January 2016
Farm & Field

Copper is Key to Cattle Immunity

  Figure 2. This calf displays a discolored hair coat – red tinge on the black hair – typical of copper deficiency.

Economic losses due to disease cost cattle producers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. Aside from the obvious losses resulting from dead animals and medical costs, there are added losses from a lack of efficiency and productivity. These may manifest in poor feed conversion, sub-optimal weight gains and/or milk production, and increased days open.

It is widely known that trace mineral nutrition directly influences immunity in cattle. Proper mineral supplementation can help enhance an animal’s immunity. A cow’s mineral requirements are influenced by many factors including age, breed, stage of production, presence of antagonists in the diet and level of overall stress. While many trace minerals perform important roles in immune functions, copper stands out as especially important.

Copper and Immune System

Copper is needed for proper immune development including the formation of antibodies and white blood cells in addition to antioxidant enzyme production. Copper-deficient cattle are more susceptible to infections and do not respond as well to vaccinations. In addition, they tend to be less resistant to parasitic challenges. Studies have shown cattle receiving proper copper nutrition tend to be less susceptible to infections and have less severe infections when disease does occur.

Non-specific Immunity

Non-specific immunity refers to the immune functions non-specific in nature. No prior exposure is required for these systems to be effective. The skin, as well as mucus tissues in the respiratory, gastro-intestinal and reproductive tracts, act as non-specific physical barriers. Copper (in addition to zinc) plays an important role in the maintenance of these epithelial tissues. Phagocytic cells that ingest and destroy bacteria and toxins are also components of non-specific immunity. Copper-deficiency has a profound effect on several types of phagocytic cells. Copper deficiency both decreases the number of circulating phagocytic cells and impairs the functioning of those left.

Copper (as well as zinc, selenium, manganese and vitamin E) is also involved in antioxidant activity protecting cell membranes from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are electrically imbalanced molecules that attack healthy body tissues. Free radicals are the natural by-product of immune responses within the body. Antioxidants act to neutralize free radicals before they can cause damage. The need for antioxidants increases with disease or injuries, and stress of any type. Symptoms of inadequate antioxidant activity include poor stress tolerance, more frequent infections and poor wound healing.

Figure 1. The relationship between mineral status and onset of subclinical and clinical disease symptoms. Based on S. Wikse, 1992. Texas A&M Univ. Beef Cattle Short Course.  

Acquired Immunity

Acquired immunity results from interaction with a specific foreign invader (either by natural exposure or vaccination). Foreign molecules (antigens) stimulate the body to produce specific antibodies against the invader. Copper deficiency, in general, reduces the effectiveness of the acquired response. Antibody production is significantly reduced in copper-deficient animals. For this reason, copper nutrition is an essential component for the success of vaccination programs in cattle. Calves may be deficient at levels that affect immunity without displaying clinical signs of deficiency (see Figure 1).

Passive Immunity

The ability to mount an immune response does not develop immediately in newborn animals. Therefore, the calf is dependent on its dam for immune protection. The calf receives antibodies from its mother through colostrum thus conferring what is known as passive immunity. Calves receiving adequate colostrum within the first 24 hours will receive passive immunity benefits for the first three to five weeks of life.

Proper copper nutrition in pregnant cows is critical to the immune health of newborn calves. Research has shown a significant transfer of copper from the dam to the fetus during the last trimester of pregnancy. Calves have a high copper demand during the first few months of life. Newborns are very dependent on copper acquired during the prenatal period since milk is a poor source of copper. Additionally, copper status in the dam is critical to the production of high-quality colostrum. As mentioned previously, copper-deficient animals produce fewer antibodies. Calves born to copper-deficient cows experience increased death losses, reduced growth and poor production efficiency.

Are My Cattle Deficient?

The classic symptom of copper deficiency is a rough, discolored hair coat – red tinge on black hair or loss of pigment around the eyes (see Figure 2 above). Other symptoms include slow shedding winter coats, depressed immunity, decreased conception rates, increased days open and/or hoof problems.

How Can I Provide Needed Copper to My Cattle?

The key to providing adequate copper is to provide YEAR-ROUND access to a self-fed, complete mineral supplement that delivers sufficient copper. All CopperHead supplement products deliver enhanced levels of copper as well as balanced levels of other essential minerals and vitamins. The CopperHead line of mineral supplements contains organic forms of not only copper but also zinc, manganese and cobalt for optimum bioavailability and productivity. SWEETLIX CopperHeadsupplements also have the added advantage of RainBloc for improved resistance to moisture. There are multiple formulations available in the CopperHeadline that are easily interchanged to provide consistent nutrition throughout the year as your cattle’s nutritional needs change. For more information about which specific SWEETLIX CopperHeadproduct may be right for you, please contact your local Quality Co-op.

In summary, copper is essential for the development and maintenance of a healthy immune system. Many cattle show copper-deficiency symptoms including discolored hair coats, slow to shed winter coats, depressed immunity, decreased conception rates, increased days open and/or hoof problems. If your cattle experience any of these symptoms, you should strongly consider use of one of the SWEETLIX CopperHead line of mineral supplements to help enhance copper nutrition. Ask for CopperHead by name at your local Quality Co-op or call 1-87SWEETLIX to learn more about these and other SWEETLIX supplement products for cattle.

Jackie Nix is an animal nutritionist with Ridley Block Operations (www.sweetlix.com). You can contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 1-800-325-1486 for questions or to learn more about SWEETLIX mineral and protein supplements for cattle, goats, horses, sheep and wildlife. References available upon request.