Is Copper Deficiency Killing Our Sheep? Micronutrient Availability and Their Effects on Sheep Health and Production.

Progress report for ONE21-405

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,955.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2024
Grant Recipient: WVU Extension
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Alexandria Smith
WVU Extension
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to:

  1. Evaluate the need of the micronutrient Cu in sheep. Is lack of adequate Cu in a sheep diet causing decreased production and higher incidence of other disease occurrences?
  2. Determine the level of micronutrients; molybdenum,sulphur, iron and zinc at each research location in regards to drinking water, soils, and forages. 
  3. Determine the impact of supplemental Cu on disease issues such as foot rot and internal parasitism, increased growth, and overall production.
  4. The  project seeks to establish Cu supplementation guidelines for sheep producers in WV and testing procedures before beginning to do Cu supplementation with soil, water and forage testing.


Through years of research we know that there are the antagonistic effects of other micronutrients; molybdenum, sulphur, zinc, iron on Cu uptake. In this particular study we are trying to determine levels of micronutrients on each research site through baseline documentation of soils, water, and forage analysis. 


Over the past few years sheep production in WV has been on the rise. Producers are switching to easy care breeds of sheep that do not require shearing, but are being faced with other production issues. Major losses of sheep are typically linked to predator or parasite issues but they also battle foot rot, poor body condition and lamb losses. Sheep in the USA are designated a minor livestock species by the FDA and do not get priority on the development of new treatments and nutrition requirements. One producer in WV decided to try adding more copper into the diets of his 300 ewe flock with the addition of a goat mineral high in copper. Over the course of the year when he went to wean lambs for market he discovered that he got an average of seven pounds more per lamb. The only production method that was changed was the addition of the copper mineral. Profitable forage-based livestock production system is knowledge of soil, water, and forage quality. All ruminants require Cu to maintain homeostasis, most sheep producers live in fear of Cu supplementation or simply believe that soils provide enough Cu that makes deficiencies uncommon, especially when using commercial fertilizers. Cu and Zn are deficient for ruminant livestock in 40 to 50% of WV pastures. Lower levels of Cu and Zn are found in summer pasture than in the spring and fall. (Rayburn-Walbrown 2002) This thought process doesn’t allow for consideration of reasons why animals may be Cu deficient. Cu deficiency occurs in two ways: low Cu levels in plants due to Cu deficient soils and induced deficiency caused by ingestion of excessive levels of molybdenum, sulphur and iron in pastures or feed supplements. West Virginia is known for its acidic soils and pH is often one of the most limiting factors. As a result of this primary soil amendment, as soil pH rises molybdenum is released and consumed which can lead to Cu deficiency symptoms. This project will test soil, water, pastures, and hay for micronutrient concentrations. We will also have groups of sheep on different soil types and in different regions. As you can read in the methodology section of this narrative we will be treating half of the flocks with a Cu supplementation in the form of a copasure bolus after a primary determination of micronutrients in the soil. Results from the project will establish Cu supplementation guidelines for sheep producers in WV and testing procedures of soil, water, and forages to determine site specific micronutrient levels before beginning to do Cu supplementation. Proper Cu supplementation will increase animal performance and production. The results will be disseminated to producers through articles, meetings and publications the information learned will aid them in a manageable nutritional supplement that will decrease production issues in their flocks. We also plan on hosting field days and pasture walks to increase knowledge with new technology like RFID tags and readers as well as demonstration on rotational grazing management.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Aaron Helmick - Producer
  • Jason Kleinfelter - Producer
  • Brad Smith - Producer (Educator and Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Baseline samples of micronutrient availability will be analyzed in soil, water, and forages on each of the farms involved in this project. 


Soil Samples:

Soil samples will be taken from each pasture to a 2-inch depth in the spring. These samples will be analyzed by the WVU soil testing lab using Mehlich 3 extraction for major and trace minerals. The samples will also be analyzed for soil organic matter. 


Water Samples:

Two water samples will be taken from each water source on each of the farms participating in this project. A sample will be taken in late winter early spring, and one will be taken late summer early fall and evaluated by Penn State Water Testing Lab for Sulphur, Iron, Cu, Zinc, and Molybdenum.


Forage Samples:

Different botanical types of forage plants differ in their makeup of crude protein, digestible carbohydrates, and minerals. The three basic botanical forage groups are grasses, legumes, and forbs. 

