Why Do Cows Need Salt? How Much and How Often?

Dietary needs of cows (1)


Whether you have a single dairy cow, a small herd of beef cows, or a large operation, it’s important to understand the mineral needs of cows. In the wild, cows will find natural sources of salt, but in modern farming, fences confine herds to specific areas.

Why do cows need salt? Cows need salt to perform primary metabolism and other bodily functions. Dairy cows need salt to create milk, and beef cows need salt to gain their proper weight. Calves with a salt deficiency have a much lower weaning weight than calves with access to salt. 

Like other animals, cows use salt to maintain their bones, muscles, and nervous systems. 

But, they can’t store it. So cows need daily access to salt to maintain proper health. 

This article will cover how much salt cows need, based on the type and age of the cattle. We’ll also cover signs of salt deficiencies in cattle and types of salt supplements. 

Benefits Of Salt To Cows

Salt helps cows with many body functions. 

Salt is the common name for sodium chloride. Sodium helps to regulate the blood’s PH levels in cows. Chloride helps digestion. (That’s part of why cows lose weight when they are low on salt)

Calves need salt to help their body’s to build strong bones. It also helps them to have regular heartbeats. 

Salt helps with blood clotting. 

It also helps with muscle movement. 

Signs That Cows Don’t Have Enough Salt In Their Diets. 

There are many clues that your cows may need access to more salt. One of the first signs of salt deficiency is weight loss. 

Another sign is when cows develop pica. 

Pica happens when cows start eating odd things such as dirt, rocks, wood, or the carcasses of other animals. None of these things are natural food for cows, so if you see your cows eating odd food, it’s a sign of salt deficiency. 

Plus, several diseases occur when cows are low on salt. I’ll cover those in the next section. 

Rough coats will also signal a salt deficiency in cattle. Other symptoms may include decreased appetite, excessive water consumption, and increased urine. 

  • Weight loss in cows
  • Pica: Eating unnatural things to get salt 
  • Development of diseases caused by insufficient salt intake 
  • Rough coats
  • Increase water consumption and increased urine output

Cow Diseases Caused By Salt-Deficiency

Cows can have many health issues caused by too little salt. 

Milk fever occurs when lactating cows don’t get enough salt. They can have a hard time standing. Contrary to the name, cows with milk fever have too low a body temperature. 

Milk fever results from the cow producing more calcium than she intakes. 

Many dairy farmers will use calcium salt gel to prevent milk fever. 

Rickets is a bone disease. It causes soft bones, and as the disease progresses, it impairs movement. Abnormal bone growth can occur in calves with a salt deficiency. 

Tetany occurs from a magnesium deficiency, which cows obtain through salt. A salt and mineral supplement can prevent Tetany.
Tetany is scary because it can cause sudden death in dairy cows with no warning symptoms. It causes abortions of mid-term fetuses. Near-term fetuses often are born prematurely, which also increases fatalities. 

It happens most often when dairy cows graze in young pastures. New grass has a different nutritional composition than older pastures. 

It’s also preventable by providing those same cows with a salt supplement with a trace of magnesium. 

Cows on pasture have different salt needs depending on the time of the year (1)

Sudden climate changes can also affect grazing areas by creating grass with high potassium. Spikes of potassium are known to increase tetany. This happens during repeated freeze-and-thaw springs. It can also occur when an area of drought suddenly gets tons of rain. 

Then, magnesium, sodium, and calcium in the grass decrease, and the potassium increases. 

Cattle feeding in these pastures rarely get tetany when they have free access to a salt and mineral mix. Cattle with only magnesium supplements and no salt supplements tend to get tetany.  

White Muscle Disease causes calves to die shortly after birth. Symptoms include lameness or an inability to stand. Other symptoms include heart failure. 

An autopsy will show that the calf’s muscles look white instead of red. 

Downer Cow Syndrome is the name given to cows that look depressed or down. Cows will be more lethargic. They go down and won’t rise when they should. Recumbency occurs when cows won’t get up. 

After 24 hours down or recumbent, cows can develop other health issues that cause them to stay down. 

A lack of salt causes not all cases of downer cow syndrome, but many of them are caused by it. 

  • Milk Fever
  • Rickets
  • Tetany
  • White Muscle Disease
  • Downer Cow Syndrome

What Kind Of Salt Is Best For Cows? 

Salt supplements come with different trace minerals and in block or loose form. Salt blocks are an easy way to provide salt to your cattle in the spring, summer, and fall. But, when temperatures get below zero, salt blocks become uncomfortable for cattle to lick. 

It’s a lot like licking a cold flagpole. 

In freezing temperatures, loose salt often works best for cattle. 

