Why am I seeing copper on my sheep label?

There is some confusion out there regarding the new labeling of sheep products. Some of you are wondering why the label to your favorite sheep supplement now lists a copper minimum and maximum amount when you thought that there was no added copper. No, you haven’t lost your mind, you DO see copper on the ingredient list. This article is intended to explain the reasons for this change and what it means.

Why is copper listed on the label?

The rules currently outlined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) state that copper minimum and maximum levels are required to be listed on labels for sheep or goat products when the amount of copper in the formula is equal to or exceeds 20 parts per million (ppm). So, what does this mean? In simplistic terms, it means that the background levels of copper are equal to or greater than 20 mg per 2.2 pounds of product (or 9 mg of copper per pound of product). When a formula contains less than 20 ppm copper, no copper guarantee is required to be listed, and thus, those labels will look different than the labels of formulas containing 20 ppm or more of copper.

How does copper get into the formula?

Copper is a naturally occurring element in plants and soils. As such, ordinary feedstuffs such as grains, molasses and forages will naturally contain copper, as well as other minerals. Additionally, mineral ingredients, such as dicalcium phosphate or calcium carbonate, will also include residual or “background” levels of copper, as well as other minerals, as the result of imperfections during processing.

So, as you can see, it is not only possible but probable for a feed or supplement to contain a certain amount of copper, even though elemental copper is not added to the formula and is not listed in the ingredients statement. Modern computer software and regular ingredient testing make it easier to detect and track these background levels of copper than ever before.

Sheep actually need copper

While sheep owners have been told for decades that sheep can’t receive copper due to its toxicity for the species, this is only partially true. Yes, it is true that sheep — especially those with wool (versus hair) — are sensitive to copper toxicity because their bodies have difficulty excreting excess copper. However, copper is vital for proper nutrition, and sheep do have a daily requirement for copper. Of course, these levels will vary depending upon the concentrations of sulfur and molybdenum in the diet. Breed differences also affect copper requirements, as different breeds absorb and retain copper at different rates. As a whole, sheep with wool tend to be more susceptible to copper toxicity than sheep with hair.

Copper is needed by a variety of key systems in the body for reproduction, immunity and growth. Copper plays a key role in wool production; stress resistance; the development of antibodies and red blood cells; the pigmentation of skin, wool and hair; hoof tissue maintenance and many other functions. Copper-deficient sheep have steely wool that is lacking in crimp and tensile strength. Additionally, the wool of copper-deficient sheep may lose its pigmentation. Lambs born to copper-deficient ewes may experience congenital nervous disease. These lambs display symptoms of swayback or may have difficulty standing or walking. Affected lambs may die due to their inability to nurse. Other symptoms include anemia, due to insufficient red blood cell production, and fragile bones that are susceptible to spontaneous fractures.

Should you worry about background copper?

Now that I’ve revealed to you all of the hidden sources of copper that you never knew about, you’re probably wondering about the safety of your favorite feeds and supplements. Remember that regulations state that a copper maximum must be guaranteed for sheep products. Manufacturers are required by law to stay within certain tolerance levels that must not exceed the maximum level. Modern testing techniques and computer software allow manufacturers to accurately monitor copper levels.

In summary, these changes to copper guarantees were required in order to comply with the current regulations. The copper levels listed on our package labels reflect the background levels of copper that come from ingredients other than elemental copper. ULTRALYX animal nutritionists have taken these background levels of copper into account and have determined that safe levels of copper are being delivered in our products. ULTRALYX supplement products that are labeled for use in sheep are safe for use in all classes of sheep unless otherwise stated. 

Visit your local ULTRALYX dealer for more information on our available ULTRALYX product or call 1-888-718-3493 to speak to an ULTRALYX representative.