Copper plays an essential role in the equine diet, particularly in youngstock. Forage (grass, hay or haylage) will provide some level of copper however, in Ireland and the UK, grass alone, whether fresh or preserved, will not meet the requirements needed for breeding stock. As a result, all broodmare and youngstock will need additional copper supplementation.
What does copper do?
Copper is an essential mineral and it’s needed for a number of vital roles in the body. However, the main reason copper is so talked about when feeding breeding stock is because copper deficiency has been linked to Developmental Orthopaedic Disorders (DOD).
Although the amount of copper needed by young, growing horses has been debated for years, what is clear is that it is vital to ensure that pregnant mares receive adequate levels. Research evaluating the effect on copper supplementation of broodmares and foals has shown that foal’s whose dams receive supplementary copper during pregnancy are born with higher copper stores in their liver. This is important because mare’s milk is low in copper and therefore the foal relies on these mineral stores to support healthy skeletal development during the first few months of life. In addition, the foals from mares supplemented with copper had lower inflammation of their bone growth plates (physitis) and fewer cartilage lesions compared to those whose mothers were not supplemented. Therefore, it is critical to ensure broodmares and youngstock receive adequate copper intake during pregnancy and growth.
Why is copper important?
Acts as an essential co-factor (a substance that helps enzymes cause a reaction), for numerous enzymes including lysol-oxidase, which is fundamental to cartilage formation.
Aids fertility, in other species copper deficiency has been shown to increase the risk of foetal death and resorption, delayed oestrus and abortion.
Supports antioxidant function and immune health.
Maintains healthy connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments.
Needed for the production of melanin, the pigment that determines coat colour.
Copper & other minerals
Copper absorption is extremely complex as copper interacts with several other trace elements in the diet, including iron and molybdenum. Therefore, even if the diet provides adequate copper, high levels of antagonistic minerals could ‘lock-up’ copper preventing the horse from being able to absorb it. To help avoid this we recommend using a chelated copper supplement. Chelated copper simply means that the copper has been bound to an amino acid. As a result, rather than competing for absorption sites with the other minerals, it is more easily digested and absorbed in the body. Choosing a supplement with chelated copper ensures that your horse is able to absorb and make use of this essential ingredients much more efficiently.
Signs of copper deficiency
Signs of copper deficiency in broodmares include loss of pigmentation, particularly around the eyes and an orangish tinge to the coat, particularly in those with darker coats. A poor immune system and increased susceptibility to illness or infection may also be indicators of a copper deficient diet. In foals and youngstock, unexplained lameness or joint swelling can indicate DOD. It’s important to evaluate the diet to ensure that copper, and other essential minerals, are being provided in the correct amounts and ratios needed for healthy joint and bone development. Where copper deficiency is suspected it’s often sensible to have your grazing and forage analysed. This will enable you to adjust your feed and supplement regime to address any deficiencies or imbalances.
A well balanced stud feed, when fed at the recommended levels, will usually provide good levels of copper. However, additional copper supplementation is prudent if:
You live in an area with low soil copper levels and/ or high levels of antagonising minerals such as iron and molybdenum.
You are feeding preserved forage with less than average levels of copper and/ or high levels of antagonists.
You are feeding significantly less that the manufacturers recommended intake of a specifically formulated stud feed.
Even if these situations don’t apply many breeders choose to provide additional copper to their mares during the beginning of their final trimester. This can help to ensure that the foetus develops optimal stores of copper in its liver. Equally, when the foal is between 4-7 months of age, extra copper supplementation is often sensible as the foal will have utilised the stores it developed in-utero but may not yet be consuming adequate levels of hard feed to ensure optimal copper intake. Feeding supplementary copper during stressful periods (e.g. weaning and sales prep) can also be beneficial and may help to support joint health and immune function, as well as improving coat colour.
If your mares or youngstock need additional copper as part of their daily ration, we recommend using Foran Equine Coppervit. This palatable liquid supplement contains chelated copper, along with chelated manganese, another important mineral for bone health. The powerful antioxidant vitamin E is also included to help support immune function and colostrum quality and biotin is added to support hoof health. Coppervit can be added daily to the feed throughout pregnancy and is also suitable for youngstock needing extra copper.
Alternatively, where daily supplementation is not needed, or is not practically possible (e.g. horses at pasture), we recommend Foran Equine Copper-Max paste. This convenient and easy to use syringe provides a highly concentrated source of chelated copper. Depending on your horse’s individual requirements 3 syringes, given 7-14 days apart, may be required.
For more information on copper or supplements designed to help support broodmare and youngstock, please contact of expert nutritional team .