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Copper Poisoning and Copper Deficiency in Sheep

by Ulf Kintzel

Articles warning of copper poisoning in sheep appear frequently in various publications. This leads people often to believe that sheep should have no copper in their diet. However, copper is essential for a sheep to even exist. So how likely is copper poisoning?

Let’s examine why sheep are more likely to get copper poisoning than other species that are more tolerant of this element such as goats. Simply stated, sheep have a greater difficulty disposing of excess copper than other species of animals. If there is an excess of copper in a sheep’s diet, it is stored in the liver. It is then only slowly disposed by the sheep’s liver. Over time excess copper will accumulate. When the animal is stressed, the copper is released all at ones into the blood stream. This is called chronic copper poisoning and is more common than acute copper poisoning. Death is certain when a sheep shows symptoms. Treatment options exist theoretically speaking but are not practical or feasible in real life. However, chronic copper poisoning does not occur as a widespread outbreak. Only one or at the most a few individual animals will die at any one time.

Because of the sensitivity to copper, feed stuff and minerals for sheep have no copper added, which is often confused with not containing any copper. Most feed stuff, be it forage or be it grains, does contain copper. In fact, sheep need copper for very important biological functions. For instance, the development of the central nervous system requires copper. That means there is also the real possibility of copper deficiency. This article makes the attempt of putting both copper poisoning and copper deficiency in perspective.

About twenty years ago, I used to feed minerals designed for cattle that had copper added. I did so because minerals designed for sheep were unavailable to me at that time or at least not obtainable at a reasonable price. I did that for a few years without any negative impact to my flock of Texel sheep, which I ran at that time. Finally, I got a hold of a representative of a feed supply company and was now able to receive minerals for sheep. The same year, I pastured my sheep most of the winter on residue on heavily limed hayfields. Lambing came around in late winter and I had an unusual number of still born lambs. Many of the lambs that were born alive had a retarded suckling reflex and died despite of all the help shortly after birth. I had epidemic-like losses. The diagnosis was copper deficiency. The limed fields had aided the problem since lime reduces the amount of available copper in plants.

Copper is an essential element for proper development of sheep.

Copper is an essential element for proper development of sheep.

I read up on the subject of copper deficiency and ever since then I feed free-choice minerals with added copper right around the time when my ewes are 100 days into gestation. That is when the central nervous system of the un-born lambs develop and copper is essential for it.

Let’s also remember that copper sulfate used to be used as a dewormer for sheep and indeed I use it from time to time as a dewormer still by throwing once in a while a small handful into the water trough.

Over the years following the incident of copper deficiency, I had gotten lax about added copper in minerals or salt with added trace minerals (which includes copper) and used it indiscriminately. It caught up with me. One year I lost one sheep in the fall and the following winter another due to chronic copper poisoning. Since I didn’t want to risk the health of my expensive new rams I discontinued the liberal use of minerals with added copper for a while. Instead, I deliberately use minerals or salt with added copper at certain time intervals, especially at the time when my ewes are right around the 100 day mark during pregnancy.

A word of caution: my experience is limited to minerals and salt with added copper. I don’t know what the effect would be if one were to feed a grain mixture with added copper. I don’t feed any grain since I have been grass-fed for many years. I would suspect that the effect would be much more pronounced simply because of the greater amount of grain consumed compared to minerals and therefore also a far greater amount of consumed copper. Any grains that are being fed already contain copper, which makes in my view copper deficiency in grain-fed sheep highly unlikely.

Over the years, I came to this conclusion: Many articles have been written about copper poisoning in sheep that warn time and time again against feeding feed and minerals with added copper. They are warranted given a sheep’s higher sensitivity to copper when compared to other animals like goats or cattle. Very little is being said about copper deficiency. Copper deficiency is a real possibility in grass-fed sheep, especially when limed fields or moorland pastures are grazed, which are often low in available copper. While copper poisoning often only claimed a sheep or two when it occurred at my farm, copper deficiency was devastating when it happened. I have adjusted my schedule of feeding minerals with added copper to avoid such devastating loss due to copper deficiency.

