Dietary sulfur concerns with commodity diets for cattle

With skyrocketing corn prices, cattle producers are scrambling to find ways to cut corners on feed.

“One practice gaining interest is using byproducts of wet and dry corn milling to take place of more expensive corn- and protein meal-based growing cattle diets in the South,” said Shane Gadberry, assistant professor/livestock specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

While it’s an acceptable practice, Gadberry warned producers to be aware of the dangers from sulfur in these products, which can cause polioencephalomalacia (PEM).

“Producers feeding high-concentrate diets to growing cattle should use precaution with diets that lead to excess sulfur intake.”

Cattle producers developing 400- to 800-pound calves on higher concentrate diets that include these byproducts should keep a tally of sulfur amount to avoid PEM, Gadberry advised.

Polioencephalomalacia is a neurological disorder that causes blindness, loss of coordination, an arched back with head thrown back and seizures.

The maximum tolerable concentration of dietary sulfur, reported by the National Research Council, is estimated at 0.40 percent of the diet.

Gadberry said the online feed composition library maintained by lists feeds that can lead to excessive dietary sulfur, including molasses, distillers’ solubles, corn steep liquor, corn gluten feed and distillers’ grains. The Web site provides a table with concentrations.

These feeds can vary considerably in sulfur content. Because of this variability, producers who intend to include them alone or in combination at levels greater than 40 percent of dietary dry matter should consider testing feeds for sulfur content.

“When you’re tallying sulfur intake from feeds, be sure to factor in sulfur amounts in water in areas where high sulfur in water is a problem.”

Cattle that exhibit PEM can be treated with injectable thiamine. Numerous Arkansas producers routinely add thiamine to cattle diets, but there has been no proven benefit from this practice.

Gadberry said research at Colorado State University by Ricardo Sager and co-workers in 1990 found that thiamine content in rumen fluid and plasma didn’t diminish with experimentally induced PEM.

“This suggests managing sulfur intake should be first order for preventing PEM. You should contact your county Extension office for assistance with nutrient requirements for beef cattle and feedstuff analysis.”

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