Succeed With Sulphur Supplementation

This is the time of year where cattle are often impacted by external parasites such as buffalo fly, lice and ticks. Also, some will be grazing forage sorghum crops, and in both of these scenarios livestock have been shown to respond to sulphur supplementation.

Sulphur is crucial to maintaining life and production in animals and is an important component of some amino acids, vitamins and other essential nutrients. Before we get into the benefits of using supplemental sulphur (S), let’s look at some of the functions:

  1. The majority of sulphur occurs in proteins containing the amino acids cystine, cysteine and methionine. Cystine and methionine are needed for making milk protein, with cystine also being rich in wool which contains about 4% sulphur.
  2. Sulphur is an important detoxifier and helps the body get rid of chemical compounds such as prussic acid (hydrocyanic acid).
  3. Sulphur plays an important role in the synthesis of microbial protein.
  4. Sulphur also stimulates the manufacture of riboflavin and vitamin B12 in the rumen.
  5. Sulphur is involved in connective tissue, mainly with chondroitin sulphate which is a component of cartilage, bone, tendons and the walls of blood vessels.
  6. Sulphur plays a role in carbohydrate, energy and fat metabolism.
  7. Sulphur-containing compounds are also important elements of the respiratory process.

What does sulphur deficiency look like in livestock?

Sulphur deficiency is closely related to protein deficiency, and can have detrimental effects on livestock and therefore is detrimental to production and income by:

  • Reducing the rate of microbial synthesis,
  • Reduced fibre digestion due to slower microbial growth in ruminants,
  • Slow growth,
  • Reduced feed efficiency,
  • Reduced milk production,
  • Reduced feed intake.

If the sulphur deficiency is not rectified and becomes severe, the following symptoms may be evident in stock:

  • Unwillingness to eat,
  • Weight loss,
  • Ill-thrift, dullness and lethargy,
  • Excessive salivation,
  • Death.

Production benefits can be achieved by providing stock with supplementary sulphur

It is well known that additional sulphur is highly recommended for ruminants when being fed dry feed supplements containing non-protein nitrogen sources such as urea. McDonald (2011) recognises that the amount of sulphur present in the diet may be the limiting factor for the synthesis of cysteine, cystine and methionine in the rumen. These amino acids are crucial for optimum growth and nitrogen balance. Amino acid deficiency will impact protein synthesis and oftentimes will limit growth, negatively impact the immune system, reduce reproductive efficiency, limit milk production and consequently can negatively impact the dollars earned. The presence of sulphur in dry feed supplements is now expected in quality supplements.

When the season changes and the pasture is now providing plenty of available energy and protein there is still significant production benefits to be gained by providing stock with access to supplementary minerals and particularly sulphur in certain situations. Sulphur supplementation can be particularly beneficial when stock are grazing rapidly growing grasses, cereals on sandy or acid soils, forage sorghum and sudan grasses.

A considerable amount of work has been done showing that increased dietary sulphur can lead to increased meat, wool and milk production. There have been improvements in dairy cattle performance with the addition of adequate amounts of sulphur as reported in Tisdale (1977) and included a higher production of milk solids, milk fat, milk protein and milk casein. Hill (1984), found that under conditions of sulphur deficiency, supplementing beef cattle with sulphur not only improved average daily weight gains but also decreased feed costs per kg of gain and increased the carcass grading. There are reports of increases in both wool and meat production in sheep related to the increase of the dietary intake of sulphur. Higher wool clips, improved wool strength, increased body weight gain and higher lamb survival rates were also reported in Tisdale, (1977).

What are some issues associated with stock grazing forage sorghum?

A number of plants (particularly sorghums and related species) can accumulate large quantities of prussic acid. These toxic compounds are found in the outer tissue of the plant and the enzymes that enable prussic acid production are located in the leaf tissue. Any event that ruptures the plant cells (chewing, trampling, chopping, drought, freezing, wilting etc.) and allows the compound and enzyme to combine will produce prussic acid. When a plant containing high levels of prussic acid has been eaten, the toxin can enter the bloodstream and rapidly spread throughout the body. Death by suffocation can be the result as prussic acid inhibits oxygen utilization by the cells in the animal body. Clinical signs (muscle tremors, rapid and laboured breathing, salivation, runny eyes, eliminating urine and faeces, staggering and collapse) can occur within 15-20 minutes to a few hours after consumption of the toxic forage.

How sulphur supplementation can help stock grazing forage sorghum?

