenium status may be helpful in accomplishing such goals.

Insufficient selenium also impacts newborns as selenium deficient calves may suffer from nutritional myodegeneration or white muscle disease. Such an affliction causes calves to be born weak with noticeable stiffness, and possibly unable to stand and suckle. A chronic selenium deficiency can occur in older animals as is observed as anorexia, emaciation, generalized muscle weakness, diarrhea, susceptibility to disease, and an unthrifty appearance. Conditions known as buckling and shoulder lameness are observed in Se deficient feeder calves and the costs associated with these afflictions may seriously reduce the profit margin of stocker or feedlot operations.

Fortunately, severe selenium deficiencies are somewhat rare. Rather, deficiencies of the sub-clinical, or those without visible symptoms are much more prevalent. These situations are the ones that owners and managers should guard against. In general, commercially manufactured cattle feed and supplements contain at least some supplemental Selenium. However, given its early implications as a carcinogen, the use of selenium as a supplement to livestock garners much caution from feed manufacturers, animal scientists, and nutritionists. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration strictly regulates the amount of supplemental Selenium that can legally be included in feeds for livestock.

Whether we utilize our cattle as blue ribbon hopefuls, a pastime or make a living as their stewards, a solid mineral supplementation program that includes highly bioavailable sources of essential trace elements can enhance our efforts. Unfortunately, much of the supplemental selenium currently being used in cattle diets comes from sodium selenite that is not readily absorbed or incorporated into animal tissues. This is due to bioreduction by the “bugs” in the rumen, rendering a large portion of selenium unable to be absorbed. Furthermore, the added stresses of weaning, transportation, heat stress and the high sulfur content of some forages and grain by-products increase an animal’s selenium requirement. Fortunately, an organic source of selenium, such as selenium yeast, has about 40% more bioavailability than sodium selenite. Since the amount of supplemental selenium that may be fed is limited, it stands to logic and good reason that using a more bioavailable source of selenium is a way to fight selenium deficiencies and their detrimental effects. Nowadays, more and more feed manufacturers are including at least a portion of the selenium in cattle minerals as selenium yeast.

As a result of supplementing with a superior source of selenium and maintaining health status, cattle may be able to spare some protein and energy that might otherwise be used to ward off sickness and disease. These extra nutrients may then be used for milk, growth or reproduction. A nutritionist, veterinarian, feed company representative or consultant may be a valuable resource for information regarding selenium yeast. Though required in a very minute amount, selenium has the potential to have a colossal impact on many cattle operations. Numerous Co-op cattle mineral products contain selenium yeast for all the reasons stated above.

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