Why Do Cows Need Salt?

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Cows, like all animals, require certain nutrients to keep their bodies working properly. New cattle owners are often unaware that one of the most important things their cows need is salt. Without the right amount of salt, a cow’s health can decline rapidly.

Cows need salt, also referred to as sodium chloride, because it helps perform several vital processes within the body including water regulation. Without salt, a cow’s body cannot function properly. The effects can be devastating if a cow does not have proper levels of salt within their body.

When you begin learning about cattle, you often hear about things like bloat and fencing difficulties more than you hear about salt. Most experienced cattle owners will advise giving your cow some salt blocks, but they may not explain why.

cow eating salt

It is important to know why salt is vital for the wellbeing of your cattle, so you do not skip supplying it to your herd.

Why Do Cows Need Salt?

Cows, like all animals, need salt so their bodies can function properly. Salt, or sodium chloride, keeps a cow’s nervous system and muscles working efficiently.

Salt helps to regulate water within the body as well as promotes healthy growth and weight gain. Salt intake combats high potassium levels in cattle, an issue that can lead to illness if supplemental salt is not provided. (source)

How Much Salt Do Cows Need?

Cows need at least 0.005 percent of their weight in salt each day. This means that a 600-pound cow should get at least .48 ounces of salt in their diet daily.

This amount can vary depending on their type of diet, but it is a good starting point. (source)

What If Cows Are Low on Salt?

A severe lack of salt in a cow’s diet can result in weight loss, muscle weakness, nerve issues and delirium. Rarely, a severe lack of salt over an extended period or during bouts of heat stress can cause death in a cow. (source)

Low salt levels can lead to pregnancy loss in cattle and grass tetany, an illness caused by high potassium levels. (source)

How Often Do Cows Need Salt?

cow eating in a bowl

Cows need access to free-choice salt each day so they can consume it as needed. Changes in grass quality, feed variations, and just natural shifts in forage quality can cause cows to need different amounts of salt day to day.

There is no way to know for sure how exactly much salt your cows need, so they should always have access to salt.

Salt Sources for Cows

When it comes to providing salt to your cattle, there are a variety of options available to you. The two most common are free choice loose salt and free choice salt blocks.

Free Choice Loose Salt

Loose salt comes in a variety of options, some with fly control while others are combined with other minerals.

salt in sacks

Loose minerals can be put directly on the ground, but to make sure cows get what they need, you can put it in a tub or small feeder. Cows tend to consume more salt when it is in a loose form.

Free Choice Salt Blocks

Many farmers opt for blocks of salt, also call salt licks, that are designed for livestock. The cows must lick off the salt.

Most salt blocks are designed to withstand rain and rough weather. Salt blocks seem to last longer than loose salt because there is less opportunity for waste.

How Will Cows Know How Much Salt to Eat?

Salt is one of the few minerals that cows are able to naturally crave if they need it. A cow, if given free choice salt options, will only consume the amount of salt they need.

cow eating salt in the farm

If they lack salt, cows will seek it out. If salt blocks or loose salt is not available, cows will chew on wood or eat dirt in search of the salt they crave. (source)

Can I Just Mix Salt into Their Feed?

You can mix salt or salt minerals into your cow’s feed, however, you should only do this if you know the exact feed-to-salt ratio that you need.

Many farmers prefer to provide the salt as a free-choice supplement so that the cows can consume salt as they need it.  

Where to Put Salt Sources for Cows

Any salt source that you provide to your cows should be put close to their water supply.

cow drinking

Cows will need immediate access to water once they consume salt.

Some farmers prefer to put the loose salt in a shaded area or in a special container to help prevent rain or wind from getting to it.

Cost of Supplying Salt for Cows

A 50-pound block or bag of livestock salt typically costs between $6 and $7. Since cows only need a small amount of supplemental salt each day, one bag or block of salt should last a few weeks at least.

The exact cost will depend on the number of cows on a farm and the quality of grass or hay they are consuming.

Regardless of how many cows you own, the cost of supplying salt to your cattle is minimal compared to the costs of treating salt-deficient illnesses.

Symptoms of Low Salt Levels in Cows

  1. Disorientation and delirium.
  2. Eating odd things like wood or dirt.
  3. Loss of pregnancy.
  4. Staggered walking or falling.
  5. Failure to thrive.

Can Cows Have Too Much Salt?

Salt

Cows can experience salt toxicity that can lead to a variety of health issues. Excessive salt levels can cause aggression, pain, gastrointestinal issues, neurological problems and extreme thirst. (source)

Cows will not get salt toxicity from free-choice salt supplements unless they do not have access to water.

Symptoms of High Salt Levels in Cows

  1. Excessive thirst
  2. Vomiting
  3. Diarrhea
  4. Blindness
  5. Seizures and Paralysis
  6. Aggression
  7. Circling

How to Prevent Salt Toxicity

The best way to prevent excessive levels of salt in your cattle is always to provide them with fresh water.

Lack of freshwater for more than a day is the most common cause of salt toxicity in animals including cows.(source)

Consuming water that unknowingly contains high levels of salt can also cause salt toxicity in cows. (source)

Final Thoughts

Even though it is often overlooked, salt is a vital supplement that many cows often need. Most cows will be okay if they are slightly salt-deficient, but over time, it can have a detrimental effect. Luckily, preventing low salt levels in cattle can be done by keeping free-choice salt options in cattle pastures or pens.

April Lee

I have a love for all things farmhouse design. I am currently working on designing a custom built farmhouse from the ground up. While the actual build is a few years out, I am using this blog as a place to consolidate all of my research and design ideas. I hope that you find the information here helpful so that you too can have the farmhouse of your dreams! Remember, you don't need a farmhouse to implement farmhouse design in any space.