Vitamins are needed by dairy cattle, humans, and all other animals to live. Historically, we have supplemented most dairy animals with vitamins A, D, and E, and based on research we think we know about how much of those vitamins should be fed.
However because several things can affect the need for vitamins and vitamins A and D did not cost very much on a per-cow a day basis, cows were commonly fed more than twice their estimated requirements.
For example, an average lactating cow needs to consume about 75,000 IU (international units) of vitamin A per day but based on survey data, average cows were fed about 150,000 IU per day. The vitamin D requirement is about 25,000 IU per day, but cows were commonly fed 30,000 or 40,000 IU/day.
Vitamin E is substantially more expensive than vitamins A and D, and historically it comprised about 60 to 70 percent of the cost of vitamin supplementation. Because it was more expensive, cows were not over-fed as much.
The vitamin E requirement for an average lactating cow is about 500 IU/day, and based on surveys, cows are usually fed 500 to 700 IU/day. Dry cows need about 1000 IU per day, and were commonly fed 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day.
Based on common supplementation rates and historically typical prices, supplementing a dairy cow with vitamins A, D, and E cost about a dime per day (wholesale). Considering that feed costs are $5 to $6 per day for an average cow, a dime is not worth getting too excited about.
All this changed last fall. Most supplemental vitamins consumed by animals and people are chemically synthesized and worldwide production is done by just a few companies. On Oct. 31, 2017, a fire occurred at a chemical plant in Germany that produced a compound that is needed to make vitamin A.
When that chemical plant went off-line, approximately 40 percent of the world’s vitamin A synthesis stopped almost immediately. In addition to this disruption, China is a major supplier of supplemental vitamins and because of increasing environmental regulations in China, many of their chemical factories have gone off-line or have greatly reduced output.
This has led to tight supplies of vitamins D and E and some water-soluble vitamins such as biotin. These events have formed the ‘perfect storm’ with respect to vitamin costs. In the past month or so, spot market prices for vitamin A have increased more than 10-fold from their historic norms.
Vitamins D and E have increased two to four times their typical price. The factory that had the fire is supposed to be back on-line this summer, but it will take several months to fill the supply pipeline. It might be this autumn before we see substantial price drops.
However, because of the reduced capacity in China (this is a long-term situation), other vitamin prices will likely remain higher than historic norms. Right now, based on spot markets and feeding at rates common in the industry, it would cost about 30 cents per day for vitamins.
This is approximately 5 percent of the daily feed cost of a cow, so now we are talking about real money. In addition to paying more for vitamins, in some locations, it is a matter of not being able to purchase vitamin A because of inadequate supply.
Options to consider
What can be done to reduce vitamin supplementation costs and what can be done if you cannot find any vitamin A?
First, you can reduce vitamin supplementation to rates considered adequate by the NRC. This is about 75,000 IU of vitamin A, 25,000 IU of vitamin D and 500 IU of vitamin E for lactating cows. In many situations this will reduce supplementation costs by 50 percent.
Secondly, prioritize which animals to supplement, giving first priority to prefresh cows, second priority to dry cows, and third priority to lactating cows.
Third, the liver can store a lot of vitamin A, so most lactating cows can handle short-term deficiencies (weeks). ‘Mining the liver’ should be the last option.
Although vitamins are much more expensive than in the past, not feeding adequate vitamins will likely be more expensive because of increased mastitis, metritis and retained placenta. Calf health can also be compromised because of lower quality colostrum.
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