The full effects of the global vitamin A and E shortage on this year’s calf crop remain to be seen; cow health is vital
Calves born this spring might not get their usual shot of supplemental vitamins as the worldwide shortage of vitamins A and E continues to make itself felt.
Adequate amounts of vitamins are important in the post-calving period so as the season progresses, the full effects of the shortage remain to be seen.
“So far I haven’t heard of any wrecks or problems or anyone running into real shortage issues, but we’re also just getting into calving,” said Saskatchewan Agriculture regional livestock specialist Naomi Paley, who is based in Yorkton.
“If cows had been deficient for some time over the course of the winter, when calves are born the quality of the colostrum isn’t going to be there. The calves are going to be born deficient and you would start to see issues at birth or shortly thereafter.”
An Oct. 31, 2017, fire at the BASF Citral plant in Germany halted production of vitamin A and some of the vitamin E precursors. That plant produces a large portion of the annual supply for both humans and livestock.
Reconstruction is underway at the plant, and a website dedicated to its progress indicates a potential restart at the end of this month. Distribution of new product to North America is likely to take several months.
Beef and forage specialist Barry Yaremcio of Alberta Agriculture said he hasn’t heard reports of vitamin shortage ill effects either, but then again, losses at calving aren’t generally publicized.
“If it’s going to happen, it’s probably going to be on herds that were on dry grass from July on,” he said.
“The hay was harvested when it was brown and dry and fully mature and that’s what they’ve had all winter, or a silage ration or a straw-grain ration without any vitamin supplementation. Those are the animals that are most likely to have problems with vitamin deficiencies.”
Vitamin E can be transferred to calves only via colostrum, and quality of that colostrum depends on the health of the cow.
“Without the vitamin E, the quality of the colostrum goes down, so the amount of protection against scours, pneumonias, naval ills and all the illnesses that can happen is compromised to a certain extent,” Yaremcio said.
“So it’s hard to say exactly what’s happening because it’s a combination of nutrition and management, herd health programs, vaccination programs.”
Once the grass starts growing, cattle can obtain enough vitamins without supplementation. However, it will be difficult to determine what role a vitamin shortage may play in such things as lower conception rates in cows or lower growth rates in calves.
Paley said there is some vitamin A and E product around, but it might require a search and will likely be more expensive than usual because of the limited supply.
“If someone is concerned, contact their veterinarian and/or their nutritionist to speak to them and get a handle on the situation because losses can be significant if you are deficient,” Paley aid.
“With calving right around the corner here, you probably want to try and get on that sooner rather than later.”
The shortage occurred just as winter feeding was beginning in 2017 and may have prevented some producers from obtaining enough vitamins to carry them through to spring pasture.
Though vitamin A can be stored in an animal’s liver for three to four months, vitamin E is only stored for two to four weeks, so a deficiency of that vitamin is more likely.
Symptoms of vitamin A deficiency include reduced feed intake, rough hair coat, joint and brisket swelling, abortions, stillborn calves, night blindness, diarrhea and low conception rates.
Symptoms of vitamin E deficiency include reduced immune function in calves, reduced calf growth rate, white muscle disease and reduced reproductive efficiency.
Deficiency can be determined through a blood test, though it’s unlikely producers would go that route unless they were really concerned about a particular animal or group of animals, said Paley.
The true effect of any vitamin deficiencies in cattle caused by this shortage will be seen only over time, and even then it will be difficult to attribute any problems to that cause alone, added Yaremcio.
“It’s a snowball effect.”
He also speculated that when the BASF plant comes back on stream, it will first have to supply vitamins for human health.
Next on the priority list for livestock will likely be dairy cattle. Inadequate vitamin E can give milk a cardboard or metallic taste, according to studies at Pennsylvania State University.
After that, poultry will likely be supplied. The Merck Veterinary Manual indicates a vitamin A deficiency extending for two to five months results in bird emaciation and reduced egg production. Shortage of vitamin E can lead to severe illness.
Pigs, which are likely next in priority to receive sufficient vitamin supplies, can have eye and respiratory problems from vitamin A deficiency. Lack of vitamin E impairs pigs’ immune systems and lowers reproduction rates, according to Merck.
Cattle may be the last to have sufficient supplemental vitamins available, hopefully by the time they come off grass this fall, Yaremcio said.
Saskatchewan Agriculture, Alberta Agriculture and Agriculture Canada specialists collaborated on a fact sheet that addresses the vitamin A and E shortage and what producers should know. It can be found here.