As I study the Pat Coleby mineral supplementation subject more and more, the biggest hang-up I have is over copper (Cu). I can breeze right through the advice for offering the other minerals free-choice, feeling confident in her assertion that the sheep will eat what they need and no more. And most of what’s in her recipe is fairly low-risk, even if the sheep ate a little too much. But not so with copper!
The risks of copper
Copper is scary, because in sheep, there is the potential for toxic overdose. Apparently sheep store copper in the liver, and it’s normally released into the bloodstream as needed. A stressful event can, however, cause a massive dump of copper into the bloodstream, creating rapid and acute poisoning.
So, we know sheep need some copper, and they can’t have too much. But nobody can say what a safe range is, because it likely varies between individual sheep, sheep breeds, and their pasture and feed combinations. Enough sheep have been killed from copper toxicity that feed manufactures and sheep producers alike have just abandoned copper altogether, to avoid the risk. But, to me, that’s just trading one risk for another, because copper deficiency is indicated as the root of many chronic and acute health and production problems. Pat Coleby says that pairing copper with dolomite eliminates the risk, because it buffers copper. But there are no studies to prove to us that’s true. So, what to do?
I think my sheep need more copper
I am suspicious that my sheep need more copper, for several reasons. They are generally very healthy looking, I had a 200% lamb crop this year, delivered without difficulty, the lambs grew well, the ewes nursed well, and were in good shape for this fall’s breeding cycle. So, I don’t have much reason to complain.
But many of my sheep have foot problems, despite very careful management on my part. I trim and treat hooves every eight weeks, and manage mud very carefully. And we had an exceptionally dry summer with perfect-looking pasture and constant rotation, so there was no excuse for foot problems this year!
I also noticed that the foot problems actually improved over last winter, when the sheep were on supplemental grass hay and dry COB, even though it was wet and a little muddy then.
The sheep I bought in September came with healthy feet, but within a month or two, were starting to show scald and foot tenderness.
Another interesting clue to copper deficiency is the appearance of rust-colored hair/wool on black pigmented animals; and “spectacles” of light-colored hair around the eyes. I have some spotted and self-colored sheep, so I’ve been scrutinizing them! The black and white Jacob sheep definitely has dark, dark black on her face and legs, with no shading at all (and she is reasonably free of hoof trouble). But the brown colored Katahdins do have “rusty” hair tips, and the suggestion of spectacles. Or, is it just more variation in their already varied markings? Or sun fading? I’m not sure! The four Katahdins pictured here do make me wonder.
I recently listened to a local large animal vet say that he’s diagnosed a lot of acute copper deficiency in livestock in his practice, and he attributes it to high molybdenum in our soils, which binds with copper. Hmm.
So, I gave them copper
With this evidence so far, I decided to do the unthinkable: I put out goat mineral supplement that contains copper. The label clearly states, as do all copper-supplemented feeds, “do NOT feed to sheep!” I did it with trepidation, but I put it right alongside the sheep’s existing for-sheep mineral supplement, thinking, hopefully, they will “choose the right,” whatever that may be for them. Well, terrifyingly, they went bananas for the goat mineral, fighting for first dibs, cleaning it up every day, and have continued to eat it at a good clip for two months!
And they never touch the for-sheep mineral anymore. Are they craving copper? Maybe. But the goat mix is also very different, and very good-smelling compared to the plain ol’ sheep salt. So, I still need a fairer test before I can say for sure that it’s the copper they’re going after in the mix. I’m hoping to find a better side-by-side comparison to gauge their preferences.
The sheep are also eating kelp granules with a voracious appetite. I’d read and heard before that kelp also has a fair amount of copper in it. I can’t find a chemical analysis of the brand of kelp I feed; but a Thorvin kelp analysis I found says it only contains 4ppm. This compared to 1,750+ ppm in the goat mineral I bought. So, I’m thinking they are liking the kelp for other reasons- probably the high levels of iodine, potassium and sulfur- levels much higher than what’s in the goat mineral.
