Minerals – What Are They and Why Are They Important

Grab the saddle horn, or a bunch of mane, because you’re about to enter the world of biochemistry. But don’t panic! This will only be a very tiny lesson in Biochemistry 101, something we can all use in order to intelligently monitor the nutritional needs of our animals – and ourselves.

Minerals And Why We Need Them

Minerals are catalysts for chemical reactions in the body. In plants and animals, there are hardly any reactions not started by one of these important major or trace minerals. Deficient, excess or imbalanced minerals create havoc in all living creatures. Here, we will talk about their importance in the livestock industry, with our focus on horses.

In the General Mineral Interaction Wheel below, the lines indicate the complex relationships between each mineral. Although each has its function in organisms, there are critical major and trace minerals important for structure and function – Calcium (Ca), Cobalt (Co), Copper (Cu), Selenium (Se), Iron (Fe), Magnesium (Mg), Potassium (K) and Phosphorus (Ph).


General Mineral Interaction Wheel. Courtesy of Dr. Harry Anderson, Total Feeds, Inc.

General Mineral Interaction Wheel. Courtesy of Dr. Harry Anderson, Total Feeds, Inc.

Cobalt (Co) is not really a problem in the United States. It works with iron and B12 to form red blood cells and is involved in microbial growth. Deficiencies can negatively affect microbial growth and slow down fiber digestion, which has been seen in Australia.

Copper (Cu) is the most commonly deficient mineral and is interfered with by molybdenum, iron and zinc. Proper copper balance is quite complicated; an animal may have adequate levels of copper and still have copper deficiency. This topic could (and later will) comprise an entire article itself.

In areas of high mining activity, where the soil contains high levels of iron and molybdenum, or if the diet contains greater than 400 ppm (parts per million) of iron or 3.5 ppm of molybdenum, a muscle tetany can occur, commonly referred to as “tieing-up”. These imbalances slow down energy metabolism and express as infertility, decreased hair growth and poor hair coats. In some areas of Montana, black cattle will appear to have a brown cast in their coat due to copper deficiency.

Selenium (Se) is a double-edged sword. There are places in the United States completely devoid of selenium and others where the high levels are toxic. Selenium is a strong vasoconstrictor, with excess levels affecting the animal’s extremities. The results are cows without switches on their tails, hooves falling off horses and calves without ears. Early signs in horses are white, chalky hooves.

Iron (Fe) is needed for red blood cell production and energy reactions. Low iron levels slow down the body; however, most of our livestock usually do not have iron deficiencies.

Magnesium is important in its relationship with calcium. These work together in both structure (bone development and maintenance) and nerve transmission. Magnesium is also an important catalyst in the Krebs energy cycle of the cells and is important, along with calcium, in balancing potassium.

Potassium (K) is involved in the acid/base balance of cells, water retention and nerve transmission, and is one of the problematic major minerals in horses. Failure to rid excess potassium also results in muscle “tie-up” if it builds to high levels in relationship with other minerals.

Potassium is usually too high in early spring grass and may result in grass tetany if the potassium ratio is twice that of the total calcium/magnesium. An improper ratio results in the animal not being able to rid the excess potassium, creating the muscle tetany or spasms.

The relationship of sodium to potassium is vital in all animals. There are no requirements for sodium in livestock known to nutritionists. Their needs vary almost daily with the weather, the animal’s diet, activity level and water intake. Only the animal knows its needs for sodium in the form of salt and it is recommended that the animal be given access to free choice salt on a daily basis.

Phosphorus interacts with many other minerals and is involved with hundreds of reactions in the body. It is usually not a problem except in some areas where it is deficient. If animals are not performing well, phosphorus levels should be checked in forages. It can vary from excessive levels in highly fertilized grass to lower levels, which cause animals to eat everything in sight.

Forms of Mineral

In the wonderful world of chemistry, a mineral is a metal, or metallic ion with 2 positive charges, which likes to attach to another molecule; e.g., oxygen, seen on a nutrition label as an oxide. Some oxide forms are totally indigestible, such as iron-oxide (rust) or copper-oxide. Others are only partly digestible or bioavailable. Zinc-oxide is commonly used in the animal industry and is 15% digestible. That means 85% of the mineral is excreted in the urine or feces.

Attaching a mineral to a sulfate ion aids in digestibility, making it about 60% bioavailable. It is more expensive to process than the oxide attachment, but the animal gets more bang for your buck.

In the polysaccharide attachment, a metal ion is hooked to a group of sugar molecules, which is a repeating helical molecule. However, its bioavailability is totally dependent upon the pH of the animal’s stomach and could dissociate before reaching the small intestine where it could be absorbed and utilized by the animal. This is better than an oxide attachment, but still not the final answer.

Approximately 30-35 years ago, the amino acid complex molecule began to be used in feed products. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and the mineral attaches quite nicely to the amino acid molecule. In the figure below, the M (mineral) is attaching to the amino acid complex, with the different colored dots representing different amino acids.


A Mineral Attached to an Amino Acid Complex. Courtesy of Dr. Harry Anderson, Total Feeds, Inc.

A Mineral Attached to an Amino Acid Complex. Courtesy of Dr. Harry Anderson, Total Feeds, Inc.

The amino acid attachment brought the bioavailability to 80%, as the complex was able to hold together while moving through the digestive system. This transports the molecule into the digestive tract, where it can be broken apart and absorbed.

Protienates, another form of ion attachment to a protein molecule, or amino acid complex, still protects the molecule through the digestive system, but is less stable and can dissociate and break apart before it can be absorbed.

A true chelate became the final, or best answer, we now have. These are the most bioavailable, but also the most expensive on the market. The word chelate comes from Greek for claw. The mineral molecule is totally neutralized by its attachment to the amino acid and not affected by the environment (pH) in the digestive tract. It is also the most easily absorbed into the system, becoming about 90% digestible. By attaching the mineral ion to glycine, the smallest molecule of the 22 amino acids, the mineral finally reaches the small intestine and is efficiently absorbed.


Mineral Attached in a True Chelate Form. Courtesy of Dr. Harry Anderson, Total Feeds, Inc.

Mineral Attached in a True Chelate Form. Courtesy of Dr. Harry Anderson, Total Feeds, Inc.


What Does All This Mean?

So now that you’re a biochemist, or well on your way, what do you do with all this information? Begin by looking at your feed label. As an example, you find zinc at the level of 240 ppm. What is the source? If it’s zinc oxide, and only 15% digestible, your end result is 36 ppm being usable by the animal. What if the zinc is 80 ppm, but in a chelated form? That’s around 90% bioavailable, so now you have about 72 ppm.

Try this same calculation with all the minerals in your feeding program. What is your animal really getting and what are you putting into the manure bucket?

Just some food for thought – and speaking of…..take a look at your own vitamin/mineral supplements and see which form they’re using. Maybe the cheapest vitamins in the store aren’t really the best ☺


©2017 Pat Van Buskirk. Courtesy of Dr. Harry Anderson, Total Feeds, Inc. www.totalfeeds.com

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