A Free Choice Salt Lick is Vital for Livestock Health

Requirements of Salt and Minerals for all Livestock Varies From Animal to Animal

A Free Choice Salt Lick is Vital for Livestock Health
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Don’t laugh, I’m sure I’m not the only farm kid who’s done this. When I was a girl I remember licking the salt lick block in the barnyard. I told you not to laugh! I never considered germs or disease, who did back then?

Papa told me not to do it, but he wasn’t upset by it. Much of what we did and survived as kids is considered taboo today. In some ways, that’s sad.

If you have livestock on your homestead, then I’m sure you’re aware of the need they all have for salt and minerals. The lack of it affects the life of the animal and the products we receive from them. From goat milk benefits to meat supply, everything is affected. The dilemma seems to be over whether the best way to provide these is a salt lick block or loose minerals.

Need for Salt

It seems farmers have always known about the need animals have for salt, just like we do. For thousands of years, salt has been a trade good for those in the livestock community. Ancient Greeks, Asians, and Africans have records of domesticated and wild animals traveling to salt deposits to meet their need for this necessary element. It plays a vital role in electrolyte balance.

We offer apple cider vinegar to our livestock at any sign of stress, illness and at the change of seasons. We do this for many reasons, one of them being to help maintain electrolyte balance. Sodium and chloride, which are in salt, play major functions in our bodies as well as theirs. From kidney function to muscle functioning, including the heart, they’re vital to life.

The requirements vary from animal to animal. Cattle eating a winter ration of hay or silage will require more than when they’re on grain and fresh grass. Sheep require more salt than most all other livestock. Lactating animals and those preparing for breeding season have different needs as well.

It’s not enough to use feed which has these elements in it because individual animals have individual needs. This makes a free choice salt lick a good husbandry choice.


What Happens When Livestock Animals Don’t Get Salt?

When livestock aren’t given access to salt and minerals either in a salt lick block or loose mineral supplement, there are dangerous risks to them. If we were to deny our bodies this necessary element we would suffer as well. It’s important to know the signs of a deficiency in your animals.

  • Urine output is decreased as the animal’s body attempts to conserve trace elements like sodium and chloride.
  • A loss of appetite leads to weight loss.
  • The ability to utilize nutrition from feed decreases which means it takes more feed to meet nutritional needs if the animal is still eating.
  • They develop a craving for salt. You may even see them eating or licking weird things like wood (even your barn), dirt, rocks, and places where they or other animals have urinated. This is called pica, an abnormal eating behavior. They’re simply trying to meet their need for sodium and other minerals.
  • A decrease in milk production.
  • The fermentation process in the rumen doesn’t happen properly.

6 Factors Which Affect the Salt Needs of Livestock


While there are certainly more than six, these are the ones a homesteader is most likely to encounter. Commercial cattle farming is a whole different world from us homesteaders. We don’t encounter many of the problems they do, thankfully.

1) The animal’s diet. Depending on how much foraging your animal is allowed or its breed actually is able to do, diet is a major factor in the need for a salt lick. The less commercially prepared feed you provide the more necessary it is to provide free choice of some kind.

Commercially prepared foods vary greatly in their mineral and trace element contents. This makes choosing a balanced feed important and offering either a salt lick block or loose minerals accordingly.

2) Production level of milk. Milk has a lot of sodium and chloride in it, around 1150 ppm (parts per million) chloride and 630 ppm of sodium. If your dairy goats or cows are in high production mode, the need for salt is high.

3) The environment. Humidity and temperature play a significant role in the sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and other trace element needs of your livestock. When we moved to the panhandle of Idaho, our friends told us to take extra magnesium for a while until our bodies adjusted. Until I had my first cramps, I didn’t take them seriously.

The climate and location play just as much a role for your livestock. Just like you, heat stresses your animals. Sodium is among the elements you and your animals sweat out so it has to be replaced by a free choice salt lick.

4) Stress. Yep, it’s a killer in humans and animals alike. This isn’t a real factor for most homesteaders, but there are always exceptions to every rule. There is also the reality of unforeseen things happening.

As homesteaders, we face it daily, don’t we? Disease, sudden changes in herd or flock members, predator attacks, poor housing, change of season, all these things can create stress in your livestock. Stress increases the need for salt and other minerals.

5) Genetics. There are basic genetic differences in all livestock, even within breeds. Those animals which are required to maintain high performance, such as milk cows or draft animals, require more calories, sodium, chloride…all those elements necessary for muscle, milk, and life maintenance.

6) The season. The new, green growth of spring is rich in potassium. This increase in potassium causes a loss in sodium in some livestock. You may see an increase in their craving for salt during this time of year compared to fall and especially winter.

University of Georgia Extension Specialist, Johnny Rossi, says sodium in salt is the only mineral for which he believes animals have nutritional wisdom. He says, “They seem to know when they need it and how much they need. Except for their drive to obtain water, there is no greater drive in them than to meet this need.”

He also advises, “If cattle have been without salt for a while, it may be wise to start them out again with plain white salt blocks. They can’t be consumed as quickly as loose salt, affording a measure of control over consumption. Neither will it allow them to over-consume minerals in a mixture. Once the animals’ heightened salt craving is satisfied, a block or loose mineral can be provided again.”

Just as important as providing salt and minerals to your livestock is the supply of clean drinking water. Your salt lick should be located close to a water supply. Salt toxicity is a risk when they aren’t provided with adequate water.

When Animals Don’t Get Enough SaltFactors that Affect Need For Salt
Decreased Urine OutputDiet
Loss of AppetiteMilk Production
Weight LossThe Environment
Develop Abnormal Eating BehaviorsStress
Decrease in Milk ProductionGenetics
Improper Fermentation in RumenThe Season

Form of Salt Supplied

Herein lies a controversy. Salt and mineral supplements come in two forms, a block the animal licks and loose granules. Both are considered free choice provision even though the loose minerals are often mixed in with the animals’ feed.

Some animals, such as the llama, don’t lick like cattle or horses so a loose mineral supplement would be better for them. Knowing your livestock and their eating behaviors will help you make the best financial and practical decision you can for you and the lives entrusted to your care.

The different colors among salt lick blocks and loose granules come from the differences in their compositions. White blocks, as you might guess, are strictly sodium chloride. Red blocks are salt with trace minerals and yellow is salt with sulfur.


Recommendations For Free Choice Salt Licks

1) You should always have a salt lick available for your livestock, block or loose – your choice.

2) Protect the salt lick from rain as exposure to water will dilute and deplete the trace minerals

3) Always make sure your livestock have access to clean drinking water close to the salt lick area. This seems a no-brainer, but it’s so important I couldn’t leave it unsaid.

4) Be familiar with the signs of salt and mineral deprivation in each of your animals. This will help you spot and meet any immediate need they may have.

I’ve included some resources for you below. As I’ve always said, “You’re responsible for the well-being of the lives entrusted to you. So don’t take one person’s word for it, not even mine. Do the research for yourself and make the best decision you can at the time.”

How do you provide a salt lick for your livestock? We’d value your experience and knowledge of the salt lick.

Safe and Happy Journey,

Rhonda and The Pack




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