Ulf owns and operates White Clover Sheep Farm and breeds and raises grass-fed White Dorper Sheep without any grain feeding and offers breeding stock suitable for grazing. He is a native of Germany and lives in the US since 1995. He farms in the Finger Lakes area in upstate New York. His website address is www.whitecloversheepfarm.com. He can be reached by e-mail at ulf@whitecloversheepfarm.com or by phone at 585-554-3313.

Comments

11 thoughts on “Copper Poisoning and Copper Deficiency in Sheep

  1. Luke says:

    Do you think it is safe to supplement with the Purina Accuration protein block which contains 21 ppm of copper? A ewe will probably not eat 1 lb. of the Accuration per day.

  2. Tara Hammonds says:

    Hi Luke,
    If this is the block that you are referring to, it says it can be given to sheep that may have nutrient deficiencies from the consumption of poor/average forage or hay. If you’d like a second opinion, you can also contact the author of this article directly at ulf@whitecloversheepfarm.com or by phone at 585-554-3313. Hope this helps!

  3. Andrea lollis says:

    My lamb ate a copper penny! Do you think he will be okay?

  4. samg says:

    Andrea, did the lamb die?

  5. Dave says:

    Thanks. I’m just starting out with sheep and I’ve wondered about the “”No Copper” hysteria. It just did not make sense to me that it was, “no copper ever” but that is what everyone seemed to be saying. Now I won’t freak out if they get out and take a couple licks on my cattle’s brown mineral block because it has some copper in it.
    Are there any easy ways to tell if your sheep’s copper levels are in the zone? Are there any early warning signs of copper deficiency or copper poisoning?

  6. klr235 says:

    Hi Dave,

    I’m glad to hear that this article was helpful! Regarding your questions about testing your sheep’s copper levels, I would recommend reaching out to the author of the article, Ulf Kintzel. His website address is http://www.whitecloversheepfarm.com. He can be reached by e-mail at ulf@whitecloversheepfarm.com or by phone at 585-554-3313.

    Best,
    Kelsie

  7. Karen says:

    I usually use sheep minerals or pasture supplements made for sheep. I don’t know what the copper levels are in this area but there are copper mines in the southern Appalachian mountains within 100 miles of where I live. The souls are chronically acid because the rainfall washes most minerals out of the soul ( 60 inches a year) The souls are very high in iron as well. Once a year I get a deer or goat block which is 15 ppm copper. I have never had any issues. A fellow I know who used an advertised copper product for worm control in his sheep lost his entire herd because of it. He sued and won. I guess it depends a lot on the available copper in feedstuffs. I also free range my sheep and give about a cup of corn or no minerals added cattle feed to be them to come back to the barn at night.

  8. Kelsie Raucher says:

    Hi Karen,

    Thank you for sharing insight into your experience.

  9. Bert says:

    I have a fairly large dorper flock and have in the past have had losses due to copper deficiency. I feed indoors silage based feeding program. I feed all the dry ewes a TM salt with selenium with 306mg/kg copper. My nursing ewes receive sheep mineral with no copper thinking that the elevated levels of copper will be passed to their young. I am very happy with the result and now know that sheep minerals simply do not have enough copper in it for my area.

  10. Colson says:

    I have four your sheep 11 months old that came from a farm that is very high in Molybdemum and all sheep on that farm receive copper bolus twice a year. my sheep have never had one. they appear to be very anemic i.e. 4.5 on the Famacha chart though their fecal show minimal worm eggs. I am thinking that since they have never been given any copper that it might be the reason that they appear to be anemic. they have a 2.5 -3 body condition and seem to be happy and healthy. what are your thoughts.

  11. Kelsie Raucher says:

    Hi Colson,

    I would recommend reaching out to the author of the article, Ulf Kintzel, with your inquiry. He can be reached by e-mail at ulf@whitecloversheepfarm.com or by phone at 585-554-3313.

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