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Selenium Supplementation of Cows Improves Health of Calves

Livestock Update, February 1999

John Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

Virginia soils, like most Southeastern soils, are deficient in the trace mineral selenium. For several years, Virginia Tech and other universities have been encouraging producers to inject newborn calves with sodium selenite (Bo-Se(, Mu-Se() to prevent white muscle disease. Increasing selenium supplementation is recommended for brood cows to enhance immune function and reproductive performance.

Two recent studies (Awadeh et al., 1998 J. Anim. Sci. 76:1204; Enjalbert et al., 1999 Anim. Sci. 77:223) indicate that supplementing selenium (Se) to beef cows in late gestation improves the health of calves. Calves born to cows that did not receive supplemental Se or low levels of Se were Se deficient at birth. In calves, liver stores of Se and blood enzyme tests for Se status are increased by feeding Se containing minerals to their dams in late gestation. In addition, a single Se injection calves at birth was not sufficient to maintain normal Se levels in calves from Se deficient cows. Therefore, calves from un-supplemented dams are more susceptible to white muscle disease and other problems connected with Se deficiency.

Cows supplemented with adequate levels of selenium produced better colostrum than cows on low levels of Se. Antibody levels in colostrum and the blood of calves were greater in cows receiving a mineral supplement that contained a minimum of 60 ppm of selenium. Also, calves from well-supplemented dams had higher concentrations of thyroid hormones indicating a higher metabolism. A higher metabolism helps calves warm-up and stay warm after birth. Therefore, calves form cows that get enough Se have better immunity and resist chilling so they are more likely to resist disease.

Recommendations for supplementing selenium to beef cows:

  1. Cows should receive mineral mixes containing high levels of Se (50 to 60 ppm) year 'round.
  2. If cows have not had mineral containing Se, begin feeding high Se mineral at least 30 to 60 days before calving
  3. Calves from cows supplemented with Se should be given a single injection of Se at birth
  4. Calves from Se deficient cows should receive an injection at birth and 45 to 50 days of age.

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