When cattle are in dire need of salt, salt blocks usually don’t provide enough salt. Additional supplements of loose salt is needed to keep cattle safe and healthy. 

The tongues of cattle don’t do a great job of getting all the salt they need from just salt blocks. Instead, cattle will eat about twice as much salt if they have access to loose salt instead of just salt blocks. 

Salt generally comes with various trace minerals. 

Blue salt contains iodine and cobalt. Blue salt supplements are commonly used in the prairies. Brown salt contains traces of copper, magnesium, zinc, and selenium.

It’s helpful to provide a salt and mineral supplement because cows will generally seek out enough salt but rarely seek out independent minerals. 

Some of those minerals taste bitter, so they aren’t as desirable to cows. Still, you need to provide the right balance of other nutrients to your cows. 

A salt and mineral supplement makes it easier for your cows to get all their minerals. 

Salt supplements should be relatively close to water. Salt intake will increase the amount of water your cows need, and it’s crucial they have easy access to it. 

  • Salt with trace minerals help cattle to get the additional minerals they need
  • Loose salt is more manageable for cattle to eat than salt blocks

Cows obtain traces of salt from plants (1)

How Much Salt Do Cows Need? 

As a general rule, cattle need about 0.1% of their daily intake to be salt. But, this can vary depending on the size and activities of the cows. 

A 1400 lb cow usually needs between 35-45 grams of salt a day. If you have about 100 cattle, they will go through 55 lbs of salt each week. 

Another way to estimate the needed salt for your cattle is to calculate it against your cattle’s body weight. A cow will eat about 0.005-0.010% of its body weight in salt daily. 

Again, this is a general rule. 

Beef cows will consume more salt during periods of more significant activity. In addition, when your herd is calving or lactating, they will also need more salt in their diets. 

Dairy cows will often need more salt as well. 

Can cows overeat salt? Cattle can tolerate a very high level of salt in their diet. A cow’s intestines rapidly absorb salt and excrete excess salt in urine. Cattle can safely consume massively more elevated salt levels than they need for good health without adverse effects. To eat a lethal dose, a cow would need to consume four to five pounds of salt in a single setting. It’s almost impossible for cattle to eat too much salt.

That’s because cattle naturally eat the amount of salt they need in their diets. Even with constant access to salt, cattle will not overeat salt. It is far more common for cows not to have access to enough salt. As a result, salt deficiencies often affect cattle health. 

There are three situations in which cattle can eat too much salt:

  • Cattle have been deprived of salt for an extended period and are salt-deficient. This urgent need for salt can cause individual cows to overeat when salt becomes available. If you are reintroducing salt to deprived cattle, do so slowly over a week.
  • Cattle forced to eat high quantities of salt without sufficient water supply. This can happen when salt is mixed into their feed and water is limited. If cattle are in drought-prone areas and have lower water levels, salt can be hand-fed instead of added to feed. This will help ensure cattle get salt, but don’t overeat it when dryer conditions exist.
  • Cattle only have access to very salty water. If salt water has a high concentration of salt, and cows can’t access freshwater, they are at risk of dehydration when they refuse to drink saltwater or salt toxicity. A cow’s intestinal tract can’t filter excess salt without adequate water.

Best Ways to Provide Cows With Salt

Why Do Cows Need Salt Blocks? Cows have rough, highly textured tongues well suited for salt blocks. While goats and sheep have a more challenging time with a salt block and need loose salt, cattle can get an adequate amount of salt from salt blocks. Salts blocks formulated for cattle include other vital nutrients and minerals that keep cattle from getting sick. Loose salt will be ruined and over-eaten by cattle and can cause dehydration, so cattle-specific salt blocks are best for cattle.

Can You Put Salt In Cows’ Water? Some cattle farmers use salt water to decrease the levels of feed cattle eat. This practice is not recommended because it can cause health problems with cattle. When cows only have access to saltwater, they decrease the levels of salt they consume from salt licks and supplemental feeds. If only salty water is available, cows will usually refuse to eat other minerals, which can cause a myriad of other health problems.

Cows that have access to salt generally drink more water each day. Cattle consuming high salt levels can consume as much as 75% more water each day, which translates into as much as 5 more gallons of water daily per head.

Can Cattle Eat Table Salt? Table salt is not recommended for cattle because it is a fine-grained salt. The rough tongue of cattle can sense coarse grain better than table salt. Coarser grained salts are better for cattle and help cows avoid over eating. Salt is often supplemented through a salt block but can also be fed in loose salt form. If you are mixing your own salt supplements, use coarser salt.

Coarsely ground salt does better at limiting supplement intake and preventing overeating. Additionally, you can mix coarse salt with grains that are also coarsely ground. When the salt and grain are similarly ground, cattle can’t separate the salt from the grain.

cattle need salt to regulate their internal water (1)

Cattle Salt Blocks: Which Color Should I Use?

