Trace elements for calves

8 January 2024

Ensuring a high-quality and balanced feed for calves is of great importance in fostering their healthy growth and development. Calves, particularly in their early stages of life, rely heavily on optimal nutrition to establish a solid foundation for future productivity. A well-formulated feed provides essential nutrients, including proteins, vitamins, and minerals, crucial for skeletal and muscular development, immune system, and overall well-being. But first and foremost, a nourishing diet for calves contributes to the development of a robust digestive system, promoting efficient nutrient absorption. In this article, we look at the role and importance of trace elements for calves.

Mineral deficiencies

A Holstein-Friesian calf will grow about 600 grams during its 1st week, about 750 grams until the 3rd week, and about 900 grams per day until the 12th week (1). To ensure a healthy growth milk feed alone is insufficient. Adding vitamins and minerals to the diet is essential.

Signs of a trace mineral deficiency include e.g. a rough and dull coat, poor appetite, delayed growth, shortened ligaments, and bone-structure-related defects. By the time these symptoms become apparent, the calf will however already be weakened, be more susceptible to diseases, and react poorer to vaccinations. Subclinical deficiencies will slowly eat the farmer's profit, therefore preventing them is paramount.


Iron is a crucial trace mineral in animals. It helps with blood formation (hematopoiesis) and various important reactions within and between cells. An iron deficiency can cause anemia and make the body more vulnerable to infections (2). Iron deficiency anemia is a common disease in calves that can have a few causes. Despite its importance for calves’ resistance, milk is not a rich source of iron and may not completely meet the needs of newborn calves (3) as raw cow milk contains only approximately 0,5 mg/kg (4). A second possible reason for iron deficiency in calves is their rapid growth and thus a rapid increase in blood volume, which means iron will be utilized rapidly instead of being stored in the body (5). Thirdly, chronic blood loss due to e.g. gastrointestinal ulcers and malnutrition can cause iron deficiency. A 2006 study showed that the iron levels in newborn calves even decrease, reaching their lowest level 2 months after birth. The authors concluded that “commercially reared suckling calves require iron supplements” (6), while others even claimed that iron supplementation needs to start on day 1 (2).


Selenium is a necessary antioxidant that prevents oxidative stress and supports the immune system. It boosts normal growth and helps prevent diseases like scours. Selenium often works together with vitamin E (8).

A deficiency in selenium and/or vitamin E can lead to white muscle disease, in which whitish calcium deposits accompany muscle damage among the muscle fibers. This disease is most common in calves from 4 to 6 weeks of age (9). In many cases, it seems like calves are healthy but they are unable to stand on their own. When picked up, their legs will go out straight and stiff (10). However, when the heart is impacted, there is a big chance the calf will die (9).

Other trace elements

Not only iron levels diminish in the weeks after the calf’s birth. Zinc and copper levels follow the same downward trajectory, reaching suboptimal levels 56 days after birth (7). At this moment the calf’s passive immunity starts to decline, which shows in increased cases of diarrhea and other diseases. Zinc supports immune health, enzyme formation, metabolism, hoof, and skin health. Copper has already been identified as a necessary element in the 1920’s. It also helps with immune health, but also with the formation of antibodies, white blood cells, and antioxidant enzymes (8). A shortage of copper also diminishes the intestinal absorption of iron.

Manganese takes care of bone growth and the formation of cartilage (8). Calves born with manganese deficiency will often find it hard to stand and have the bottom row of teeth exposed (11). A manganese deficiency is often difficult to diagnose without a clinical test.

Iodine, lastly, is vital for the production of thyroid hormone. The thyroid hormones are crucial for the regulation of metabolism, growth, and development.

Our boluses

An easy and convenient way to supplement all these trace elements is through a bolus. Resco developed different mineral boluses for different stages of the calf.

  • Newborn calf: Calftop Flash is a small bolus of 8 grams that is given on day 2 after birth. This fast-release bolus contains iron, copper, manganese, zinc, selenium, iodine, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D3, and vitamin E.
  • 3-month-old calf: Calftop Long Acting is a bolus given to calves of +- 3 months of age. The bolus itself also has a slow release of 3 months of copper, manganese, zinc, selenium, iodine, and cobalt.
  • 6-month-old calf: Juniortop is a bolus given to calves of +- 6 months of age. The bolus itself also has a slow release of 6 months of copper, zinc, selenium, iodine, and cobalt. Tracetop Junior also contains manganese, vitamin E, vitamin A and vitamin D3.

Source list

  1. Van kalf tot koe op twee jaar. (2018, February 12). Retrieved December 20, 2023
  2. Völker, H., & Rotermund, L. (2000). [Possibilities of oral iron supplementation for maintaining health status in calves]. PubMed, 107(1), 16–22.
  3. Harvy JW (2000). Microcytic anemia In: Feldman BF, Zinkl JG, Jain NC (eds) Schalm’s veterinary hematology, 5th edn. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, Philadelphia, PA, pp 201–204
  4. Mann, G.R., Duncan, S.E., Knowlton, K.F., Dietrich, A.D. and O'Keefe, S.F. 2013. Effects of mineral content of bovine drinking water: does iron content affect milk quality? J. Dairy Sci. 96, 7478–7489.
  5. Ramin, A. G., Asri‐Rezaei, S., Paya, K., Eftekhari, Z., Jelodary, M., Akbarī, Ḥ., & Ramin, S. (2014). Evaluation of anemia in calves up to 4 months of age in Holstein dairy herds. İstanbul Üniversitesi Veteriner Fakültesi Dergisi, 40(1)
  6. Atyabi, N., Gharagozloo, F., & Nassiri, S. M. (2006). The necessity of iron supplementation for normal development of commercially reared suckling calves. Comparative Clinical Pathology, 15(3), 165–168.
  7. Branum, J. (1999). Impact of prenatal dietary copper level on copper status and immunity of newborn and growing calves. Texas A&M University.
  8. Schaer, L. (2022, March 7). Back to basics calf care: Vitamins and minerals matter when it comes to calf health. CalfCare.
  9. Hansen, D., Hathaway, R. L., Oldfield, J. E., & Extension, P. N. C. (1993). White muscle and other selenium-responsive diseases of livestock. Beef Cattle Handbook.
  10.  Minerals, Vitamins and Macrominerals for Beef Cattle. (n.d.). Saskatchewan.
  11.  Hansen, S. (2020, December 15). Be Aware of Manganese Deficiency Risks this Winter. Bovine Vet Online

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