Health Care

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Copper Deficiencies in Cattle

Copper (Cu) is a critical trace element that has many functions such as bone growth, supporting the immune system and transporting iron which allows blood cells to mature. Given the critical nature of these functions, it is crucial to maintain adequate levels in your herd. If not managed successfully, copper deficiency can cause an array of clinical symptoms in cows.

Why does copper deficiency occur?

Copper deficiency can be either primary due to low dietary copper, or secondary due to the presence of substances that disrupt the absorption and utilisation of copper available in the feed. These include molybdenum, iron and sulphur, as well as zinc which is commonly supplemented in high concentrations during the facial eczema season.

What are the symptoms of copper deficiency?

With modern farming practices, severe clinical deficiency is less likely with most identified copper deficiencies being subclinical; however, it is still important to know the symptoms that can develop. Copper deficiency in dairy cows is most common during winter/early spring, coinciding with higher demands from pregnancy and early lactation.

Symptoms in cows:

  • Coat colour changes
  • Reduced milk yields
  • Reproductive issues
  • Weight loss

Deficiency is also likely to occur in fast growing calves over six months of age.

Symptoms in calves:

  • Poor growth rates
  • Scouring
  • Coat colour changes
  • Immune suppression

Less common signs include anaemia, falling disease and skeletal defects.

How do I prevent and treat copper deficiencies in my herd?

Once identified, treating copper deficiency is relatively straightforward. If you are unsure of your herds’ copper status, the initial step is to test their copper levels. The most accurate way to measure this is through a liver biopsy and from here, you can determine whether your herd is getting adequate levels through their diet, or if they require an extra form of supplementation.

Given there are multiple products that can be used to treat copper deficiency, your vet will be able to discuss these with you to ensure you choose the right approach for your herd. A brief explanation of available products can be found below.

What are the different options for copper supplementation?

Copper injection: Injecting your herd with a copper injection is the most convenient option, based on your liver results your vet will recommend the correct dose for your animals. There are two options for copper injection supplementation, each of these have a slight difference in active ingredients: Copper glycinate or calcium copper edetate.
Typically, injections containing copper glycinate take longer to be transferred to the liver, possibly up to 21 days. It is also more common for these products to cause tissue reactivity and you may find injection site reactions in treated cows. In comparison, injections containing calcium copper edetate are more rapidly absorbed with the copper being taken to the liver within 7 days and stored until needed. To learn more about Virbac’s calcium copper edetate injection, click here

Copper bullets: These are capsules which contain copper wire particles inside which once ingested, move to the abomasum and lodges in folds. From here, the copper is absorbed over 4 - 6 months in a relatively safe way. One disadvantage of copper bullets is that they can be hard to administer, particularly in larger adult cows.


Now that you know what to look for on your farm and the different options for prevention and treatment, you can implement different strategies to ensure the risks of copper deficiency are minimized. If you have any questions about what supplementation option is best for your herd or need any further advice, we recommend contacting your vet to set up a tailored plan.

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