What other people are saying: the good
Of course I went to the Web to see what others have to say. I’ve found many comforting accounts of people using the Pat Coleby supplement on sheep for years, or other copper-containing offerings, with no toxicity events whatsoever. And most of those people give great praise to the results, saying that many health problems immediately cleared up once using the Coleby supplement. I also discussed this with a local producer of Icelandic sheep who has been feeding copper supplements for several years with good results, despite their vet thinking they are crazy.
There is a special copper advocate I’d like to mention because I’ve found her posts on all sorts of discussion lists and on her blog, and they have been most helpful to me. Barb Lee is a Barbados Blackbelly sheep producer in Oregon who had these same questions several years ago. She faced enormous opposition to her inquiries about sheep and copper. Sheep experts and vets told her she was nuts, and that Barbados were just a crummy breed of sheep, that nutrition was not the explanation for the poor performance she was seeing in her sheep. Since they are a dark-colored sheep (read: probably need more copper), and new to U.S. soils, she felt strongly there might be some copper connection there. So she pressed on, and convinced herself that she was right. Her blog has a plethora of information on soil tilth testing and improvement, as she has since moved onto more holistic methods for fixing her pasture, rather than just supplementing her animals.
What other people are saying: the bad
I did find two accounts of sheep toxicity occurrences, from people using the Pat Coleby supplement mix, exactly as directed in her book. So, it can, and has happened; and apparently the dolomite doesn’t protect sheep in all cases. This first reference of multiple sheep dying doesn’t give details of whether the copper toxicity was a confirmed diagnosis or not, but the writer continues to use the Pat Coleby mix for both cattle and sheep, but just omits the copper for the sheep. But he also says that he suspects his sheep would benefit from some copper, and intends to research it more in the future.
This blogger also had a single ewe develop copper toxicity, vet-confirmed, but was able to save her with quick intervention of a treatment of molybdenum (despite the vet’s guarded prognosis). That person switched to an expensive and high quality commercial mineral mix after that, with positive results.
I find it interesting to note that both authors imply that their whole flock didn’t have the toxicity, but only one or a few individual sheep. So there is some small comfort, that even if toxicity happens, hopefully it will be isolated, and the entire flock won’t all drop dead at once! It shows how complicated this is, that individual sheep within a flock can have different needs from the rest of the flock, when their environment is the same.
Balancing the benefits and risks
There is one more thing I want to do, and that is test my soil and forage. It will make me feel better if I can see that we are low in copper, or high in molybdenum, or both; and that indeed my sheep are facing a deficit. But even then, I’ll have no guidance of how much copper to give them. And because the toxicity event could happen months or years after offering a copper supplement, it would be really hard to determine what the “right” amount is, even for a specific herd of sheep. So, I think Pat Coleby is right, I’ll just have to give them choices and trust them to eat what they need. I think having the molybdenum antidote on hand and being vigilant to watch for symptoms, especially during times of stress, is a big step towards managing the risk.
So after much research and thinking, I’m resolved to the gamble of this experiment for the sake of finding out if I can improve foot health in my herd. I’m prepared for the fact that it’s possible I could lose some ewes. But hoof care is a tremendous amount of back-breaking work. And hoof pain severely affects the quality of life of a sheep, not to mention ability to forage, so thus, production and growth. So, for me, the potential benefits outweigh the possible risks, given careful management.
Plus, I’ve broken “the rules” of animal feeding before. I started feeding my dogs homemade, raw food during the time when almost everybody thought it was crazy. I had great results and stuck with it, and now look, it’s pretty mainstream. So, I’m not afraid to question commonly-held beliefs and step outside the standard way of doing things, when I feel there is good reason. But there is risk, undoubtedly; and we all have to take responsibility for our animal care choices, mainstream or otherwise, try to educate ourselves as much as possible, and be prepared for all consequences.
I figure I need to give the sheep 6-12 months to honestly assess foot health improvement, so I’ll be experimenting with the copper for a while. I’ll report back, of course!