If you look for a salt block for your cows, you’ll probably notice that there are many colors of salt blocks. The color of the salt block is determined by the combination of minerals mixed with the salt.

What’s the best salt block for cows? The best salt block for cows is the one available for you to purchase. If you have multiple choices, the brown salt mineral block is the best to use until you find out if your cattle are deficient in specific minerals.

If you only have access to one color, don’t wait to provide supplemental salt to cattle. Cows, especially pregnant or lactating, will suffer from delayed access to salt. It’s more important to give salt to your cows than to wait for the perfect supplement. Once your cattle have access to salt, you can take the extra time to find the right salt block for your herd. 

Your soil, the local hay, and forage will have different mineral deficiencies depending on your area. Additionally, cattle often need greater levels of certain minerals to varying times of the year. Cattle farmers often test the soil or their herd to check for mineral deficiencies. Then they choose a salt and mineral block that meets the needs of their area and herd.

Let’s dive into the different salt and mineral block differences:

White Salt Blocks:

White salt blocks only contain salt. They have no added minerals. I don’t recommend White salt blocks (Amazon). They are usually cheaper than mineral salt blocks. Cattle will need other mineral supplements in their feed.

Minerals are often bitter, and cattle may avoid eating mineral supplements without salt added, so providing pure salt licks can be counterproductive. Some farmers use white salt blocks in short increments to pull cattle into areas usually not grazed.

Yellow Salt Blocks:

Yellow salt blocks contain salt and sulfur. They were developed for areas in the Southern United States where ticks, mosquitoes, and other insects are a problem. Sulfer powder has been shown to reduce external parasites in an area. Suppliers created the yellow salt blocks to provide sulfur for parasite control. They are used primarily in the Southern United States (Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, etc.).

Some farmers love and diligently use yellow salt blocks. However, other farmers don’t notice a difference.

The most significant danger of the yellow salt blocks is that cattle will get too much sulfur in their diet. Most cattle can get the minor levels of sulfur they require from forage and feed. A sulfur toxicity is possible and can cause polio in cattle. Excessive sulfur can also slow growth rate appetite, and cause diarrhea. In some cases, it can cause infertility and increased rates of broken bones.

The best way to avoid a sulfur overdose in your cattle is to test your grain and hay to ensure there aren’t high levels of sulfur in the feed. If levels are low, then a yellow salt block can be safe for cattle.

Red Salt Blocks:

Red salt blocks have salt, iodine, and iron mixtures. The iron is what gives the salt block its red coloring. Cows don’t crave minerals like they do salt, so red salt blocks are a great way to get iron to cattle. Red salt blocks are usually the best salt blocks for cattle in the Rocky Mountains, Midwest, Northeast, and Great Lakes areas of the United States. That’s because cattle are deficient in iron and iodine.

Blue Salt Blocks:

Blue Salt blocks contain iodine and cobalt. The cobalt gives the salt block its blue coloring. Blue salt blocks (Amazon) are used mainly in Alberta and British Colombia Canada. They are also used on the Prairies in the United States. Suppliers explicitly created blue salt mineral blocks for cobalt deficiencies in the Alberta and British Colombia.

Brown Salt Mineral Block:

Brown salt blocks contain a wider variety of trace minerals than yellow, blue, or red salt blocks. Brown salt mineral blocks contain cobalt, iodine, iron, zinc, copper, molybdenum, and magneses. Some brown blocks also contain potassium and magnesium. Brown salt blocks (Amazon) are an excellent salt block because they provide many vital minerals.

Western cattle raisers should generally use brown salt blocks, but other cattle raisers can also benefit. If you aren’t sure what mineral deficiencies your cattle have, this is a great block to start with while you check for other deficiencies in your herd.

Black Salt Block:

The black salt block contains all the minerals that the brown has (cobalt, iodine, iron, zinc, copper, molybdenum, manganese) and selenium. Only use it for cattle herds that are deficient in selenium. While selenium is an essential mineral, it can be dangerous if taken in excess.

Too much selenium can cause white muscle disease, lameness, and death. Don’t feed a black salt block unless your cattle are deficient in selenium.

How Do Cows Get Salt in the Wild?

How do Cows Get Salt in the Wild? Cows have a natural craving for salt that motivates them to seek salt in the wild. Cattle usually obtain salt in two ways in the wild. Many areas have concentrations of salt in the ground. If an area has a high salt concentration, it’s called a salt lick. Cattle and other animals will congregate to the salt lick to eat the salt they need for their diets.

