How to handle a selenium deficiency in livestock

A selenium deficiency in livestock have real economic consequences for a farmer. Dr Thapelo Makae, Elanco Veterinarian, talked about the impact of this deficiency in a studio interview during the nineth episode of Mzansi Wethu’s agricultural television show, African Farming.

Angie Khumalo, presenter of the show, visited multi-award-winning winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela in Stellenbosch. Khumalo was in awe of the winemaker’s skills, and afterwards wanted to learn more from the experts in studio on how to improve her own farming business. Just like soil fertility and health play an important role in the winemaking process, it can also make or break a livestock farmer’s business.

Dr Makae said it is vital to make sure livestock receive enough trace elements such as selenium and vitamins in their diet. This can be achieved by managing the soil health of the crops a farmer plants for livestock feed, or by introducing enough supplements to their diet. “Farmers firstly have to make sure the soil’s health is good enough to produce quality feed, otherwise they may have to deal with problems such as white muscle,” he said.

“This health issue in calves and lambs is caused by selenium deficiency.” 

Selenium is a trace element that plays an important role in the overall health and performance of an animal. It is also important in maintaining a healthy immune system. Selenium deficiency can cause reduced fertility, placental retentions, and incidence of mastitis and metritis, as well as white muscle disease.  

There are two forms of white muscle disease; a congenital form that affects the cardiac (heart) muscle, and a delayed form that is associated with either cardiac or skeletal muscle. Calves affected by congenital form of white muscle disease will probably die within two to three days of birth, due to cardiac muscle degeneration.  

Cattle affected by the delayed form of white muscle disease could exhibit various symptoms such as unthrift and stiffness, to walking with an arched back and spending more time recumbent. It all depends on the level of selenium in the diet. Chronically affected cattle can display splayed toes and a relaxation to the shoulder girdle. A calf, severely affected by this, will also struggle to be nursed properly, due to weakness and could die of starvation. 

“There are treatment and products within the Elanco range can help,” Dr Makae said. 

Animals affected by the disease can be treated with sodium selenite and vitamin E in sterile emulsion. This treatment can be repeated two weeks later, but no more than four doses in total should be given.

For information: e-mail Dr Makae at

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