Environmental Geochemistry and Health

, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp 159–181 | Cite as

An Environmental Application of Regional Geochemical Mapping in Understanding Enzootic Geophagia of Calves in the Reivilo Area, South Africa

  • J.H. ElsenbroekEmail author
  • J.A. Neser


A specific enzootic form of geophagia (the deliberate ingestion of soil) occurs in young cattle and sheep in restricted areas of the Barkley-West, Postmasburg and Vryburg Districts of the Northern Cape- and North West Provinces of the Republic of South Africa. It results in severe, subacute to chronic hepatitis and jaundice, with a high mortality rate in untreated cases. An association between the disease and high concentrations of manganese in soils was shown since all the affected farms are situated on outcrops of the Reivilo Formation of the Campbell Rand Subgroup, which consists mainly of manganiferous dolomite. Furthermore high concentrations of manganese were found in the analysis of liver specimens from affected calves and the characteristic microscopic pathological changes in the liver could be induced experimentally in a calf and lamb by oral administration of manganese sulphate. The highest incidence of geophagia occurs at 7 to 14 days, whereas calves older than about 2 months are rarely affected. The symptoms usually start with intermittent, progressive geophagia, followed by constipation, dehydration and death within ca. 7–10 days in untreated cases. Young calves and lambs display an insatiable appetite for soil and sometimes lick iron poles. The treatment of calves by the parenteral injection of commercial iron-dextran- and vitamin B12 preparations at 1 to 2 days after birth, and at 14 days of age, at the registered therapeutic doses, appeared to have a marked preventative effect on the occurrence of geophagia and its complications. Regional geochemical maps show a northeast–southwest trending anomaly in MnO, Zn and Pb, visually correlating with the distribution of the affected farms. Anomalously high distributions of Pb and Zn are also spatially related to the Pering (Pb,Zn) Mine. In this study, two farms were selected for comparative purposes. Gam, a farm situated on the Reivilo Formation of the Campbellrand Subgroup was chosen where a high incidence of geophagia occurred, as well as the farm Holpan on the Lyttelton Formation of the Malmani Subgroup where the problem was not known to be present. The farm Holpan was chosen as a control area, and is situated close to an old manganese mine on dolomite with a high MnO content. Geographically, Holpan is situated in an area with a high rainfall, with leaching and the formation of deep red soils on the dolomite, together with a hilly relief and low soil pHH2O. Gam is situated in an area with lower rainfall, where precipitation would be less than evapotranspiration. The dolomite of the Malmani Subgroup and the Reivilo Formation are significantly different in their soil geochemistry. The MnO, Fe2O3T and Co contents are significantly higher in the soils of the Malmani Subgroup than in the Reivilo Formation. The MnO, Zn and Pb contents on Gam are higher than on Holpan, whereas the Fe2O3T and Co contents are lower. Soil on Holpan contains iron-minerals such as haematite, while no iron minerals were detected in the soils of Gam. The concretions, found in the soils on both farms, differs remarkably in iron-contents. Concretions on both farms have similar high concentrations of MnO, whereas the FeO content are low for the concretions on Gam and high for Holpan. Preliminary comparative analytical results of the colostrum, sampled from cows with new born calves within three days of birth, do not entirely reflect the soil geochemistry of the different farms. Whereas the soils on Gam have higher MnO, Zn and Pb, and lower Fe2O3T and Co than Holpan, the colostrum produced on Gam has lower Mn, Fe and Co than on Holpan. The Pb and Zn concentrations in the colostrum on both farms do not differ significantly. The comparative regional geochemical soil data, together with the colostrum data, suggest that young calves on the farm Gam probably suffer from Fe and Co deficiency. Conversely, it was illustrated that the Fe and Co content in the soils are high and the Fe is abundant in the concretions on the farm Holpan. These findings, together with the apparent absence of geophagia at Holpan, as well as the observed effect of iron and cobalt supplementation in the prevention of geophagia on the farm Gam, suggests an association of geophagia with iron and cobalt deficiencies on the farm Gam.

colostrum Fe deficiency geophagia Mn concentrations regional geochemical mapping 


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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Council for Geoscience (Geological Survey)PretoriaSouth Africa
  2. 2.Pathology Section, Onderstepoort Veterinary InstituteOnderstepoortSouth Africa

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