Additionally, plants pull salts out of the ground. Cows get smaller levels of salts from eating plants and forage foods. However, plants alone aren’t usually enough salt for cows.

What is a Salt Lick for Cows? A salt lick usually refers to a natural deposit of salt. These deposits called mineral licks, and typically contain other minerals besides salt. Commercially, salt blocks are often marketed as salt licks and sold for the same purpose. A salt block is a commercial mixture of salt and other minerals. Farmers set out salt blocks, aka “salt licks,” in the field to provide cattle with “free choice” salt.

Salt licks are natural deposits of salts animals congregate to (1)

What Other Minerals Do Cattle Need? 

Cows need a combination of micro and macronutrients to stay healthy. As already mentioned, many of those minerals are found in salt blocks with trace minerals included. 

Macromineral requirements for cattle: Cattle need calcium, magnesium, phosphorus,  and sulfur. 

Table: Fundamental Minerals Cattle Require

Mineral Lactating Cows Dry Cows Growing Calves Maximum Levels
Calcium 0.31% 0.18% 0.58%
Magnesium 0.10% 0.12% 0.20% 0.40%
Phosphorus 0.21% 0.16% 0.26%
Sulfur 0.15% 0.15% 0.15% 0.40%

Micromineral requirements for cattle: Cattle need an additional 10 microminerals for a healthy diet. These minerals include cobalt, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, zinc, molybdenum, nickel, and chromium. 

Molybdenum, nickel, and chromium don’t have recommended nutritional values at this point. 

Table: Required MicroNutrients Cattle Need

Mineral Lactating Cows Dry Cows Growing Calves Maximum Levels
Chromium 50 ppm
Cobalt 0.1 ppm 0.1 ppm 0.1 ppm 10.0 ppm
Copper 10.0 ppm 10.0 ppm 10.0 ppm 100.0 ppm
Iodine 0.50 ppm 0.50 ppm 0.50 ppm 50.0 ppm
Iron 50.0 ppm 50.0 ppm 50.0 ppm 1,000 ppm
Manganese 20.0 ppm 40.0 ppm 40.0 ppm 1,000 ppm
Molybdenum 5.0 ppm
Nickel 50.0 ppm
Selenium 0.10 ppm 0.10 ppm 0.10 ppm 2.0 ppm
Zinc 30.0 ppm 30.0 ppm 30.0 ppm 500.0 ppm

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do Cows Like Salt? Cows need salt to live healthily. Salt provides a means for the body to regulate water levels, Salt is an essential building block, it helps with digestion and helps cows to avoid tetany. Without salt, cattle can’t maintain the right balance of fluids to keep the heart, liver, and kidneys functioning.

A salt shortage is devastating for cattle. Without salt, cattle with struggle with gaining weight. A salt deficiency will impact their muscle and skeletal structure. Cattle will eventually get sick from a salt shortage. Most cows crave more salt than they need to function healthily, but it’s hard for a cow to get too much salt.

Why do Cows Require Salt in Their Diet? Cattle require salt in their diet because salt is an essential component of healthy living. Lactating cows use sodium to produce milk and need extra salt. Without salt, cattle will suffer from many diseases, including milk fever, tetanus, white muscle disease, rickets, and downer cow disease. You can read more about these diseases earlier in this article.

Can Cows Produce Salt? Cows don’t produce salt, but their bodies require salt for everyday functions. Cows that eat more salt than is needed will dispose of the salt in urine. Cows can often get salt from natural means through plants or natural deposits. If cattle are deficient in salt, they will often seek salt from urine, tree bark, or by eating dirt. This is called pica and happens because cows can’t produce their own salt.

How Long Can Cows Go Without Salt? Cows can go without salt for a couple of days, but cattle should not be deprived of salt frequently. Salt deficiencies can have minor or major adverse effects on cattle. The longer the deficiency and the greater the need, the greater the severity and frequency of salt-deprived diseases. Even if you don’t notice symptoms, a salad deficiency can cause minor reactions than can impact cattle health long-term.

Do Cows Need Salt in the Winter? Salt is essential to cows in the winter because salt is necessary for water regulation within the body. Cold weather has a greater and more damaging impact on dehydrated cattle. That’s because water helps ward off extreme cold’s negative effects. Salt-deficient cattle will have higher deaths, frostbite, and other harmful effects of cold weather.

Additional Resources

For more information on the risks of downer cow syndrome, see the Merck Vet Manual

To learn more about the mineral requirements of cattle, see the University Of Georgia Extension publication.

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Annemaria Duran

Hi, I’m Annemaria Duran. I moved out to the country 6 years ago, mainly so I could have more land. I love all aspects of country living. First, we got chickens, then ducks. Now we have sheep, goats, and rabbits. I'm always learning and love sharing it!

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