Vitamins: Small requirements with big benefits

Nov 15, 2013
by WLJ

From colorful vitamin drinks in convenience stores to commercials on TV explaining the importance of taking a daily vitamin in order to “support bone strength” and “improve cell health with antioxidants,” vitamins are all around us on a daily basis. Why did Mom tell us to make sure to eat our vegetables and fruits when we were growing up? She didn’t have to be a nutritionist to know that they are the best sources of vitamins and minerals to support healthy growth!

A brief tale about vitamins: For much of the time prior to the 20th century, scurvy was a terrible disease that affected sailors who were on ships at sea for a longer period than perishable fruits and vegetables would last. Leading to the dubbing of sailors as “limeys,” it was discovered that citrus fruits had the ability to prevent scurvy, as they provided the vitamin C that had been previously deficient in the diet.

Now, while the above history pertains to humans, the role of vitamins in health and wellness are very real for all mammals. That being said, how do we approach vitamin nutrition in our cattle? We know how important they are in helping us be active and illness-free, but is it really all that big of a deal for our cows and their calves? Hopefully this review of vitamins will answer that question for you, and help you as you make your supplementation decisions in the future.

Vitamin overview: Vitamins are required in small amounts compared to the complete nutritional requirements of an animal. However, they are critical to the health and top performance of the animal. They are essential for the development and growth of young animals, and are necessary for maintaining tissues, numerous metabolic activities, immunity and fertility in mature animals.

Vitamins can be divided into two classes: fat-soluble (A, D, E and K) and water-soluble (B, thiamin, niacin, and choline), depending upon their make-up and function. Bacteria in the rumen have the ability to make water-soluble vitamins, as well as vitamin K in sufficient quantities to meet the animal’s requirements. Thus, supplementation of these vitamins is generally not necessary for cattle. That being said, immature or stressed calves may require supplementation of B vitamins in certain situations, as there is the potential that they lack sufficient microbial synthesis of these vitamins. B vitamins are important for immune response in a stressed animal. Therefore, in situations where calves have reduced intakes due to stress or illness, supplementation of these vitamins may be necessary.

In most cases, however, vitamin needs of cattle can be narrowed to A, D and E. These will be the ones that we will focus on for this review. These three vitamins are often supplemented by their inclusion into commercially available mineral mixes.

Vitamin A: Vitamin A does not occur in plant materials, but its precursor, carotene, a pigment in the plant giving it its green color, can be converted into vitamin A in the animal’s small intestine. Vitamin A is stored in the liver at high levels and can help to prevent deficiency in times when consumption of carotene is low. Lush immature plants have high concentrations of carotene, but these levels reduce in the plant as it matures. Thus, vitamin A supplementation is very important to meet the animal’s requirements.

Functions: Vitamin A is fundamental for normal vision, growth and proper bone development, reproduction, skin and hoof maintenance, and in enhancing immune response.

Deficiencies: In most cases, the first noticeable sign of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness. Other implications of deficiency are reduced appetite, rough hair coat, fluid accumulation in the brisket and joints, lowered conception rates and abortions.

Vitamin D: Cattle synthesize vitamin D when they are exposed to sunlight or fed sun-cured forages. Hence, they rarely require vitamin D supplementation. However, vitamin D is so important for bone maintenance and development, adequate levels of it are essential in the animal’s diet. Two situations that might lead to vitamin D deficiencies would be if cattle were housed indoors for long periods of time and fed a ration high in grains or if cattle consumed very poor quality forage during long periods with little to no sunlight.

Functions: Vitamin D is critical for bone growth and maintenance as it is directly involved in calcium and phosphorus absorption. Normal mineralization of bone and mobilization of calcium from the bone both require vitamin D. It has also been shown to play a key role in immune cell function.

Deficiencies: Rickets in calves is the most defined sign of vitamin D deficiency. This is caused by a failure of the bones to use calcium and phosphorous normally. Older animals may develop weak bones that can be easily fractured if vitamin D is deficient.

Some other clinical signs of vitamin D deficiency include decreased appetite, labored breathing and weakness.

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Vitamin E: Vitamin E occurs naturally in feedstuffs as alpha-tocopherol. Its requirements depend on concentrations of antioxidants and selenium, which vitamin E works closely with, in the diet. Vitamin E is not stored in large quantities in the body.

Functions: Vitamin E has an important function as an antioxidant in the body, and a free radical scavenger in the immune system. In this role, it serves to reduce the damages to other vitamins and essential fatty acids, both in the digestive tract and after they are absorbed. It also functions in the maintenance of structural and functional integrity of skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle, smooth muscle and peripheral vascular system.

Deficiencies: Vitamin E works in concert with selenium. Therefore, signs of deficiencies in young calves are characteristic of whitemuscle disease including general muscular dystrophy, weak leg muscles, crossover walking and impaired suckling ability.

Summary: Vitamins make up a small part of a cow’s diet, but they play a crucial role in the productivity and health of the beef animal. Hopefully having a better understanding of why vitamins A, D and E are added to mineral mixes and how they impact production provides yet another tool to consider when managing and setting production goals. Investing in a good mineral program containing proper vitamin levels will pay dividends in the long-term performance of the cowherd, as well as the economic returns to the operation. — Kyle Weldon, Anipro/Xtraformance Feeds