Of late, farmers have complained about what they refer to as “a strange phenomenon of lambs eating their mothers’ hair”.
Yeah, it must sounds strange to farmers who have never experienced this before but it is another nutritional deficiency in the feed of our livestock.
This is a typical sign of zinc deficiency.
Zinc is an essential element required by animals - especially sheep, cattle, goats, pigs and chickens - to maintain a healthy immune system; a sound general health and well-being; both physically and mentally.
It is mostly required for production of keratin (a protein that helps to form the horny tissues of the body such as hooves, horns and hair).
In addition, zinc is essential for healthy sperm formation. The whole process of how zinc works in an animal’s body is complex for this platform but what our farmers should understand is that deficiency in this trace element, as with any mineral or vitamin deficiency, can have a significant impact on the health of animals.
Animals with a certain dietary component shortage tend to have cravings and forage for it. To know for sure that a chicken is suffering from zinc deficiency, which mostly affects the young ones and is predominant during winter, it starts eating hair or wool or licks other chickens’ skins in order to get supplementation. (This is a similar scenario where most pregnant women who have a shortage of iron in their blood, have a craving for soil).
Another factor that predisposes zinc shortage is when food stuff or hay contain insufficient quantities of dietary zinc. It’s when access to fresh forage is limited, especially in our villages where overcrowding and overgrazing is a common scenario. And as long as we don’t de-worm our sheep and goats, parasites can also cause excessive output of vitamins and minerals from the body leading to shortage of zinc.
Other illnesses, especially those that coincide with events of bodily stress such as mating, pregnancy and kidding, can also predispose a shortage of zinc in individual animals.
Zinc shortage is, however, usually easily treatable provided that the symptoms are recognised. The most noticeable sign most of our farmers will easily recognise is big-patched hair loss (alopecia) all over the body. This is caused by animals eating hair from others.
Sometimes people mistake the resulting hair loss to mite bites, especially when the young animals’ eating hair from the others go unnoticed. To differentiate the two situations, with hair loss due to mite bites (such as sheep scab), the animals will be itching and rubbing themselves against objects (we will discuss this condition in future) whereas they won’t when their hair’s eaten by others.
Another predominant sign in zinc deficiency is parakeratosis, where the skin becomes dry, scaly and thick and may even become encrusted. The remaining hair becomes dull, thinner, disheveled, loose and can easily be pulled from the animal.
Other signs are abnormal hoof growth, stiff joints and lameness. There will be unusual excessive salivation and the animal will be depressed and look ill.
In rams, bulls and other males used for breeding purposes, an interesting consequence of zinc deficiency is the negative effect on reproductive capability. You might find reduced interest in mating as well as abnormally small testicles.
The bulls sometimes have very low sperm counts on examination or these ‘little guys’ fail to swim very well to reach and fertilise the eggs of the females for conception.
Most of our farmers are not knowledgeable enough to formulate their own feeding ratio with appropriate levels of minerals and vitamins included. Achieving this is a complex task best left to a trained animal nutritionist.
For supplementation of zinc in goats and sheep, an injection of multimin that has an added zinc combination would be sufficient (another reason why I preach to farmers to use multimin but not forget to ask for the “multimin + zinc” prescription if they suspect this condition because there are multimins without zinc).
For sheep and goats, multimin can be injected twice a year. I know this medicine is not very affordable but I’m sure those farmers who do this will attest to the changes in their stock condition a couple of days after the supplementation.
We must honestly invest in our herd to reap needed returns.
In conclusion, proper vitamins and mineral levels are essential to good animal health.
Although no single mineral can be singled out as more important than another, zinc level is one of the critical ones that enables proper functioning of sheep and goats’ metabolism, immune system, keratin production and general well-being.
The interaction of minerals is astoundingly complex. The most difficult task in raising sheep and goats is getting their nutritional levels right, hence, vitamins and minerals are the key.