Saturday, January 31, 2015

Domesticated Horses, Donkeys and Cattle Need Additional Salt

Many of my friends are organic and biodynamic farmers. We have wonderful discussions on various farming practices and why we do things one way or another. I find that we are often in agreement on plant production but disagree on some aspects of raising our farm animals. The most recent topic discussed was providing salt to horses, donkeys, and cattle. The friend I discussed this topic with is a firm believer that her farm animals get everything they need from the beautiful pasture land she has them on. She was trying to convince me that I don't need to provide my animals with salt and that salt blocks are toxic.
First of all, as any of you who follow this blog know, my farm is very, very small. No large animals are going to meet all their nutritional needs on our pastures no matter how many species we grow in them or how well-cared for they are. We have to bring in hay in the winter and our old horse needs supplemental feeding with grain, alfalfa, and such to keep him healthy (see former blog post on caring for an older horse). Our donkeys and cattle are easy keepers, so all they need to eat is pasture during during the growing season and hay during the winter. BUT, we always have a salt/mineral block available to them and have loose salt/minerals on hand to provide them when more is needed.

Wild animals living in their natural environment get salt from natural salt licks including rock outcroppings.These natural sources aren't available on most farms. Salt is composed of sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl) which are electrolytes that serve many biological functions in the body. There are numerous websites and blogs saying that salt is poison and that no animal needs to consume sodium or chloride. Before you buy into that, please do a little reading on blood chemistry (look for sites from medical organizations and universities). You will quickly learn how important sodium is in keeping our nerves, muscles, kidneys, and more working properly. Chloride also serves an important function in regulating body fluids and is a constituent in stomach acid (hydrochloric acid). You don't have to consume table salt to get sodium and chloride into your body. Many of the fruits and vegetables that humans eat are natural sources of sodium and chloride. In contrast, the pasture grasses that my animals eat contain little sodium or chloride.

Within the horse world, there is controversy over the effectiveness of salt/mineral blocks which were originally developed for cattle. Some people don't think horses can get adequate salt from a block because their tongues aren't rough enough. We provide salt/mineral blocks to all our animals so there is always salt available to them. The donkeys, in particular, use them daily and as you can see from the pictures, they are getting the salt from it. When it is very hot out and the animals are perspiring and respiring heavily, we provide them with additional loose salt/minerals, often mixed with some grain. As for the claim that salt/mineral blocks are toxic, I have never seen any evidence to that effect.

I think an important point to remember is domesticated animals are not wild animals and we can't treat them like wild animals and expect them to be healthy.

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