cows in field

Free Choice Smorgasbord Vitamin and Mineral Supplementation for Livestock

The mineral wheel provided in the illustration at left shows the lovely interrelationships and influences between minerals and nutrients. One can see how the excess, or lack, be they absolute or functional of any individual mineral greatly influences other minerals in the ecology.

By Susan Beal, DVM

Added May 17, 2010. There’s been a lot of talk over the years about free choice minerals and supplements. Some say yea, some say nay, some swear by it, some swear at it.

I can only speak from my experience. That experience involves two decades of observing stock of all species, in of all levels of health and in various management situations, as they are allowed to free choice to meet their needs using a smorgasbord of options. Over the years that experience has shown me that animals are capable of determining their needs - if we do not artificially manipulate the carrier and if we provide them choices. Actually, they can still determine their needs in the latter situations - but are unable to express them accurately because they don’t have the “ingredients” available to do so.

First, let’s define what I’m talking about when I use the words ‘free choice’. Some folks describe free choice as allowing stock unlimited access to a limited selection of supplements (say, Redmond salt or kelp or blocks/tubs) or access to supplements that are mixed together (either as a calculated “balanced and complete” supplement for stock or as, say, kelp and salt mixed). From where I stand that’s not free choice.

I’m also not talking about training stock to eat certain things, either by association or by aversion therapies.

The type of free choice that I am speaking of provides stock with full access to an assortment of minerals and vitamins (a full smorgasbord, so to speak) so they can make the choices they need to correct their imbalances, be those actual deficiencies, compensations for functional deficiencies or excesses or compensations necessitated by changes in weather, quality of feedstuff and composition and quality of the water source.

The type of free choice about which I am speaking has no attachment to the actual amounts of the minerals and vitamins that are provided – other than to use the pattern of their choices as a means to trouble shoot both within the herd and in the individual. I’ll talk more about that in a bit.

If we don’t allow stock the broadest choice we can – a choice that represents the individual minerals and vitamins in amounts the individual animal elects, not just the ones we “think” they need (ingredient and amount) - then they do the best they can with what they have in the environment. Sometimes that’s eating odd things, some times it’s using a Calcium source as a buffer for their acidosis, sometimes that’s eating straw bedding when they have third cut alfalfa in front of them (they do this in an attempt to correct their calcium: phosphorus ratio/balance), sometimes that’s drinking urine,...... and sometimes it is going in a pile, be that a small pile (say reduced reproductive efficiency......) or a real crash and burn pile (say a big metabolic crisis).

We need to let stock eat fiber when they need fiber, salt when they need salt, mineral when they need mineral, plain salt when they need plain salt...... and not marry minerals and vitamins to something such as salt or a total mixed ration (TMR). One can mix a TMR that hits the high spots, but that approach doesn’t allow the animal to meet its individual needs of the moment, be that a change in hay or pasture, a run of less than optimal silage, molds or toxins in the feed or water, some cloudy weather, or individual metabolic demands. The only way we can do that is to let the individual animals choose what it is that they need at that moment - allowing them to rebalance their economy.

The mineral wheel provided in the illustration shows the lovely inter-relationships and influences between minerals and nutrients. One can see how the excess or lack, be they absolute or functional (eg “tied up by another mineral”), of any individual mineral greatly influences other minerals in the ecology.

It seems to me that we need to get rid of the idea that man is smarter and knows more about the needs of stock than the individual animals themselves. That concept flies in the face of a whole bunch of things that one may have learned at Ag school or from the extension agent or the feed man – and that’s why some folks find that so hard to swallow.

We also need to be really aware of what influence the water has in this whole equation. Oftentimes we forget the amount of water the animals drink in comparison to the amount of food they eat; paying more attention to the quality of the food than of the water. Many a time I’ve seen herds unable to balance their nutritional needs because of poor quality or limited water. We also need to be aware of the unintended deleterious effects one finds when one uses softened water as a source of drinking water.