  • Forbs contain more Zn and Cu than grasses and legumes.
  • Legumes contain slightly more Zn and Cu than do grasses.
  • Grass Zn content is a good index to Zn in grasses and forbs. (Rayburn, 2013)


Three forage samples will be taken from one pasture, on each farm, each month while sheep are grazing. In different months different pastures may be sampled. One sample of grasses, one sample of legumes, and one sample of palatable forbs. When possible the plant species in each sample will be noted. Forbs not consumed by the flock such as Canada thistle will not be sampled. Samples will be air dried then shipped to Dairy One for forage analysis using the NIR – Prime package with wet chemistry minerals to measure forage nutritive value and trace mineral content.


Vertical photos will be taken of each sward at 6 to 12 representative areas with a WV pasture stick at the edge of the photo as a reference. These will be evaluated for botanical component ground cover. Under rotational grazing, grass, legume and forb ground cover will be determined by point count on photos .Vertical photos are related to hand separated dry matter content in the clipped herbage (Rayburn, 2013).  


At 30 points along a walked transect in the pasture, plate meter pasture height will be taken at regular intervals. Visual observations will be made and recorded of pasture composition and sheep consumption of plants. 


To determine pasture botanical composition, we will take 10 photos at random along walked transects within the pasture each month. These photos will be evaluated by point count for grass, legume, and forb surface cover. Each photo will be counted at 100 points. This is 1000 points per month which should provide precision within 5 to 10%.


In rotationally grazed pastures this will be done just prior to grazing.

In continuously grazed pastures this will be done inside and outside the exclusion cage areas after 1-month of growth within the cage. There will be five cages per farm.


Hay samples will be taken and analyzed for micronutrients during times of inadequate availability of fresh forage.


Copper Treated Response Trial:

Depending on the baseline micronutrient levels measured from soil, water and forages on each of the participating farms, up to 50% of the 365 sheep in the trial will be treated with the appropriate concentration of Copperoxide wire particle (Copasure) Boluses. Depending on baseline Cu levels on soil, water, and forages; ewes will be administered either a 2g or 4g bolus depending on their weight. All replacements lambs will receive a 2g bolus unless Cu levels in baseline testing are adequate.  

Site A:

Moorefield, West Virginia. Eastern Panhandle. 

  • Rotionally grazed during active growing season 
  • Accelerated lambing in fall, winter and spring.
  • Shed lambing
  • Primarily Suffolk and Dorset based Wool Sheep
  • 150 sheep in trial

Site B:

  • South-Eastern, West Virginia, Greenbrier County
  • Continuously grazed
  • Lambing fall and spring
  • Pasture lambing with a hands off approach
  • Primarily Kadatin sheep, Hair Breed
  • 115 sheep in trial

Site C:

  • Southern West Virginia, Monroe County
  • Rotationally grazed
  • Lambing fall and spring
  • Pasture lambing with a hands off approach
  • Primarily hair breeds
  • 100 sheep in trial


Treated and untreated sheep will be run together under identical conditions within each farm. Ewes and lambs will be individually identified via RFID tags and 50% of the ewes will receive the copper bolus. At this time sheep will be evaluated for body condition score, weight, foot health, animal class, physiological stage of production, and FAMACHA score. Fecal samples will also be analyzed for parasite loads by the WVU Parasitology Lab at this time.  


During the course of the experiment we will continue to evaluate the above-mentioned production points monthly as well as number of lambs born, number of lambs weaned, weaning weights, and record any changes in animal performance and the prevalence of clinical diseases.


Data Analysis: 

  • Fecal Egg Counts will be performed by the WVU Parasitology Lab
  • Forage Samples will be analyzed by Dairy One
  • Soil Samples will be analyzed WVU Soil Lab
  • Water Samples will be analyzed by Penn State Water Lab
  • Production data will be analyzed on each farm as well as shared with the team members. Data will be summarized and disseminated by WVU Extension agents, Brad and Alex Smith and Brian Wickline, WVU Extension Forage Specialist Dr. Edward Rayburn, and WVU Davis College Professor of Food Animal Production Dr. Scott Bowdridge



During the 2021 year the three producers involved in the projects took soil and water samples in the spring and the fall on each water source the sheep would be drinking from for baseline measurements of CU. Samples were sent to Penn State Water Lab

Soil samples were taken on each and any, field the sheep would be grazing on for all three experiment sites. Soils samples were taken in Spring and Summer 2021. Samples were sent to WVU Soil Lab for micronutrients.

3 Forage samples were taken during grazing of all fields being grazed on each farm September-November or when animals started eating hay. Samples were sent to DairyOne

Dry Forage samples were taken on each stage of hay animals were being fed (for example first or second cutting or from which field) and sent to DairyOne for analysis.

Soil, water and forage samples results came back with low to deficient levels of CU  on each farm.

