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How Nutrition Affects Farm Animal Health

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson explores the many facets of how nutrition affects farm animal health. We'll go over examples of the importance of nutrition and discuss what needs to be considered when formulating a dietary plan for a farm animal.

You Are What You Eat

How many times have you heard the cliché, 'You are what you eat'? If I only had a nickel for every time I heard that phrase (including this one). But nutrition is an extremely important part of both and animal health. The carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals an animal eats, as well as where those things come from, can greatly influence the outcome of their health, especially over a long period of time.

This lesson focuses on how nutrition affects farm animal health, with some key examples.

Copper, Horses, and Sheep

Let's start with one example of a nutritional factor and how it affects two different farm animals. This nutritional factor is called copper. The reason copper is important in the diet is because it may help maintain the elasticity and integrity of blood vessel walls.

In mares, which are adult female horses, there is evidence to suggest that, as they age, they may have a reduced ability to absorb copper from their diet. The resulting copper deficiency may lead to the rupture of an important artery in the body called the uterine artery. This can lead to the horse's death.

Sheep are also sensitive to copper fluctuations, in some ways even more so than horses. Sheep may have all the copper they want in their diet, but they may not be able to absorb or utilize it properly if they simultaneously have too much of a compound called molybdenum in their food. Too much molybdenum interferes with the bioavailability of copper in sheep, and this may lead to poor growth, anemia, and bad quality wool.

Such problems can be avoided by giving appropriate supplementation to these animals, or feeding them carefully balanced meals of grasses, hays, and pelleted grains.

Cattle and Grass

Now, you might be thinking that perhaps having an animal eat natural food like grasses, as opposed to processed foods like pelleted grain concentrates, is best. I mean, the whole paleo diet is a big fad in human nutrition now, too. People generally seem to think that natural and organic is better than more artificially formulated diets. Well, sometimes that is definitely true. In other instances, not so much.

One good example of this can be found in a condition cattle can get called grass tetany, a highly fatal disease that causes muscle twitching, stiffness in gate, and leg paddling prior to death. One possible cause of grass tetany is when cattle graze on certain types of grass during late winter to early spring. At this time of year, these types of completely natural grasses may be growing in soil that is magnesium deficient, and thus they contain low levels of magnesium themselves. Low levels of magnesium in the cow's body leads to the symptoms associated with grass tetany.

Just from this example alone, you can clearly tell that everything from time of year, to soil status, to the type of food we're talking about, can greatly affect the life of a farm animal. Nutrition is a highly complex and intricate process in our food supply.

How to Provide Appropriate Nutrients

Even though we've barely scratched the surface of how farm animal health is affected by nutrition, you can still see that there is a lot to consider. How, then, do we ensure that farm animals will be able to digest and absorb the food they need for their bodily functions? There is no simple answer to this question - farmers have many things they need to consider. Let's go over some of them.

Dental Status

This one is key. If the animal has bad teeth, they may be in some serious pain and thus may not want to eat anything. This can lead them to drop their food. Even though they may have access to the best balanced nutrition for their age, sex, and health status, if an animal can't chew or swallow it, they won't be able to digest and absorb it either. Proper nutritional health begins in the mouth.

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