Animal husbandry starts with observation

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Call it ‘ole timers’ lore or good animal husbandry; there is a skill in the ability to read animal coats which is as old as the hills.  Observing visual animal indicators is a handy tool to assess animal health and reproduction.  This traditional wisdom provides an incredibly useful insight into what is happening on a farm.

Over the past century most fertiliser applications did not focus on broad spectrum nutrition, with many soluble fertilisers unintentionally suppressing trace elements including zinc, copper, selenium, and others.  As a result, we have seen increasing animal health costs from issues, including mastitis, scours, reproduction and birthing challenges which arise from inadequate mineral nutrition.

Reading and observing animal coats may not be an exact science, but it can provide a quick, economic and complimentary tool to more in-depth diagnoses.

Like us, when cows are healthy, they will have healthy shiny hair, produced from adequate protein, vitamins and minerals.  The ingredients for healthy hair are also needed for reproduction, immunity and optimal growth.

Spring is one of the best times to evaluate your cows coats as early shedding of the winter coat is closely associated with reproduction ability and good health.  Healthy livestock should have sleek, slightly oily coats, strong hooves, moist noses and clear, bright eyes.  If your animals have trouble losing their winter coat it’s a signal for potential malnutrition, low sodium, low copper and/or low selenium.

Consider what different elements are needed in the body.  Copper, for instance, is essential in the formation of the keratin found in hair and hooves.  Low copper is one observation most cattle managers are familiar with; a curl on the end of each hair, and an appearance of spectacles around the eyes. Copper and selenium may be deficient if animals do not express their true colours.  Black should be black; brown, brown and whites, white. In white coats a yellowing on the brisket behind the front legs may indicate liver damage.  Low zinc can be attributed to upright white hairs on the cows back, while long hairs growing on the top of the neck, on the belly and on the udder may indicate low cobalt (neck hair indicators are different for bulls).

“The eyes are the window to the soul,” and offer a glimpse into potential nutritional imbalances. When cows have watery eyes especially in spring, a shot of B12 can give an immediate response. Weeping eyes and coughs may be due to low zinc, which may also show up as scabs on teats, slow calving and mastitis.  This low zinc can also reduce vitamin A in forage.  Pink eye can be due to pasture imbalances in elements; vitamin A, Copper and Selenium.  Interestingly lifting Calcium availability in soil creates quality calcium pectates, keeping forage greener (beta-carotene) for longer, which helps to overcome the drop in vitamin A.  Calcium is linked to poor quality pastures leading to retained membranes, milk fever and warts.

Low selenium can be linked to observations of animals with a low head and tail carriage, leading to white muscle disease.  The low tail carriage leads to zig-zag manure patterns on the ground. Selenium deficiency also increases the risk of retained membranes. This will stop being an issue when land managers improve mineral levels in their livestock through supplying minerals to their soils and pastures. Microbiology help to mobilise Se in an organic available form which won’t lock up in their body.

A reduction in milk protein levels provides dairy farmers with an early warning sign that cow condition is dropping.   While cows spend a lot of time licking their sides preceding an increase in condition as their skins become itchy as they put on weight.  An indicator that cows are in optimal condition is the presence of one to four happy lines.  These near horizontal lines across the belly are yellow fat deposits which build when the animals weight is optimum.  These lines indicate that the animals are healthy and well fed with a good supply of soluble minerals from well managed pastures.

These visual signs can be more accurate than bloods which may not necessarily tell us what’s in their liver (a more accurate test).  Visual observations offer a rapid assessment and over the years many land managers we’ve worked with have linked their observations to the results from more intensive monitoring.

The best and most economical way for livestock to access minerals is through the plants and the soil.  As the shampoo ad says “it won’t happen overnight but it will happen!” If there are deficiencies in your soil and pasture, offering free choice minerals, salt licks, supplements in the water and injections provide a quick band aid solution to correct immediate mineral deficiencies.

It is important that the entire animal health picture is taken into consideration: soil, herbage, feed, water, blood and tissue tests.  Many visual indicators are telling you the situation has already become dire. An unhealthy coat can be misinterpreted as due to a range of factors including parasites, disease, toxins, excess minerals or more serious issues such as liver damage.  Just as in the soil, an excess or imbalance in minerals can antagonise other elements.

Many mineral nutrition problems vanish when animals are well fed and managed. Through addressing the limiting factors on your farm, ensuring healthy clean water and nutrient dense, biodiverse pastures then the need to bring in the vet and costly supplements will be reduced. Good animal husbandry starts with using all of your observations and correcting issues before they impact on your bottom line.  The best long term and regenerative way to support optimum health and performance is through practices which balance the biological, chemical and physical aspects of the soil.


Deficiency Condition, Symptom
Low copper Dry, brown or colourless. Hair may be curled at the ends.  Eyes may look spectacled.  Worm susceptibility.  Not losing their winter coat.
Low cobalt (also B12) Rough coat, long hairs on neck and belly.    Pot bellies, sagging back and watery discharge from eyes.  Ill thrift.
Low selenium (also Vitamin E) May have similar coat indicators as copper.  Tail and head hang low.  Hunched back in older cows.  Not losing their winter coat.
Low sodium Not losing their winter coat.  Coat stands upright even in heat.  Dry, dull and long hair.  Cows licking one another excessively.
Low zinc Soft hooves. Patchy, thin coat.  Runny eyes.

Scaly skin.  White coat stands upright compared to darker areas. Mastitis susceptibility.

Low iodine Ill thrift.  Goiters.  Dandruff. Woody tongue.
Vitamin A Pink eye.
Low sulphur Lice, ticks, poor digestion.

By Nicole Masters