Difficulty with IACUC approval lead to a pilot project. At the conclusion of the base-line data results, the Pilot project was started


To assuage concerns about Cu-supplementation effects on potential for toxicity we have developed a pilot study to determine the effect of copper bolus administration on sheep survivability and performance. 

In consultation with the WVU Farm Clinical Veterinarian and a cooperating producer (Brad Smith) we developed the following study: 

Two weeks after weaning, 20 fall-born Dorset lambs will be divided into two groups. Group A will receive a 1g Copasure bolus and Group B will not receive a bolus. Both groups will be weighed every 2 weeks for two months to determine performance differences between groups. Lambs will be fed grass coming from pastures to be grazed that summer and will be managed in a feedlot environment. Simultaneously, 20 mature Dorset ewes will be divided into two groups, one receiving a 2g bolus and another not receiving a bolus. Ewes will be weighed and body condition scored every two weeks for two months. Data from this pilot study will be provided to the WVU IACUC for their review. 

During the pilot study or during the full project, if an animal were to display signs of anemia, ataxia or inappetence, then that animal will be removed from the study and the producer will work with their veterinarian to develop plan to treat or euthanize the animal. 

Animals come off test March 27th for final weighing and then the results will be submitted to IACUC for final project approval.


Animals came off pilot project and we were approved by IACUC to continue with the research on the larger groups of sheep

All three farms continued sampling hay and forage, from January-September, any soils from fields that animals were turned into that were not previously samples. All farms continued to indicate a copper deficiency. 

Ewes and lambs were tagged and treated with copper bolus and may-sept fecal samples were collected to measure fecal egg count.



Research results and discussion:

Soil, water and Forage sampling results indicated that all farms involved were low or deficient in Cu. 

Conclusions of the pilot project will move us forward for final IACUA approval

Data has not been concluded on lamb weights but no lambs or ewes showed any sign of toxicity with the 1 and 2-gram bolus'. 

We look forward to the final approval and will be started administering the bolus on spring lambs.


Results of the pilot project

Pilot Study Results for Cu-Supplementation in Sheep with Copper Oxide Wires Particles

Protocol# 2110048188 

Approach: Sheep from a farm intending to cooperate with this study (Bar-S Farm), located in Moorefield, WV agreed to provide 20 mature ewes and 20 lambs for this study.  On January 29, 2022 10 ewes and 10 lambs received a 2g or 1g COWP bolus, respectively.  Sheep were weighed and fecal sampled bi-weekly for 2 months.  Body condition scores were collected on ewes at the beginning and end of the study.

Results: There were no animals (either ewes or lambs) that died due to treatment with COWP.  Lambs growth over this period was equivalent between treatment groups (Fig 1a), with a slight numerical advantage in average daily gain (ADG) for lambs receiving COWP treatment (Fig 1b). A small difference in final fecal egg count (FEC) was observed in COWP-treated lambs but was not statistically different (Fig 1c).  Control lambs ended the project with an FEC of 194 eggs/g which would be considered a low level of infection.  Moreover, the time of year that this project was conducted was not conducive for helminth parasite infection, thus FEC in both lambs and ewes was expected to be quite low.

Data from ewes treated with COWP indicate that COWP-treated ewes had a slightly greater weight gain (Fig 2a) but no real change in body condition score (Fig 2b).  Typically, ewes during this time are fed low quality forage to ensure proper dry-off after lactation. Lambs were weaned from these ewes one week before the trial began, thus maintenance of body weight and BCS are a what would be expected during this transition period.  Interestingly, FEC in COWP-treated ewes was reduced to “0” across that group (Fig 2c).  These values can be somewhat misleading as the sensitivity of the McMasters assay is 50 eggs/g.  Effectively both groups of ewes started this project with a low FEC and ended with a low FEC (Fig 2c).  While tempting to assign this difference to treatment, it is more likely that these ewes were not exposed to additional parasitic infection as the climate during this study was not conducive to parasite establishment in the environment.  It is important to at least acknowledge that the FEC of COWP-treated ewes was effectively cleared. It is our hope that these data can be further validated in a larger study once this protocol receives final approval. 

Sampling 2022

Analysys of the fecal samples taken from sheep indicated a slight decrease in sheep treated with COWP.  We experienced two issues in 2022. One producer ended up selling his lambs that were in the project because market prices were high, but we still collected data on his ewes. Another set of samples were sent to the lab in Morgantown and stored in a fridge for analysis but, a student moved the samples and left them out over the weekend. All fecal samples were unusable. Samples will be taken again. 

Sampling 2023

This project had a rough start and really taught me a lot about applied research. We had economical and weather-related issues at each site. We still have some data to analysis. All sites experienced emergency drought situations this summer which reflected in the lamb gains being none or even going backwards. Dispits this the use of the COWPB still show decrease in parasite loads. 