As discussed earlier, one of the key functions of sulphur is being an important detoxifier that helps the body to get rid of prussic acid. The presence of prussic acid is not always fatal as more commonly it may be sub-clinically present at low levels and this can limit fodder intake, resulting in lower weight gains for cattle grazing forage and other sorghum varieties. To help minimise the risk of losing cattle to prussic acid poisoning a good management practice is to provide stock with enough dietary sulphur to assist the detoxification process.

Forage sorghum is also known to be quite low in sulphur and salt and by providing livestock with enough of these crucial minerals to meet their requirements gives the animal the tools it needs to have a production response. It is a considerable investment in time and money when planting a cereal crop and to get a return on investment it is important that stock graze the crop in its entirety without suffering from metabolic issues.

A trial (1978) into the Response to Salt and Sulphur by Cattle Grazing Sorghum conducted by the NSW DPI and CSIRO found an increase in daily weight gain in the cattle supplemented with sulphur and salt compared to the unsupplemented animals. Providing extra sulphur when livestock are grazing forage sorghum can help the animal to handle the prussic acid and eat more stalk and stem of the plant, therefore increasing intake and allowing the animal to utilise the standing crop which can be reflected in significant weight gains.

Supplemental sulphur can also aid parasite control

Cattle ticks and buffalo fly thrive in hot, humid environments and as the weather warms up and the rainy season starts much of Australia’s cattle population are driven crazy by these annoying and sometimes dangerous pests that can greatly impact on profitability.

Cattle tick and buffalo fly can both adversely affect productivity by causing a reduction in weight gain due to the discomfort the animal experiences with high infestations and both pests can cause damage to the hide further impacting on income. Severe infestations pose a significant animal welfare issue and a report from the MLA (2015) highlighted that cattle tick and buffalo fly posed the first and third highest cost to cattle production in Australia.

The below graph shows the results of the estimated annual economic cost of the priority diseases of cattle.

Source: MLA. (2015). Priority list of endemic diseases for the red meat industries. Sydney: Meat & Livestock Australia Limited.

Over the years there have been many anecdotal claims to the benefits of using sulphur supplementation to assist in the control of external parasites such as cattle tick, lice and buffalo fly. Exciting new scientific research from South America has now suggested that sulphur supplementation can help increase stock resistance to cattle ticks. Villar (2006) reported, a substantial increase in the level of natural resistance to ticks for cattle fed additional sulphur.

If using supplemental sulphur can assist in reducing the parasite burden in livestock, it will have a follow on effect as content and calm livestock area easier to handle, they will graze more and in turn gain more weight and consequently helping profit margins.

This photo shows the difference in fly level between two animals that have been separated by an electric fence, with one having access to MegaMin Extra Sulphur for three weeks and the other has had no access to supplement.

How can supplementing with MegaMin Extra Sulphur help?

Feeding straight sulphur or adding it to a feed ration yourself, comes with an element of risk. Excessive consumption can result in sulphur toxicity and secondary conditions like Polioencephalomalacia (PEM). Symptoms of PEM can include blindness, brain irritation and death. MegaMin Extra Sulphur has been professionally formulated to provide the additional sulphur required along with broad spectrum macro and trace minerals that are essential for stock health.

For further information, please contact AgSolutions on 1800 81 57 57.

Archer, K., & Wheeler, J. (1978). Response by cattle grazing sorghum to salt-sulphur supplements. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture and Animal Husbandry 18(95), 741-744.
Breytenbach, S. (2014). Sulphur in Ruminant Nutrition. Engormix.
Hill, G. H. (1984). Effect of Sulphur levels in Urea-treated corn silage diets. Sulphur in Agriculture 8:8-10.
Hungerford, T. (1990). Diseases of Livestock (Vol. 9th Edition). Roseville, NSW, Australia: McGraw-Hill Book Company Australia Pty Ltd.
McDonald, P. E. (2011). Animal Nutrition (Vol. Seventh Edition). Essex: Pearson Education Limited.
MLA. (2015). Priority list of endemic diseases for the red meat industries. Sydney: Meat & Livestock Australia Limited.
Morrison, M. M. (1990). Nutrient Metabolism and Rumen Micro-organisms in Sheep Fed a Poor Quality Tropical Grass Hay Supplemented with Sulphate. Cambridge: J. Agri. Sci 115: 269-275.
Stoltenow, C., & Lardy. (1998). Prussic Acid Poisoning. Retrieved from NDSU:
Tisdale, S. (Sulphur in forage quality and ruminant nutrition). 1977. Washington D.C.: The Sulphur Institute.
Villar, C. (2006). Genetic Crosses and other alternatives to control of Boophilus Microplus: a common cattle tick in South America. Columbia: Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario.