Minerals in Animal Nutrition

by Gary Kline

It is commonly asserted that if your body needs a certain mineral, let’s say copper, zinc or boron, you must take it in an organic (chelated) form.  You can’t just take a simple, inorganic mineral and derive any significant benefit because it won’t be assimilated.  I won’t attempt to refute that assertion, but I think there is good reason to call it into serious doubt, and I’ll give my evidence.

Actually, the case I will make is drawn largely from “A collection of articles on holistic animal health”, by Senior Veterinary Consultant, Richard J. Holliday, DVM that is titled “Building a Holistic Foundation for Animal Health”, which dates from 2007 and can be found on the internet.

Though “Doc” Holliday doesn’t make any such specific inference, I will make the inference that humans are animals and the same priniciples observed and governing animal nutritional health ought to apply to humans, and that Holliday’s observations from more than 40 years of holistic veterinary practice and products he uses have profound implications for human health and nutrition teaching, although neither he (nor I) are prescribing them for human use.

Starting off, it is noteworthy that Holliday was a student of the great soil scientist, Dr. William A. Albrecht, at the University of Missouri, back in the early 1950s.  However, he admits that some of Albrecht’s most important lessons did not really sink in until he got into veterinary practice.  Says Holliday, “It was years later that I fully appreciated the importance of his work - - - that it takes healthy soils to make healthy crops, and healthy crops to make healthy animals.  - - - Dr. Albrecht’s influence and acceptance in the realm of sustainable or biological agriculture is greater now than when he was alive.”

Deep into his paper, Holliday talks about a colleague who “had a unique way of looking at things and could translate complicated subjects into an easy to understand broad overview using simple analogies.”  I like to think that is my role and the service I provide to readers of my own writings.  Briefly stated, I try to boil down what I think everybody needs to hear.

Sir Albert Howard is another giant of agriculture who had a profound impact on Holliday’s thinking.  He refers to a particular paragraph in Howard’s 1940 book An Agricultural Testament, wherein Howard describes how his own well-fed and cared for oxen (in India) would rub noses with diseased oxen having contagious hoof and mouth disease and never came down with that or other prevalent diseases.  As Holliday says (p. 9), that paragraph “forever changed the way I looked at animal health and disease.”  I have to say that same paragraph was a bolt of illumination for me as well.  It was a clincher.

A major thesis of Holliday (and of Albrecht) is contained in this quote from page 15:  “I believe that a ruminant’s tongue is the finest nutritional, analytical laboratory in the world!  Many experiences over the years have taught me to trust in the natural inclination of animals to seek out the best nutrition they can find and to know instantly when they have found it.”  It is likely that we humans once possessed that instinctual ability, but, plainly, have lost it, if indeed we ever had it.  Dr. Weston A. Price, in his classic 1939 book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, provided evidence that primitive peoples did possess that ability.

Holliday then cites (pp. 1-2) one illustrative example:  “One day one of my good “natural farming” clients took me on an impromptu field trip.  We drove to an area where his cornfield joined his neighbor’s.  Both fields were basically the same as to soil type, variety and stage of growth.  His neighbor’s corn was tall with dark green, undamaged leaves.  Kenny’s corn was just about as tall and green, but the plants in several rows around the perimeter of his field were severely damaged.  He explained.  ‘My neighbor uses all the modern chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides.  I use only naturally occurring soil amendments like manure, lime, gypsum and rock phosphate.  Deer will walk through miles of chemical corn without taking a bite and then feast on my crop because it tastes better.’”  Albrecht and others have documented the same kind of experience with cows.

As Holliday explains (p. 18), domestication of the cow began 8,000 years ago (probably in Eurasia) with selective breeding of the primitive auroch.  “Before domestication, cattle lived in a lifestyle similar to that of bison in the American west.  They were free to roam over wide, naturally fertile areas.  Specific imbalances of soil in one area would be offset by excesses or adequacy of the same element in other areas.  A multitude of different plants were available.  Many plants had the ability to absorb and concentrate different minerals and trace minerals, giving the grazers even greater nutrient options.  Thus, over a period of time, they could seek out and obtain balanced mineral and nutritional needs.  Predators strengthened the genetic pool by culling the weak and unfit.”

This thesis obviously hinges on an innate ability of grazing animals to sense, discriminate and select the specific nutrients their bodies need.  However, some researchers contend that ability was lost in the process of domestication aimed at creating new breeds and certain traits.  Holliday goes on to say, “It’s a lot different today.  Dairy cattle have been genetically modified to produce at levels never intended by nature, increasing their need for minerals.  Evermore restrictive confinement limits their ability to seek out and consume adequate diets.  In a natural grazing situation herbivores probably had hundreds of different plants from which to choose.  Today they are limited to six or less:  grass, alfalfa, corn, soybeans, cottonseed and maybe some oats or barley.  Seeds and grains in the amount currently fed are detrimental to dairy cow health.  Cows are ruminants and need a [diverse] high-forage diet.”  We know also that the milk and meat from grain-fed cattle (versus grass or pasture-fed) is not good for human health.  But who cares about that?

Besides confinement and lack of feed diversity, Holliday identifies (pp. 36-37) two other major factors he says contribute to the need for mineral supplementation; i.e. forced reproduction or performance [production] and soil depletion [and erosion loss].  With respect to the latter he states:

“Every crop harvested or animal removed from a farm or ranch takes with it a finite amount of life-supporting nutrients.  Unfortunately, our attempts at replacement of these elements fall far short of being complete.  Some of the major elements are replaced, but trace elements, organic matter and biological life are drastically depleted.  As soils became depleted, more need for minerals, especially trace minerals, was apparent [to some researchers].  After WWII the rate of soil and crop mineral deficiencies accelerated along with the rapid growth of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) fertilizer.  Higher yields were achieved, but nutritive values and mineral content declined.”  This is well documented, but has not been widely publicized until very recently.

Vitamins, enzymes and pre-biotics are among the supplements recommended by Holliday, but his emphasis is on a range of nutrient minerals in simple, inorganic form, to be offered “free-choice” to livestock.  He recommends against a blanket of mixed minerals in the animal’s feed.  Here’s his explanation (p. 37):

“Mineral imbalances are difficult to correct.  True, we can add various minerals to our rations, but hoping that the computer will balance a ration for individual [animal] needs is wishful thinking.  It is a common practice for nutritionists to use a blanket approach to mineral and trace mineral supplementation.  Any gross excesses thus created can result in relative deficiencies of other trace minerals.  Either excesses or deficiencies can have serious metabolic side-effects.  For example, high iron ties up copper, cobalt, manganese and zinc - - - all essential to immune response.”

Holliday relates a couple of personal experience stories which sold him on the mineral supplementation and free-choice principles.  One of these (p. 35) involved horses.  As he states it:

“In the early 1950s they didn’t teach much about animal nutrition in veterinary school.  At that time mineral supplementation, if any, was generally in the form of salt blocks, mostly white, but some were yellow or brown and contained low levels of some trace minerals.  For those that did provide extra minerals, a mixture of equal parts of ground limestone, steamed bonemeal and salt was considered adequate.”

Continuing, “ - - - in the early 1960s the store next to my veterinary office began marketing minerals that were formulated to be fed individually and free-choice in a ‘cafeteria’ style feeder.  The salesman for that company spent a lot of his time trying to convince me how good the program was, but most of his wisdom fell on deaf ears.  Finally, he offered to provide some minerals for my small group of horses and cattle as a trial.  I agreed and the next day we went out to the farm and put out several different minerals into some wooden compartments we installed in an old feed bunk in the pasture.  I checked the feeder a couple of days later and was astounded that while some of the minerals were relatively untouched, others were totally consumed, some of the wood used in the partitions had been chewed on, and the animals were hanging around the feeder as if waiting for the next course.”

Even more astounding, I think, is the other story (p. 11) involving a cow herd.

“My good friend and client, Carl, - - - was a good farmer and dairyman who milked about 30 cows.  - - - His cows were well cared for and healthy.  - - - One year inclement weather made planting and harvesting hay and grain crops a great gamble, with the result that feedstuffs that fall and winter looked good, but had low nutritional value.  By late winter Carl consulted me with two seemingly unrelated problems.  One, his cattle were eating almost two pounds of mixed mineral per head per day!  Two, about 10 days before they were due to calve, his heifers would abort a live calf.  The calf, with some care, would live, but in spite of all we could do the heifer would die within two or three days.  After the third one in a row had died, I - - - sent a dying heifer to the University Vet School for autopsy.  Their diagnosis came back as starvation!  - - - We could have accepted a diagnosis of malnutrition because of the poor crops that year, but starvation seemed a little too much.

We turned our attention to the mineral consumption problem.  Available in that area at that time was a ‘cafeteria’ mineral program in which each mineral was fed separately on the theory that each animal could then eat only what it needed to balance its own needs.  Carl decided to try this program.  His mineral feeder was in the middle of his cow lot and he had to carry each bag of minerals through the lot to empty into the feeder.  Things went well for the first few trips and then suddenly several of the normally docile cows surrounded him, tore a bag of mineral from his arms, chewed open the bag and greedily consumed every bit of the mineral, the bag and even some mud and muck where the mineral had spilled out - - - astounding behavior for a bunch of tame dairy cows!