One site was hit by a dog/predator  attack and lots nearly 40% of the lambs that were in the research



Research conclusions:

2022 Pilot project conclusion

Conclusions: These data show that neither lambs nor ewes were negatively affected by COWP treatment.  In fact, production data demonstrates, in most cases, a slight advantage in sheep treated with COWP.  The levels of COWP treatment in both ewes and lambs did not result in the appearance of Cu toxicity symptoms and thus no veterinary intervention was required of sheep in this flock. The data presented here demonstrate no harm was done to these animals as a result of Cu supplementation via a one-time COWP bolus administration.

2022 data conclusions

Ewes treated with COWP showed a higher body condition score, and a lower fecal egg count. Lambs treated with COWP had a slight increase in weight gain. 

2023 Conclusions

  • We saw a very limited gain or the least loss of ADG on the lambs treated with COWPB. There are several factors that may play into that, including management of lambs and a severe drought we had this summer. The Cu treatment affected ADG when animals were challenged/stressed and since the parasite levels were consistent between farms it may be due to Cu content in the diet (or forage quality).  We or will exam this effect on a closer level in 2024.
  • No differences in ADG, but the initial body weights of the ones were receiving the Cu were lower, but not significantly different between ‘Cu’ and ‘No Cu’ by the end.  This is at least suggestive of improved weight gains although it isn’t known if it was due to parasite control or something else.
  • FEC increased over time in the lambs but was much smaller in the Cu Treatment.  Ewe FEC did not increase for those receiving Cu but did for those that did not.
  • FAMACAH scores increased for lambs not receiving Cu bolus.  Ewe FAMACHA decreased for those receiving the Cu.  None of the average FAMACHA scores were low enough to require intervention, but which may be why there was no differences seen in ADG.
  • The COWPB proved that is has an impact with parasite control. In initial measurements there was no difference in FAMACHA and FEC on lambs and ewes. Measurements taken at the end of the trail, lambs and ewes treated has less parasite load.
  • There was no difference in BCS, which is probably due to the parasite.

  “Data was analyzed as a RCBD design, but farm serving as the blocking factor and individual animal as a replicated within each block.  Copper bolus treatment and time period (i.e. at the start and end of trial) were analyzed as fixed effects with least significance differences (LSD) being used to compare the means within each level of these factors.  Due to the variable nature of on-farm trial, significance was determined at the P < 0.10 level, unless otherwise stated.”


Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

5 Consultations
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

75 Farmers participated
30 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

WVU Extension, like the other land grant University’s Extension Services founding principles are to take research based data and provide that data to agricultural producers to enhance the sustainability of their operations.  

Through these data we hope to determine the need for supplemental Cu  to be included in  regionally produced mineral mixes and or feed rations to enhance production and decrease disease incidence..

 Dissemination of this data will be carried out by the following methods:

  • Pasture walks will be held in two locations.  One in Union, WV at the Anathotc Livestock Farm owned by the Helmick’s and in Moorefield at the Bar S farm owned by the Smith Family.  At both locations results of the study will be discussed as well as a FAMACHA training will be held to discuss parasite resistance and how to avoid it.
  • Presentation at the WV Shepherds Federation Annual Meeting.  Findings of the study will be presented as well as a FAMACHA training will be provided.
  • Presentation at the WV Small Farm Conference.  An annual conference attended by 800 small farmers in WV held annually in Charleston. 
  • Presentation at the WV Women in Agriculture Conference.  An annual conference designed for women working in agriculture in WV, approximately 350 women attend this conference.
  • A poster will be designed and sent to the National Association of County Agricultural    Agents and presented at the annual national meeting.
  • An article will be written and published in the WV Small Farm Advocate, a publication by WVU Extension Service and the WV Farm Bureau News. 
  • A presentation at the National Extension Risk Management Conference. An annual risk management conference attended by approximately 500 people.


At this point, we have no data to use for outreach. The project has been presented to 30 WVUES County Agents and Specialists and one feed store employee. Once we have final approval and data, we anticipate an outpouring of information disseminated, at multiple venues.


The project has been discussed at Ag Agent in-service training. 

Project and pilot project findings were discussed at a small ruminant workshop in Hardy County WV. Workshop was part of an FSA Funded women and minority workshop.

March 27 planned presentation on the background and preliminary data. A proposal was also submitted to discuss the initial findings of the pilot project for the Extension Risk Management Conference.


This project and the data collected so far was presented

  • WV Women in Agticulture Conference 
  • WV Mountaineer Stockmans College
  • In service training for WVU Extension Ag and Natural Resource Agents and other ag service providers, relating to grassland management.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.