Selenium Deficiency: Symptoms & Solutions

The ideal ending to calving is the expulsion of placenta within a few hours – naturally – from the body of the mother:


Yet, perhaps you have had a cow (or cows) that did not “clean” within a few hours of calving?

How about a newly born calf…or goat..or lamb…that cannot stand on their feet and may die within a few days?

Unfortunately, frustratingly, well-cared-for animals can and do have these problems.


I know our area (E. WA) has historically been listed as deficient in selenium. But does the deficiency seem to be getting worse?

 “Selenium deficiency is common in many parts of the United States—such as the northwest, Great Lakes region, the west coast, intermountain west, eastern seaboard, and the southeastern U.S.

As we have become better farmers the amount of Se in the feeds and hays has decreased markedly.”

Source: Selenium Deficiency in Cattle by John Maas, DVM, MS, DACVN, DACVIM, Extension Veterinarian, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, 2007.


How can you tell if your cow is deficient in selenium?

“Adult cows with a selenium/vitamin E deficiency may be more likely to retain the placenta, have an abnormal calving and are more susceptible to metritis and cystic ovaries … They may also have a higher risk of infertility … mastitis … and increased subclinical mastitis assessed by somatic cell counts.”

Source: Vitamin E and Selenium Deficiency, Organic Livestock Research Group. 


A Simple Case Study

In a situation on a nearby farm that we help with, the concern started with two perfectly-healthy-to-look-at heifers calving at 2 years old, both having healthy live calves – but yet their placentas took ages (several days) to clean! Hmm…

They were slow to have heats (maybe just a nursing beef cow thing, maybe not) and one we ended up having to give a shot of hormones to induce a heat of some kind. They did both breed back, and we waited to see what would happen.

Meanwhile, friends on a cow forum (Keeping a Family Cow) suggested selenium deficiency. But the farmer thought, “We have a salt block out most of the time, isn’t that enough? We’ve never had problems before.” And continued status-quo.

 The next year, the first-settled cow calved – three weeks early, with a premie heifer, high fever, lack of milk production, and retained placenta. For a few days, the farmer worked very hard to keep both the mother cow and the calf alive.

Wanting to do whatever possible to help the second cow calve safely, he added Se-90 loose mineral salt to a container that the cows could access free choice.

Several weeks later, the other cow calved – full term, also with a heifer, full of milk, and she cleaned within a few hours. Selenium? Well, we’re sure convinced enough to keep it around!!


So, should we panic about Selenium deficiency?

No-sir-ee: There are two simple options that should protect most if not all:

  1. Generalized maintenance plan – Prevention over cure, including for animals that have had prior symptoms of selenium deficiency or are at risk. See additional information in next section.
  2. Specific treatment plan for animals with known issues – contact your vet (after doing as much research online as you can – be prepared to ask the right questions and have answers for your vet about your animal’s symptoms) about Bo-Se or Mu-Se injections and additional recommendations they may have for severe cases.

General maintainence plan for maintaining a healthy selenium level in your herd:

  1. Before proceeding, research selenium deficiency in your area and by type of animal (sheep, cow, pig, goat, etc.) Consider talking to area farmers (beef and hay farmers, for example) to see if they have heard of your local area having selenium deficiency. If you have an active extension agent (lucky you!) you can contact them to see what your state says about selenium deficiency. If you purchase or grow hay, check into having your hay tested and see if selenium is measured.
  2. Most people have a salt block, many have ones with added trace minerals, including added selenium. Continue this plan, as animals sometimes like to “lick” salt (gotta keep that tongue rough, you know!)
  3. In addition to a salt block, we HIGHLY suggest the addition of loose mineral salts.
    • We use Redmond Natural Trace Mineral Salt with added selenium (30 or 90 ppm) This can be purchased at some feed stores and Azure Standard carries it as well. Remember to give calves & young stock (especially near/after weaning) the option of minerals as well!
    • Feed stores may carry other brands of loose mineral salt with added selenium. From what I have seen, the options are 30 ppm or 90 ppm. We have not had selenium deficiency symptoms, but since our milk cows use a lot of nutrients, we try to regularly use at least the 30 ppm.
  4. In most cases, simply adding some selenium salt can make the difference between issues and not.
  5. If you have a high producing animal such as a dairy cow, we do also strongly suggest the use of minerals to enhance her diet (dairy mineral mix, kelp, etc.).
  6. *Can my animal overdose? At the levels offered in most grains, supplements, and salts, animals should not have issue with overdose. Most animals are intuitive enough to know when and how much salt or minerals they need. If you feed more than one source of supplemental selenium, you should probably add up the numbers to see how much the animal is potentially getting every day.

Additional reading: The Cow-Calf Manager –Selenium Supplementation Strategies for Cow/Calf Herds, Virginia Cooperative Extension, 2006. 


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