Over the years I’ve fielded all sorts of questions and concerns about feeding animals using a smorgasbord free choice system. I’m not going to try and answer all of them here, but will speak to a couple of the most common things I hear:

  1. Folks are worried that the animals will over-eat the supplement.

    While they may eat a surprising amount of certain components, there is always a reason for so doing. Sometimes they are simply correcting a deficiency or imbalance – and that consumption should level off after a couple of weeks. If the group won’t “balance” then it’s incumbent on the herdsman to continue the conversation about what might be occurring in the environment or stewardship that is perpetuating the situation. This could involve water issues, stray voltage, feed quality or contamination issues, types of forage, weather, molds and toxins, medications, or individual animal health issues.
  2. Folks are worried it’s going to be expensive.

    While the cost of high quality, biologically available nutrition may indeed be more than lesser quality components, it’s important to remember that the animals will only eat what they need. You are not force-feeding unneeded nutrients. You are also not forcing an imbalanced supplement based on inexpensive (but not biologically active) ingredients.

    One also needs to measure expense across the whole system: cost of supplements, feed efficiency, production, manure composition, health care costs ……
  3. Folks are worried that the cows (or whatever species is in the herd) are not “smart” enough to know what they need.

    This has nothing to do with IQ type of “smart” but rather has to do with allowing individuals to work with the innate intelligence of the body, that intelligence that knows what it needs to come to functional balance in any given situation or circumstance. This can be explained by considering the balancing of charges in the body and the environment and recognizing how nutrition – including water – influences the balance of these charges.
  4. Folks say it’s all about correcting the soil… and once the soil is right there is no need for these supplements.

    I absolutely agree. Without a rich and active soil biology, without nutrient balanced living soils, we cannot expect to produce nutrient dense forages and feeds. As the soils on a farm become more balanced and vital, you will see the animals will begin to back off the smorgasbord supplement consumption.

    However, not even ideal soil conditions will compensate for the influences of weather, lack of sun, other stressors (including pushing production, changes in forage through the growth, metabolic cycles and storage of the feedstuffs) and individual animal’s unique needs (often a reflection of less than optimal health).


Round feeder, viewed from above.

For those of us who are interested in living soils, one can see how the use of free choice mixed minerals will actually serve to create and perpetuate imbalances in the soil ecology. Animals will do the best they can with what’s in front of them. They will eat more things than they need in an attempt to balance what they are lacking (be that an actual lack or a relative lack – e.g., needing “extra” phosphorus because the calcium in the diet is so high it skews the Ca:P ratio). Everything they don’t need – or everything that is presented to them in a form that is not biologically available to them – is going to pass out with the manure. That’s going to result in a manure that contains the same lack of balance that’s found on the farm generally, thus perpetuating the overall imbalance of the soil/forage on that farm.

If these same animals are allowed to choose only what they need, then their manure is going to be more appropriate for the needs of the farm biology. This is the kind of manure that will hasten the revitalization and balance of that individual farm ecosystem.

I’ve seen this many times – the animals choose the individual supplement that is lacking in the soil tests. Often this is one of those nutrients considered to be “trace” or micronutrients.

As we begin to sort out troubles in the herd, we often need to actually look back six or nine months and figure out what was happening at that point in time. That’ll often times give you the most accurate clue to the underlying reason/s for the presentation of the immediate moment.

I encourage you to explore this idea of providing animals choices around their supplements. If you keep your mind and your eyes open, you’ll see some amazing things. Always remember that there is no “one size fits all” solution – everyone’s situation is different. Remember also that stock does things for a reason. If you don’t know what that might be, or have come to the end of all the light you know, get with someone else who has the ability to help you explore why things might be happening.

Susan Beal, DVM is the Agricultural Science Advisor for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). Dr Beal comes from a long background of holistic veterinary practice, ranging from mixed practice through emergency medicine, equine, and companion animal practices. Before joining the team at PASA, Dr Beal was responsible for Big Run Healing Arts, a veterinary practice dedicated to providing holistic care for animals and the environment. She can be reached through the PASA office ( or or her personal email and cell phone: and: 814- 952- 6821.