What was in the bag, you ask?  - - - a source of the trace mineral zinc.  During the next several days they ate several bags of this zinc source, while completely ignoring all other minerals.  Gradually, they began eating normal amounts of the regular minerals.  From that day on his heifers calved normally and things gradually returned to normal.”  In the process of trying to get enough zinc, the cows had been ingesting too much other minerals and compounding the zinc deficiency, making it worse by eating the mineral mix.

In a summarizing statement (p. 35) Holliday says, “From these early experiences, and observing this method of mineral feeding over the decades, I am convinced that free-choice feeding of individual minerals and trace minerals should be the foundation of all livestock nutrition, and mineral balance is indeed one of the main foundation stones for animal health and productivity.”

It has to be said that in contrast with Holliday’s observations and beliefs, some university researchers have “concluded” from their research that feeding minerals free-choice is ineffective and uneconomical.  Furthermore, they assert that ruminant animals are not able to instinctively know or seek out and consume minerals for which they are deficient.  Instead, they contend that animals choose what is tasty over what is physiologically required.  Holliday has answers for all of that.

University researchers are fairly famous for designing experiments almost guaranteed not to succeed in affirming upstart and unorthodox solutions, often in contradiction of research from earlier times.  In this case they cite statistical averages and inconsistent individual behavior rather than following the behavior and response leading up to recovery of sick individual animals, which is what actually matters.  They seem to believe one ration should fit all and the feeding requirements for individuals should remain static, in total contrast to Holliday’s assertions.  Not surprisingly, they tend to wind up concluding that modern and conventional feeding programs (including standard mineral mixes) work just fine and can’t realistically be changed.  The commercial animal feed industry is praised, no boats are rocked, grant money keeps rolling in.  All is well, science is served.

Establishment researchers are quick to inform us that the notion that animals instinctively know what is good for them (in terms of mineral nutrients) is a misconception.  That would seem to mean an alternative theory to explain what Holliday’s friend experienced with the cows’ grabbing the zinc supplement from him is that they do this will-nilly and for no reason.  These researchers are not justified in their leap to the conclusion of a misconception.  All they can justifiably say is that their research failed to confirm the theory of animal instinctual nutrition knowledge.  They don’t know that someone else’s research might reach the opposite conclusion.  Nothing unusual about that. 

We humans do not have the detection capability of cows, but we have a lot of medical research findings about the symptoms and effects of various mineral deficiencies and excesses, and we have techniques such as hair analysis and blood analysis that can tell us the status of our mineral profiles.  Thus, it should be possible to devise specific mineral supplementation regimes aimed at restoring mineral adequacy and balance in our bodies.  Ultimately the answer is nutrient-dense food from minerally balanced soils.  We have a ways to go.

Of course, every animal species has a different digestive system, but returning to the original question of whether minerals must be in an “organic” or chelated form to be significantly assimilated by humans, based on the above observations of holistic veterinarian, Richard Holliday, I’m inclined to say that is not so.  It may be much less efficient, but it seems likely that selectively ingesting inorganic minerals could make a significant contribution to health recovery where they have been deficient, as we know they are, to at least some degree, in every American in modern times.  If mineral supplementation is so ineffective, why would it be used so widely and for so long by farmers?

What is particularly interesting to me about this collection of articles is how it comes back, in a surprising way, to Black Lake Organic.  Throughout this 38 page report I counted 16 materials sold at BLO as fertilizing ingredients for plants rather than for feeding animals.  People often ask me whether their dog might have been harmed by breaking into a bag of BLOOM or certain of the simple fertilizers.  My answer is that these are all natural and organic materials you would do well to get your pet to eat.  Here is a list of materials we carry that Holliday has used essentially as livestock medications in his veterinary practice:

Kelp is a mineral-rich organic fertilizer.  We don’t sell cobalt per se, but it is in kelp and the various rock powders and in Sea-Crop ocean mineral supplement.  Others that appear on our fertilizer price list are ground limestone (CaCO3), dolomite, ground oystershell, bonemeal, diatomaceous earth (silicon dioxide), salt (sea salt), copper sulfate, zinc sulfate, manganese sulfate, magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt), calcium sulfate (gypsum), bentonite (sodium form), elemental sulfur, and calphos (Ca and P) (by inference).  Hey, we could open up an apothecary shop!

P.S.  Important:  I’m not advising anyone to actually take any of these materials, even though some are available in food grade at health food stores.  Epsom salt and gypsum particularly could be quite harmful if taken orally or breathed as dust.  Silicon dioxide should not be breathed.  Any dusty material can damage lungs, though some worse than others.

© 2014 Gary L. Kline

All Rights Reserved  

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