Sheep losses from copper toxicity spark compensation talks

Terry Sim, June 21, 2019

SHEEP producers are being warned to urgently assess the copper intake of their stock from supplementary feed rations and water following stock losses on northern New South Wales farms and in feedlots.

Sheep Central has been told that at least two northern New South Wales sheep producers are in negotiations with a feed mill about compensation following significant sheep losses attributed to copper toxicity.

One of the producers who did not want to be identified said he is concerned sheep producers supplementing livestock in feedlots or drought containment areas are risking production losses and deaths by not knowing the copper content of pellet and grain rations. Copper can be toxic to sheep at certain levels, causing production losses and even death.

The issue is being exacerbated by producers using copper trough blocks to keep the watering points free of algae, which might lift the overall levels of copper available to stock to a toxic level. The producer is aware of other sheep losses in the Warialda, Gravesend and Narrabri from suspected copper toxicity.

“The trouble is the process to create those alarm bells for producers is not transparent.

“As a producer I would like to see alarm bells out there saying there has been incidences of copper poisoning in feedlots and these rations could be being fed to ewes,” he said.

“It’s buyer beware, but also those who have previously bought pellets or grains, ‘get a feed test from your supplier before it’s too late – the impacts of copper poisoning can go on for two years’.

“We need to send an alarm bell out to the feed manufacturers that their nutritionists have to get the numbers right.”

Another northern New South Wales producer who is negotiating compensation said he had lost about 70 sheep after feeding pellets to sheep on water with copper trough blocks in use. However, losses were also seen in sheep not on treated water. Independent testing showed the pellet ration supplied had a high copper content. He said the incident had put him off buying pellets and was a warning to feed companies to have adequate quality assurance systems in place.

The producer who contacted Sheep Central initially said farmers who did not know the copper content of their bought-in rations could be buying livestock feed that is “not true and fit for purpose” and could kill sheep.

“Basically it is copper toxicity we are suffering from – in pellets.”

He said pellet manufacturers formulate rations which include a premix with minerals, sometimes including copper. He said major pellet manufacturers don’t add copper to their sheep and lamb rations, because there is natural organic copper in grains and roughages.

“Most reputable feed manufacturers don’t have any copper added to their premix because of this and the levels of copper in the feed would be about 6-8 ppm,” he said.

“With the influx of alternate protein and roughage products available to the mills it is essential that correct testing and monitoring of copper levels is done.”

“What we have suffered from is copper poisoning, where we have run a ration and the sheep have been subject to water treated with copper sulphate to control algae.

“Some manufacturers don’t add any copper in their rations and there is not an issue if you have copper in your troughs,” he said.

“But if you are buying feed from another mill that has added copper and with the organic copper, we’ve had sheep deaths from copper toxicity.

“We’ve lost 14 lambs, but it is not just your loss, it’s the retardation of all your lambs,” he said.

“With the repercussions of stock losses , treatments of sick animals replacement of feeds as well as the man hours that have gone into nurturing the sick, who will pay for this?

The producer has been unable to meet contracts with a major lamb processor due to the general ill-thrift of affected lambs.

“The problem we have is the feed company has supplied a ration that is bordering on toxic to start with (by putting copper in the premix) and then we used copper sulphate blocks in the water.”

His feed supplier has claimed no responsibility, blaming the trough blocks for increasing the copper available to lambs, but a block manufacturer has told him they have never had a claim against them on toxicity. The producer did not order a ration with no added copper, but is now aware he can order a ration from other suppliers and not have issues.

Where do producers go to for answers?

The producer believes if feed mills don’t add any copper in their premixes there shouldn’t be any problems, but there is no-one that producers can go to when there is a problem.

“There are no standards for copper inclusion partially due to organic copper that can vary from the protein and roughage sources – there should be an Australian standard.

“With the influx of alternate protein and roughage products avail to the mills it is essential that correct testing and monitoring of the copper levels is done.”

Another problem is not knowing the levels of copper in sheep or lambs, so producers can know when it is safe for sheep can be consigned for slaughter from a mob where losses have occurred. A jaundiced lamb can be condemned.

The producer believes there should be a “fit-for-purpose” definition for copper levels in stock feeds and warnings on using copper sulphate blocks in feedlots to avoid toxicity.

He said copper is released when sheep are stressed, which could lead to further losses.

To treat his sheep for copper toxicity he has decided to change their diet and use blocks with a high Molybdenum content rather than drench with a molybdenum-based solution to aid copper extraction from the liver.

“We will end up having these sheep for at least another four weeks and basically we have had 5-6 weeks of no production.

“Meanwhile the market could dip and in the New England area we don’t want to have lambs in the feedlot in July.”

Sheep Solutions principal Geoff Duddy said he is aware that copper from trough blocks can be an issue in feedlots. He said whether pellet manufacturers should be asking producers if they are feeding additional copper in other feeds or water is a “grey area”. He said producers lot-feeding sheep had to be careful with the use of copper trough blocks and they need to know the copper content of their ration.

“Producers need to be aware of it and if they are treating water, that they discuss that with the pellet manufacturer.”

Feed supplier and producer “negotiated an outcome”

Stock Feed Manufacturers’ Council of Australia executive officer Duncan Rowland said the council had been made aware of an isolated case of alleged copper-related sheep deaths.

“The council was asked to investigate the incident as part of the FeedSafe dispute process.

“The following day the producer revoked the request as I believe the feed supplier and producer had negotiated an outcome.”

Mr Rowland said producers need to be aware of what they are feeding to their stock and ensure that a nutritionist is used to ensure stock are not fed toxic levels of micro-elements.

“Producers feeding stock also need to take into account where the stock have come from and the conditions in which they were raised, e.g. have they been feeding on heliotrope and have liver damage.”

Mr Rowland said feed mills produce feed for a range of species and usually set the ration(s) according to the individual requirements of the species, taking into account environmental and age/condition parameters of the stock being fed.

“Feed suppliers and producers need to discuss the matter with the customer before the feed is used.”

He said FeedSafe already plays a role in providing safe clean feed for livestock.

“It cannot account for how the product is used.

“FeedSafe mills usually provide advice as to how the product should be used,” Mr Rowland said.

“Copper toxicity is a multi-faceted problem that has a cumulative effect which must be managed.”


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