Minerals for Sheep
by Ulf Kintzel
Many farm stores offer ready-to-use minerals for sheep in a loose form in a bag. If you are happy with those minerals and if you can afford buying them, read no further. If you find them too pricey or if you are astonished how much of them are consumed by your sheep when given free-choice, then I have some suggestions for you.
Sheep minerals should be given free-choice and in a loose form. Intake should not be restricted, and they should not be offered as a mineral block. However, the sheep minerals I encountered over the years all have additives like corn distillers, dried grains. and sugar cane molasses, which increase consumption unnecessarily. I used to add one to two thirds of salt to regular sheep minerals to stifle consumption without leading to any deficiencies. That worked well for me for many years. However, on my eternal search to reduce cost I tried a few new options.
Let’s start by discussing what sheep need in minerals and on the other hand, what they should find plenty in healthy and diverse pasture. The most obvious needed supplement is salt. Salt is needed for many physiological functions. Without salt the body is unable to function.
Secondly, a trace mineral deficient in soils (and therefore in pasture) in many areas of the US is selenium. Selenium deficiency causes what is called White Muscle Disease. It causes a sheep to lose control over leg muscles and it can also simply cause a heart attack since the heart can also be affected. In addition, it can cause a good number of other problems not as easily identified as selenium deficiency such as inability of a new-born lamb to suckle, lack of growth in lambs, lack of fertility in ewes – the list goes on. So if you are living in New England or the Northeast, chances are you will need to supplement with selenium.
Another element needed in a sheep mineral is iodine. Just as we need in our salt added iodine, especially for the young, so do sheep. A lack of iodine can lead to a goiter in new born lambs. This goiter is a symptom of a dysfunctional thyroid gland and is likely to kill the lamb. Other less obvious problems occur due to a lack of iodine as well. So iodine is definitely a trace element that is also needed in a sheep mineral.
Additional desirable trace minerals are cobalt, manganese, iron, molybdenum, and possibly zinc. I addressed copper in my column in the previous issue of Small Farm Quarterly (SPRING 2015) and won’t repeat it here.
Now let’s get to ingredients that are not needed in minerals. Some vitamins, especially during the growing season, are plentiful in my pasture but are also preserved in good quality hay. Other vitamins are synthesized by the rumen. I can categorically say that added vitamins – which are a pricy additive in store-bought minerals – are not needed in the minerals for my sheep. So are many minerals (like magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus) and some trace minerals (like zinc brought up by deep-rooted forage and trees, if you have those in your pasture). Due to a very diverse pasture, including deep-rooted plants and interspersed hedgerows I am confident that many needed minerals are readily available in my pasture but definitely not iodine and selenium. No known deficiencies exist in my flock that would suggest otherwise.
While searching through supply catalogues, I came across a Selenium/Iodine Premix sold by Pipestone Vet Clinic. It comes in a five pound bag and only one pound of it is needed for 50 pounds of salt. If you calculate about $6 for the bag of salt and about $4 for the premix, including shipping you will come to a total of about $10 for 50 pounds. Compare that to store bought sheep minerals that sell for a minimum of $20 per bag and – if your flock is of substantial size – you will soon find the savings substantial. At times I added about a quarter of trace minerals or cattle minerals when I want to ensure that my sheep receive needed copper, i.e. for the developing fetuses. To ensure even distribution of the premix in the salt I pour the mixture back and forth between two buckets while a bucket holds about 25 pounds of salt and half a pound of the premix. These buckets are cat litter buckets I receive from a friend. They have a lid and are ideal for storage.
While this seemed to be an almost perfect solution for me, the use of this premix also coincided with the occurrence of a few goiters in new born lambs. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation. However, for safety reasons I continue to add almost regularly some trace mineral salt to my mix because aside from copper it also contains iodine. Since then I have not had any goiters anymore. If you can source salt with added iodine I can only recommend it.
Calculating the amount of salt, pre-mix, and the occasional cattle mineral and trace mineral salt that I purchase per year, I spent about $400 for a flock of 200 plus ewes and their lambs and a couple dozens of goats. The amount would be approximately double, if I were to buy the same amount in ready-to-use minerals instead. Since these ready-to-use minerals are much faster consumed than “my” mix the savings are even higher.
Too complicated? Well, there are always the store-bought sheep minerals. You won’t go wrong using them. I recognize that this is the simplest solution if you have a few sheep and it will not break the bank. However, if you have a few hundred sheep you will notice how much money was spent on minerals at the end of the year when you prepare your tax return. Dealing with some inconvenience of mixing your own while saving a few hundred dollars might be worth your time. I know I don’t mind saving that money.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 585-554-3313.