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Veterinarian View | April 2024


Just as important as Vitamin A for cattle.

contributed article by Dr. Vince Collison, Collison Embryo and Veterinary Services,

Rockwell City, Iowa

I’ve written extensively about the importance of vitamin A in cattle. Cattle have evolved as foragers, so their metabolism is highly dependent on vitamin A which is abundant in green growing forage. So much of the health and wellbeing of cattle comes from having adequate levels of vitamin A in their system. On the mineral side, the trace mineral copper is also extremely important for many things related to the health and reproductive efficiency of cattle.

Deficiency Issues

Copper deficiency can cause a variety of symptoms and copper is one of the key trace minerals for optimum reproduction. Listed are some of the main symptoms associated with copper deficiency.

• Hair that is brown in a normally black-haired calf. This is one of the more common symptoms you will see in cattle.

• Poor growth and possibly watery diarrhea.

• Enlarged joints in young calves, specifically epiphyseal enlargement.

• Anemia.

• Poor reproductive performance.

• Breed differences: Continental breeds such as Simmentals, Charolais, and Limousin require 40 percent more copper than smaller breeds such as Angus.

Deficiency Causes

Causes for copper deficiency are usually associated with mineral imbalances. One of the most common causes is increased molybdenum in the diet. Molybdenum is found in high concentrations in boggy areas of a pasture. If your pasture has an area like this, there are high levels of molybdenum in the grass of these areas. The molybdenum will tie up copper in the rumen and make the copper unable to be absorbed. In my experience, this is one of the most common causes for copper deficiency.

I was transferring embryos in a pasture a few years ago and commented on how nearly all the black calves had brown hair. I also pointed out a large boggy area and brought up the possibility of copper deficiency. The producers made the comment that they had fenced off that area in the past and had not seen that much problem with brown hair in the past. Only when they quit fencing this area off did they start having more of the brown-haired calves.

In another case where there was a large boggy area in a pasture, I actually saw calves that had swollen epiphyseal areas in their joints that was causing lameness. This herd was also experiencing a higher rate of bovine respiratory disease as well. In both of these two cases, the herds were Simmental which probably accentuated the problem due to their higher requirement for copper.

Sulfur Intake

Other causes for deficiency are high sulfur intake. Feed products such as distillers grain and other byproducts can be high in sulfur. Also, water can be high in sulphates and can potentially cause a tying up syndrome where sulfur binds to copper making it unable to be absorbed. High iron intake can interfere with copper as well.

Impact on Reproduction

My main with concern with copper is related to reproduction. When a cow ovulates, she will form a corpus luteum (CL) at the site of ovulation. The CL is the structure that will produce progesterone and maintain the pregnancy. This is the structure on the ovary that we check before transferring an embryo to a recipient cow.

There is a high amount of copper in a corpus luteum, so to form a good CL, the copper in the cow’s system needs to be adequate. If she cannot form a proper CL, the cow will not maintain a pregnancy and will either cycle back in heat or possibly lose the pregnancy early. If I am kicking a lot of recipients out on a transfer group for no CL or poor CL’s, I always consider low copper as a possibility.


Prevention of copper deficiency starts with having a good mineral out all the time. Copper is probably only absorbed at a rate of 5 percent of what’s consumed, so having mineral out all of the time gives the cow time to have high enough levels going into breeding season.

One thing that can help absorption of copper is to feed a chelated trace mineral product. Chelation can also help if you have situations where you might have interference of copper absorption. Such as high iron or sulfates in the water or when feeding byproducts. We feel that chelation will compensate for these situations. We use a mineral product that has 2500 ppm of copper. Part of the trace mineral in this product is chelated. There is another product our clients have used with success that has 1500 ppm. These are both minerals that are formulated as breeding minerals.

If you think you’ve experienced some of these issues that I’ve mentioned, it would be good to look at your mineral product and make sure it is formulated to meet the needs of copper for the cow. Many minerals do not have copper levels that are this high and probably won’t have any portion chelated so as to keep the cost lower. If you are going to spend the money for AI or embryo transfer, the benefits of the better breeder minerals will outweigh the cost.

There is an injectable product that has copper in it as well. We have used this with good results, and it can be a good thing to give prior to going into a breeding season. Especially if you are not sure of the mineral status on a group of purchased cows or situations where the wrong type of mineral has been fed and you need to get caught up on the copper needs of the cow. We like to give this product to all incoming donors that are boarded at the ET center since we don’t know where they stand on mineral status at the time of entry. We have had clients give this product even at the time they insert CIDRS into recipients and gotten along well.

Anything related to trace minerals is complicated as there are many interactions that occur between the different trace minerals. There are usually PhD nutritionists who formulate these minerals for the major mineral providers. It is best to use a product that has been formulated for breeding cattle and rely on the expertise of the people formulating it to get a trace mineral that is balanced for best results. As always, work with your nutritionist and veterinarian to determine what is best for your herd to get the best results.

Dr. Vince Collison is co-owner of Collison Embryo and Veterinary Services PAC

in Rockwell City, Iowa.

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