Dairy nutritionist Bill Steere was walking out to his pickup truck one afternoon when he struck up a conversation with a veterinarian about vitamin E. The two had just been to a nutritional conference, so the discussion of vitamin E was not totally out of the blue. The veterinarian suggested that good things could happen if Steere’s clients were to increase  their vitamin E levels significantly, and Steere agreed to give it a try.

The results were immediate. After increasing the vitamin E levels in his client herds by as much as four times — for instance, the pre-fresh cows were increased from 1,000 international units (IU) per day to 4,000 — the Ionia, Mich. nutritionist started receiving favorable reports. Dairy producers said their calves were healthier. Veterinarians noted fewer retained placentas and better uterine tone among cows that underwent post-calving checkups.

Those same reports have been coming in for three and one-half years now.

Just as Steere found success with his client base in Michigan, you, too, might want to consider working with your nutritionist to increase the amount of vitamin E going into your rations.

Less expensive
Some people may question the idea of “mega-dosing” cows with vitamin E, based on cost. After all, isn’t vitamin E expensive?

The price of vitamin E has dropped significantly in recent years, points out Will Seymour, senior professional services manager for Roche Vitamins in Parsippany, N.J. Today, a person can buy 1,000 IU of vitamin E for about two to three cents. 

Others may question the safety and efficiency of “mega-dosing,” since some reputable sources, such as the National Research Council (NRC), recommend lower amounts of vitamin E in the ration.

But, vitamin E is a classic example of foot-dragging by the nutritional community. For years, the NRC recommended that dry cows only receive 150 IU of vitamin E per day. It wasn’t until the NRC came out with its new set of recommendations two years ago that it increased the amount of vitamin E to 1,000 IU per day for dry cows.

And, one of the people who served on the NRC committee — Bill Weiss, professor of dairy nutrition at the Ohio State University Agricultural Research Development Center — would personally recommend going even higher for dry cows that are getting close to calving. He recommends 2,000 IU per day for those animals as a reasonable compromise between improved performance and cost.

When it comes to vitamin E, the NRC has been rather conservative over the years. Some would say “too conservative.”

Furthermore, “mega-dosing” cows as much as 4,000 IU per day doesn’t pose any safety risk from a vitamin toxicity standpoint. Although it’s not clear what the safety threshold is, most people would never come close to reaching it, simply because it would cost too much to feed those levels. In research trials, “we have fed 5,000 units a day with no ill effect,” says Ohio State’s Weiss, a nationally recognized expert on vitamin E in dairy rations.  

Among the herds that Steere works with, dry cows receive 1,500 to 2,000 IU of vitamin E per day. And, once those cows come within three weeks of calving, they get 4,000 IU per day. After calving, they receive a lactation ration that includes 1,500 to 2,000 IU of vitamin E, which the cows receive throughout the entire lactation period. 

Research backing
Weiss helped run some trials in Ohio several years ago that showed the benefit of feeding high levels of vitamin E to close-up or transition cows.

In one experiment, the Ohio researchers provided cows with 1,000 IU per day for the first 46 days of the dry period, then 4,000 IU per day for the last 14 days of the dry period. After calving, the cows received 2,000 IU per day during for first 30 days of lactation. Under this regimen, the researchers noted a significant drop in clinical mastitis compared to cows receiving low levels of vitamin E in the diet. In fact, cows receiving the extra vitamin E had an 88 percent reduction in clinical mastitis during the first week of lactation, compared to cows receiving just 100 IU per day during the entire 60-day dry period and the first 30 days of lactation.

These results were published in the 1997 Journal of Dairy Science.

It should be pointed out that the cows in the Ohio study were low in selenium, which may have made them more responsive to vitamin E supplementation.

Nevertheless, the Ohio study fits an emerging pattern. Several studies have confirmed that cows are healthier when provided high levels of vitamin E in the diet. It’s fairly obvious that vitamin E boosts immune response.

Several years ago, researchers at the University of Vermont fed cows 3,000 IU of vitamin E per day for four weeks prior to calving and eight weeks after calving. In addition, these cows received a 5,000-IU injection of vitamin E one week prior to their expected calving date. Researchers studied the blood of those animals and concluded that vitamin E helped prevent the suppression of immune cells, such as macrophages and neutrophils, during the critical period immediately after calving.

Those results were published in the February 1995 American Journal of Veterinary Research.

Subsequently, the Vermont researchers published research in the April 1996 American Journal of Veterinary Research showing that vitamin E helps get immune cells deployed to the site of infection.

Weiss and others have noted, as well, that vitamin E helps mitigate damage to healthy tissue caused by “free radicals” — toxins given off by immune cells to help kill bacteria.

Other positive effects
It stands to reason that improved immune function will help cows fight off mastitis and also experience better reproductive performance.

In a study published three years ago in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, researchers at the University of Milan in Italy found that cows supplemented with 2,000 IU of vitamin E during the transition period had a shorter time to conception — 83.8 days versus 111.3 days — than cows that received just 1,000 IU. Researchers concluded that an extra 1,000 IU of vitamin E can reduce the number of inseminations and days to conception.

Bill Steere, the Michigan nutritionist, just knows that his clients are getting healthier animals from the extra vitamin E. That is proof enough. 

While the research on vitamin E looks promising, be sure to talk to your nutritionist about it further. Come up with a feeding level that gets the desired results, while remaining cost-effective.

Consider stepping up your vitamin E levels if you haven’t already done so.