Why Do Cows Need a Salt Lick?

One of my favorite parts of seeing cows on a farm is how funny they look licking at the salt block with their long tongue. 

But one time I saw this and started to wonder why they had a salt lick in the first place. 

We’re always told to watch our salt intake, so why do cows need extra salt?

Salt is an important part of every animal’s diet, including cows. It’s necessary for proper health and development, and the easiest way to ensure your livestock gets enough is through salt licks or granules. 

Read on to learn why cows need additional salt in their diet, what sources are available, and how much salt your cows need. 

why do cows need salt licks

Why Is Salt Good For Cows?

Salt is a necessary mineral for all animals, including mammals. 

Salt plays a vital role in keeping proper body function. 

It leaves the body through sweat and tears, and mammals must consume salt as part of the balanced feed to make it up. 

Without adequate salt consumption, the immune system will weaken, nutrients won’t be transported properly, and acid will build up in the stomach during ruminal fermentation. 

Cattle health will decline, which will lead to a host of diseases and health issues.

Salt is a chemical compound made of sodium and chloride and contains some essential trace minerals. 

This includes calcium, magnesium, selenium, and phosphorous. 

These minerals work together to help the body develop and function properly.

  • Sodium balances pH levels in the blood.
  • Chloride balances pH in the body and aids digestion.
  • Calcium is necessary for bone and teeth development.
  • Magnesium supports muscle and nerve function and energy production.
  • Selenium is important for fertility and prevents certain disorders.
  • Phosphorous helps with energy in the body, as well as bone and teeth development.

One of the benefits of salt is that cattle crave salt, but they won’t crave these trace minerals by themselves. 

Because of this, offering a salt lick is a great way to ensure your cows get the additional salt and trace mineral requirements. 

Related Reading: Why does cow milk taste salty?

Daily Access to Salt Sources for Cows

In the wild, animals can get sodium chloride from natural salt springs or a salt deposit. 

If you don’t have either of these on your property, you have to provide a different way for your cattle to get their necessary salt. 

There are two main forms to provide: a block or loose granules. 

We’ll cover the differences below. 

Both are considered free-choice provisions but are provided to your cattle differently.

Depending on your cows, their propensity to consume salt, and environmental factors, you may choose to provide just one or both supplemental salt forms to make sure they’re meeting cattle requirements for these vital minerals.

Salt Lick

Salt licks are dense blocks of salt. 

This cube should be put near the feed area or another easily accessible area. 

Salt licks come in a few different varieties and colors.

White salt blocks contain only sodium chloride without any other essential minerals added. 

Yellow salt blocks contain salt with sulfur, and red/brown salt blocks contain salt with trace minerals. 

Salt Granules

Loose salt granules are exactly what they sound like: a loose, powder form of salt and trace minerals. 

Mixing it into feed guarantees it’s being eaten in the proper ratio with the rest of the feed. 

If you have other animals than cows, salt granules may be necessary. 

Cows and horses will lick a salt block, but not all animals will. 

Guidelines for Providing Salt to Your Cows

You are responsible for watching out to prevent cattle health issues. 

Whether you choose to provide access to salt blocks or loose salt granules mixed in their feed, make sure some form of salt is always available. 

If using a salt lick, you also want to protect it from rain since this will deplete any trace minerals. 

Know and watch for the signs of salt deprivation to ensure your cows are ingesting enough sodium chloride through the salt lick or salt granules. 

Do not use water softener salt as a substitute. 

This form of salt is not meant to be ingested. 

Cattle can consume too much sodium chloride as well, leading to salt toxicity. 

The best way to avoid this is by providing constant access to adequate water. 

How Much Salt Do Cows Need?

If you have multiple cows, it’s hard to monitor each individual’s salt intake daily. 

However, it’s easy to use the overall intake needs and herd size to estimate if your cows are consuming enough salt. 

One 1,300 to 1,400-pound cow needs 35-45 grams of salt daily, which translates to 55 pounds weekly for a herd of 100 cows. 

Most salt blocks and bags of salt granules weigh 50 pounds. 

Using this as a guide, look for signs of salt deficiency in individual cows if your herd is not consuming enough salt.

Signs of Salt Deficiency In Cows

When an animal doesn’t get enough salt in their diet, certain bodily functions will start to fail. 

A lack of salt will cause visible symptoms to watch out for.

  • Loss of appetite
  • Strange cravings for dirt, manure, and wood
  • Weight loss
  • Lactating cow with milk fever
  • Rickets in calves

Sodium deprivation is serious if left unchecked, but it’s easy to prevent.

Salt Poisoning in Cattle

Like salt deficiency is an issue for livestock, so is an overabundance. 

Salt poisoning is caused by a toxic salt concentration in the blood.

This poisoning mainly happens when cattle have not had access to water for an extended period. 

The water restriction increases the blood’s ratio of excess salt to the water. 

It’s even more likely to occur if a lot of salt is added to their diet. 

Salty water is another cause of this toxicity. 

Avoid the following water scenarios:

  • Providing water exceeding safe salinity levels or salt water
  • Access to water pooling where the salt lick is kept
  • Cattle drinking from salty puddles after a summer rain
  • Inadequately cleaned water troughs

Signs of Salt Poisoning

Because of how salt toxicity happens, it usually affects a portion of the herd rather than an individual. 

Signs to look for include:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Diarrhea
  • Tremors, convulsions
  • Abnormal head position
  • Weakness
  • Coma and death


If you notice these signs in your cattle and deduce they are suffering from unsafe saline levels, slowly reintroduce small amounts of fresh water. 

Make sure the water supply available in their trough is fresh and clean. 

Contact your veterinarian for further instructions on treating affected livestock.

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Growing up amidst the sprawling farms of the South, Wesley developed a profound connection with farm animals from a young age. His childhood experiences instilled in him a deep respect for sustainable and humane farming practices. Today, through Farmpertise.com, Wesley shares his rich knowledge, aiming to inspire and educate others about the joys and intricacies of rural life.

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