You say potato, I say potahto, and the same goes for all electrolyte products on the market, right? Not quite. The nitty gritty of electrolytes is that there can be different concentrations of ions as well as extras in the product itself that makes it difficult to know which product is the “best”.
An electrolyte is simply defined as a mixture that when dissolved in water will break down in to ions that can conduct electricity. The goals for an effective electrolyte are to have two or more compounds that help facilitate absorption of sodium and water by the gastrointestinal tract into the body, supply enough sodium to be absorbed, and to bring the pH of the body back to neutral.
Electrolyte products contain extra ingredients including sugar, vitamins, amino acids, yeast products, etc. These extras play important roles in helping the animal, usually they assist with the health status of the animal as they provide a source of energy (sugar), food to maintain the gut microflora (yeast products), etc. The route of electrolyte administration is also important, and for this article I will only focus on oral electrolytes. However, there are also intravenous, subcutaneous, and intraperitoneal electrolytes for use on severely dehydrated cattle.
Getting started with electrolytes
The first issue to address is how to identify cattle that need to be treated with electrolytes. The physical characteristics of animals in an altered hydration state are sunken eyes, decreased skin elasticity, and decreased mucous membrane moistness. Calves that need electrolytes as a therapeutic treatment due to scours will also show signs of depressed appetite as well as diarrhea. If the calf is experiencing diarrhea, they are losing sodium, chlorine, and potassium in the feces that are not easily replaced without electrolytes.
When deciding which electrolyte to use, consider the age of the animal. Neonatal animals such as a calf have different needs than an adult animal. For example, a calf usually experiences acidosis during diarrhea. Therefore, it is vitally important that the electrolyte given contains an alkalinizing agent that will combat the acidosis and bring the pH back to neutral. Electrolytes for calves that are experiencing diarrhea have been heavily researched and there are specific ranges for each ion: sodium 90-130 mmol/L, potassium 10-20 mmol/L, and chlorine 40-80 mmol/L. Also, acetate and propionate act as better alkalinizing agents than bicarbonate or citrate for calves with diarrhea.
It can be more difficult to determine what adult cattle need in an electrolyte. While electrolytes are important to help rehydrate adult cattle, we should remember that there is a wider range of potential metabolic issues that could be ongoing. My recommendation is to select an electrolyte that contains sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and propionate, yet is a dilute electrolyte that easily goes into a solution (water).
During times of stress, such as weaning or transportation, cattle are susceptible to losing progress in growth due to dehydration and decreased appetite. Electrolytes can be used as a preventative measure during these stressful instances to help maintain the pH, which will help maintain water and dry matter intake and will lead to healthier cattle.
Overall, electrolytes are a valuable tool that can act as a supporting cast member to a wide variety of treatment or preventative protocols. There are farms that use diluted oral electrolytes year-round as a preventative measure to combat low grade dehydration. Make sure to read what individual products are meant for – i.e., neonates versus adults or diarrhea treatment versus preventive measure. Closely follow the
instructions on how to feed the oral electrolytes.