Adjusting to High Vitamin Prices

Pre-fresh cows generally have the greatest need for supplementation of vitamins A and E. ( Jim Dickrell )

Global shortages of vitamins A and E have pushed prices sharply higher for several months, forcing livestock producers and nutritionists to seek ways to control expenses while maintaining adequate nutrition in rations. The problem began with a fire in a key BASF manufacturing plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany on October 31, 2017. Prior to the fire, BASF supplied about 40% of the global supply of Citral, a critical precursor for production of vitamins A and E. News reports suggest the plant could return to production this month, but livestock producers likely face several more months of high vitamin prices before supplies return to near-normal levels.

Earlier this year, BASF launched a website to provide updates on progress at the damaged plant. On that site, the company states the Citral plant will resume operations during March at the earliest. “The Vitamin A and E plants in Ludwigshafen will only be able to restart once supply of Citral is re-established and the corresponding intermediates for Vitamin A and E become available.” One operational, the Citral plant could begin shipping the product to the vitamin manufacturers within about a month, according to the website, but full production of vitamin A and E will require up to three additional months, with additional time needed for shipment to North America and further processing. So, it seems likely the current shortage will persist until mid-summer.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) Nutrition Committee has been monitoring the issue, and notes the industry is seeing the beginning of a decrease in the market price of both vitamin D3 and vitamin E, while vitamin A and biotin prices remain firm. “The exact magnitude and timeframe of these extreme prices can't be predicted at this time, yet projections are it will be early summer before any real relief is seen in vitamin pricing,” the committee reports. Veterinarians and nutritionists, the committee notes, need to work with mills and blenders to control costs and ensure that producers do not feed those vitamins at higher-than-necessary levels.

The AABP update refers to recommendations from Ohio State University animal scientist Bill Weiss, PhD, who says the most recent dairy NRC (2001) has a vitamin A requirement of 50 IU of supplemental vitamin A per pound of body weight. For an average Jersey and Holstein cow, that translates to about 50,000 and 70,000 IU per day, respectively. That requirement is also for dry cows and growing heifers.

For supplemental vitamin E, Weiss says NRC recommendations are 0.35 IU per pound of body weight for lactating cows and 0.7 IU per pound of body weight for dry cows. This is approximately equal to 500 and 1000 IU per day of supplemental vitamin for lactating and dry Holstein cows and 350 and 700 IU per day for lactating and dry Jersey cows, respectively.

Weiss notes that surveys indicate supplementation rates are commonly at least twice NRC recommendations. While several studies have shown that feeding vitamins A and E at NRC recommendations reduce mastitis, abortions, retained placenta, and metritis, there are no data showing that feeding those vitamins above NRC recommendations has any additional benefits.

Pre-fresh cows provide one exception, Weiss says, because substantial amounts of vitamins A and E are contributed to colostrum and metabolized during parturition. Several studies have shown that increased supplementation of vitamin E during the last two or three weeks pre-partum reduces mastitis. Supplementation rates ranged from 2000 to 4000 IU/day during the pre-fresh period, Weiss says. Similar data for vitamin A are not available.

Weiss recommends feeding vitamins A and E at NRC levels. In many situations, this will reduce vitamin supplementation by about 50% he says.

If prices continue to climb and vitamins become scarce, he suggests:

  • Pre-fresh cows should be the highest priority and be maintained at NRC levels for vitamin A and probably 2000 IU per day for vitamin E. A pre-fresh period of two or three weeks is adequate with respect to these vitamin recommendations.
  • If you do not have a separate pre-fresh group from the far-off dry cows, the next priority would be to meet NRC requirements for vitamins A and E for all dry cows.
  • Try to provide some supplemental vitamins A and E to all cows, with lactating cows the lowest priority. These cows consume a lot of feed and the feed is usually better quality than that fed to dry cows. Lactation diets can contain substantial basal vitamin E and B-carotene (precursor to vitamin A); therefore, they will be consuming more vitamins than dry cows. If vitamin A becomes very scarce, Weiss believes producers could reduce vitamin A supplementation to about 50% of NRC for several months. All the past overfeeding of vitamin A has likely increased liver stores of retinol, which can be used to meet the vitamin A needs for an extended period of time, he points out. Likewise, vitamin E supplementation to lactating cows could probably be cut to 50% of NRC for a few months.
  • Vitamin E supplementation of bred heifers can likely be reduced to well below NRC until about 60 days pre-partum. Also, some vitamin A supplementation should be provided to these animals, perhaps 50% of NRC.


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