As a kid I was avidly on board with vitamins, being a devoted Flintstone’s Chewable Vitamin consumer. Every morning I would go to the kitchen cupboard and shake a Fred Flintstone or Barney Rubble out of the bottle and chew him down, happy with the knowledge that I would live on in optimal health for at least another day.

The importance of vitamins has been promoted to parents and children for more years than I’ve been alive. It wasn’t all that long ago that vitamin deficiencies in children and adults were commonplace. Although scurvy or rickets is non-existent in the US today, we’re still exhorted to make sure we’re getting enough Vitamin A, C, D, E, and B-complex – all of which are critical to our health.

Those vitamins are important for animals too. Their functions comprise a long list, maintaining everything from proper immune function to bone maintenance to good eyesight. Human health experts will tell us that our diet – rather than a pill or “gummy” – is the best way to get our vitamins, and animals are no different. While we can give cattle or pigs vitamins through feed supplements or injections, natural feedstuffs are the preferred source.

There are many cases, however, when those feedstuffs fall short, vitamin-wise. Consider the example of cattle and Vitamins A and E. Fresh green forage is plentiful in these vitamins, so cows and calves get plenty from April through the end of the growing season. Good hay starts out with decent Vitamin A and E levels, but they decline during storage. Hay put up in less than optimal conditions, like drought, will have lower levels of these vitamins to start with, and even less by the time it’s actually fed. While people’s diets usually are varied enough that we pick up our vitamins somewhere, animals depend more heavily on just a few ingredients. Deficiencies in one or two ingredients quickly spells trouble.

So it’s during the hay-feeding times of year that our feedstuffs are most likely to be vitamin-deficient. For some animals, this might not be critical. Cows can store Vitamin A in their liver for 4 months or so; Vitamin E maybe not so much. Unless they’re supplemented, most cattle are deficient by the end of winter.

Unfortunately, the end of winter also coincides with late gestation in most cow herds. The fetus is rapidly growing, and the cow’s system is starting to form that all-important colostrum for the calf. Vitamins don’t cross the placenta well enough to ensure that the growing fetus will be born with adequate Vitamin A or E, making the vitamin content of the colostrum they drink critical.

Vitamin deficiencies in cattle today most commonly show up in the youngsters. They depend much more greatly on these vitamins as they grow, develop, and start to fight off disease. While a cow that’s marginal in their vitamin intake might still be able to function normally due to their reserves, a deficient calf will fail to thrive, will be more susceptible to illness, and may be affected by white muscle disease, where muscle function and development is impaired. This can be a life-or-death situation.

Therefore, it’s really the calves that benefit the most from their mother’s vitamin supplementation in late gestation. Supplementation with Vitamins A and E during the cow’s last three months of pregnancy will help ensure the calf will obtain enough through colostrum and milk. Cattle producers should work with their nutritionist and veterinarian to ensure proper levels are fed during late gestation.

Injections of Vitamins A, D, and E can provide a temporary boost to a cow’s reserve when given a couple weeks prior to calving. Calves might sometimes benefit from these injections at birth, but their mother’s milk is still the best source. There can be pitfalls to using vitamin injections in cows, especially when given in conjunction with vaccines, so veterinary consultation is important.

I’m convinced that the failure of calves to thrive and fight off illnesses in some calving seasons is tied to the quality of the feed, particularly vitamin and mineral levels, fed to their mother in late gestation. Regardless of the year, ensuring proper winter vitamin supplementation is always a good management practice.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.

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