The amazing alchemical phenomenon exhibited by ruminants in converting fibrous raw materials from forages into nutrient-dense meat and milk containing quality proteins, fatty acids and other lipids found in meat and milk is due in large degree to fermentation occurring in the “first” stomach, the rumen. Fermentation by ruminal micro-organisms is dependent upon a myriad of influences, and one of these is the presence of the trace element cobalt. Cobalt is a core element of vitamin B12 or cyanocobalamin, which was isolated in 1948 and was recognized as the reason why liver consumption could cure pernicious anemia in humans, since B12 is found in generous quantities in the liver.
Vital to Ruminants
Ruminant animals such as cows, sheep, goats and deer can produce vitamin B12 if there is adequate cobalt in the diet. Monogastric (“one stomach”) animals such as pigs and chickens are much more dependent upon the intake of actual B12, “ready made” in the diet, since they do not have the advantage of an additional gut capable of synthesizing B12. Thus, ruminant animals play a vital role in the food chain as producers of vitamin B12.
Ruminants utilize the process of gluconeogenesis for providing tissue demands for glucose. This occurs by a breakdown of propionate (one of the volatile fatty acids synthesized via fermentation in the rumen) into glucose via a specific pathway, and B12 plays a critical role in this process.
So when we talk about cobalt in animal nutrition, we are really talking about vitamin B12, since 3 to 13 percent of the cobalt in the diet of a ruminant animal is incorporated by rumen microbes into vitamin B12.
Although the liver of ruminants can store sufficient amounts of B12 for up to several months, vitamin B12 production in the rumen drops off rapidly within days if there is a cobalt deficiency in the diet, affecting digestion health and efficiency.
Deficiencies (called “pining” in livestock) include loss of appetite; thiamine or vitamin B1 deficiency; reduced plasma levels of ascorbate, glucose and alkaline phosphatase, elevated plasma levels of pyruvate, pyruvate kinase, serum GOT forminino-glutamic acid and thyroxine, which affects the functioning of the hypothalamus.
Cobalt deficiency is associated with the incidence of Johnne’s disease, the ruminant analog of Crohn’s disease in humans. Johnne’s disease or paratuberculosis is a huge problem in today’s confinement dairy system.
Ketosis may be partly associated with B12 (cobalt) deficiency and it is known that cobalt interacts with iodine to promote normal thyroid function.
Feeding luxurious amounts of cobalt to ruminants enhances ruminal digestion of feeds, especially poorer quality forages, apparently because it stimulates the production of certain microbial populations that have higher cobalt requirements. Good hay will contain adequate cobalt; Kentucky bluegrass, known to nourish the most magnificent horses, is relatively high in cobalt. Dairy cattle in confinement receive feed to which is added cobalt sulfate at a rate of about 2 grams per ton.
Cobalt appears to have properties or characteristics unique to itself as a trace element, regardless of its indispensable role in vitamin B12 production. Cobalt contributes to resistance against parasites and infection, in concert with other trace elements such as copper, zinc and iron.
For example, as an integral ingredient in a multi-trace element formula, cobalt contributed to reversing incurable brucellosis infection in cattle, this according to Lady Eve Balfour (founder of the British Soil Association), in her article “9600 Miles in a Station Wagon, Some Findings by Agricultural Scientists” published in 1951. Back in 1940, Dr. Ira Allison, MD, utilized a multiple-trace mineral formula containing cobalt to treat 322 patients with the human variant of brucellosis, called undulant fever. All patients recovered, and three and a half years later, there was not one relapse.
In New Zealand, cattle and sheep around the Rotorrua tableland country, particularly sheep, did not thrive. The land was known as “cattle sick” country until a soil specialist discovered a cobalt deficiency in the soil. The land was treated with 2 ounces cobalt per acre, which quickly solved the problem.
Similarly, Russian sheep grazing on cobalt-deficient pastures showed severe lung infection, and when treated with cobalt, the result was a greatly reduced incidence of this bacterial infection. Cattle in Florida suffering from cobalt and copper deficiency were afflicted with chronic hookworm infestation, as published in the Journal of Dairy Science (74) back in 1937.
A condition in cattle and sheep known as “Phalaris staggers” results when these animals graze upon a grass known as Phalaris tuberosa on cobalt-deficient soils. Animals will succumb to symptoms of muscular tremors, lack of coordination, rapid breathing and heartbeat. Apparently, the Phalaris contains a mylelin-destroying neurotoxin, and merely applying 4-5 ounces per acre of cobalt sulfate, or supplementing cobalt in the ration, is capable of preventing this problem. The detoxification pathway apparently is located in the gastro-intestinal ecosystem because injectable cobalt is not effective. A similar condition occurs is South Africa on animals grazing Ronpha pastures, and is also remedied with copper and cobalt.
In his book Metabolic Aspects of Health (1979), Dr. John Meyers states that cobalt in the soil makes worm control a relatively easy matter. In Russia, sheep grazing on cobalt-deficient pastures showed severe lung infection by gram-negative cocci, and treatment of the sheep with cobalt resulted in a greatly reduced incidence of infection by this bacterium. In Florida, “salt sick” cattle (a dual copper and cobalt deficiency) had chronic hookworm infection.
As for humans, Meyers discusses at length how cobalt seems to possess amazing properties that reconcile the following symptoms: profuse nose bleeding (by strengthening the integrity of the blood vessels); herpes simplex blisters; improving light sensitivity of the retina while reducing irritation from light glare (when used along with copper and iodine); stimulating adequate eye mucous for lubrication; allowing the cuticle and the nail to grow faster and more soundly; assisting the skin to become stronger and more pliable; arresting and even reversing the growth of warts.
It is important to recognize the relative ration requirements between (especially) cobalt and copper, zinc and iodine. Excessive amounts of antagonistic minerals may create shortfalls of cobalt, even though tissue test, hair analysis, or blood tests indicate adequate amounts of cobalt. The best test indicator for cobalt in livestock is a liver analysis.
Cobalt and the Soil
The optimum source of cobalt for livestock are forages grown on cobalt-rich soils. The North American continent, which at one time was one of the largest soil mineral reservoirs on the planet, has been severely degraded, especially the last 100 years, due to the plowing of sensitive grasslands leading to unspeakable amounts of erosion; the over-use of chemical-based fertilizers, primarily nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, caused numerous trace elements to be leached and also oxidized the humus in the soil. Humus is the living fraction of soil that is the “inventory box” of nutrients that are natively found in the soil, or that have been applied to soils.
Additionally, these high-salt fertilizers, chemically very unstable, react with other slow-release nutrients that crops harvest from the rhizosphere or root ball of plants in the legume family. These chemical reactions cause complexes, or tie-ups, that reduce nutrient availability to the crop.
Cobalt is actually a plant “bio-stimulant,” similar to molybdenum, because it is required by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, especially on the root nodules of legumes.
Like all trace elements in the soil, cobalt is a precursor to enzymes. Enzymes are produced by plants and microbes in order to increase the uptake of elements as well as assist in the synthesis, within the crop, of raw materials that are necessary to produce completely nutrient-dense foods suitable for consumption by livestock and humans. These nutrient-dense compounds found in the pigments are necessary for the plant to resist fungal and insect attack. Consumed by animals and humans, these compounds act as anti-oxidants, immune fuels, endocrine balancers, anti-microbials, tissue repair enhancers and free radical scavengers.
Cobalt thus belongs to the family of rare elements that contribute so much to the soil organisms, to plant performance and to healthy animal physiology.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2005.