As cattle producers look to increase profits, they may also look to update their cattle rations. At a Kansas State University Beef Field Day in Parsons, Kansas, beef systems specialist Jaymelynn Farney spoke to producers about the use of spices and essential oils to increase gain and reduce pests.

“When you hear essential oil, they mean it is a specific derivative from those plants,” Farney said. “They’re considered to be safe for human and animal consumption. There is no FDA testing for all these products. That's why you can get them from any market.”

Results from studies using essential oils have been variable, which may be attributed to variability in plants.

“The oil is derived from a growing plant,” Farney said.  “We know that growing plants change in composition, concentrations, etc, across time. The oil also changes with maturity. And weather impacts the concentration oils in the plants as well.”

While commercial products may provide more consistent concentrations of essential oils, many companies do not report what percentage of active oil is present in their formulas.

“That just further complicates finding which ones have the highest concentration be able to lead to some of our results,” Farney said.

Feeding for gain and pest management

Several studies have occurred in feedlot settings, and nearly all showed that adding essential oils to cattle diets have increased gain when compared to control diets. Gains were similar to those in cattle being fed an ionophore.

“There's really no clear-cut mode of action for how gain responses are affected by the feeding of these essential oils to cattle,” Farney said. “The most consistent results have been that essential oils alter the rumen volatile fatty acids concentrations to more propionate. What the essential oils do is almost the same thing as Rumensin, or Bovatec in regards to changing the microbial population, so makes the rumen environment much more efficient, more energetically hot.”

Because ionophores are considered an antibiotic, they cannot be used by producers looking to implement a natural feeding program. These producers may benefit from implementing essential oils in their cattle rations.

“In countries that have a much higher insect population than we do, they've been dealing with fly resistance forever. So, they're looking for anything and everything,” Farney said. “These essential oils, if you spray it on the animals, work as good or better than our typical flyspray. They are a very good product.”

A study on a European dairy found that feeding garlic could reduce ticks up to 11 days after ingestion with no effect on milk quality.

“In general, it seems like the garlic and onion oils in particular, when they're fed cattle still do seem to work on the ticks,” Farney said.

2018 research study

In 2018, a Kansas State University research project was conducted with 281 steers on 8 pastures. Four pastures were fed a free choice mineral that included 50% organic zinc, copper, magnesium and manganese. The other four pastures were fed the same free choice mineral with ThinkFly added.  

“We went with ThinkFly the first year because their proposed mode of action was very interesting,” Farney said. “They thought their blend of oils altered blood palatability, so even if a biting fly gets on there, they take one bite and fly off.”

Farney said ThinkFly also claimed to change an animal’s odor and increase skin integrity.

Each week the team weighed the minerals to see how much was consumed by the cattle and took pictures of the cattle to count the number of flies present.

“That first year we almost saw a quarter pound improvement in average daily gain feeding the ThinkFly product as compared to the control,” Farney said. “That extra 20 pounds becomes very important.”

In 2018, mineral and vitamin prices were already high. The ThinkFly product added $800/ton to mineral costs, Farney said.

“But even at the 112 average sale price in August of 2018, we increased our revenue $23 per calf,” Farney said. “It cost us $9 for the ThinkFly. So, we still made almost $15 more per calf feeding that really high cost ThinkFly product.”

The ThinkFly product also reduced flies on the cattle when fly populations were high, although they were still above the economic threshold of 200 flies per animal, Farney said.

2019 – 2021 research study

In the years following the initial study, the research team has adapted the study to include a burning protocol with half the pastures being burned in March and the other half in April. The control free choice mineral was updated to be 25% chelated magnesium, copper, zinc and manganese formulated for 4 oz/head/day intake. The “spice” mineral was the same free choice mineral with an added 3 pounds per ton of a garlic oil product and 18 pounds per ton of a proprietary spice blend by Wildcat feeds.

“When we look at the average gains over the three years so far, there’s no statistical difference,” Farney said. “But we do see a little bit of a bump with the spice.”

The research showed that flies were reduced on cattle fed the “spice” mineral, except in weeks where an adequate amount of mineral was not consumed.

“Those weeks when the cattle on April-burned fields given the “spice” mineral had fly counts that were really high, our cattle did not eat the mineral. They ate about 70% what they needed to,” Farney said. “So, I have I think that we need a consistent intake, and that's the problem with trying to provide medication or fly control through a mineral.”

The updated “spice” mineral mixture added $200 per ton, or about 2 cents per head per day. The cattle fed the “spice” mineral were sold for about $25 more per calf in 2020.

“In summary, overall, I think on grass the spices do seem to have improvements and gains,” Farney said. “Ingestion of essential oils or spices does not consistently reduce fly populations, but I don't think we need to throw it out yet. For something that's only about two cents a day, anything we can do to reduce fly populations in late season, when your fly tags quit working, will be beneficial. And definitely I think it shows promise for taking control.”

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