In Defense of Starch

Like a celebrity on a downward spiral, starch has been getting a lot of press in the last few years…and most of it negative.  Unlike celebrities, starch doesn’t gain anything from the media exposure.  Although it may be unpopular, I’d like to take a moment to say a few words in defense of starch; a (recently) under appreciated, yet useful nutrient in horse diets.

But first, let’s start with what it is.  Starch is a complex chain of sugar molecules, which is the main source of energy for plants.  It is stored within the cell walls of the plant and therefore, considered a nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC).  Starch in horse feeds are most commonly sourced through grains such as oats, barley, corn, rice or wheat and the co-products of these grains such as corn distillers grains, rice bran or wheat midds. 

Glycemic response of oats and controlled starch diets, in horses

When ingested, starch molecules are broken down into smaller sugar molecules (glucose) that are readily absorbed. With the help of insulin, the glucose in the bloodstream is ‘picked up’ by muscles and other tissues to either be used to support activity or stored (as glycogen) for future energy needs.  Hard working and active horses need glucose and glycogen to support their activity levels and recovery from activity.   It’s also worth pointing out that NSC’s are a very efficient pathway to providing energy to the horse and to aid in muscle recovery (glycogen repletion), particularly in horses performing athletic activities.

Most horse owners know that too much starch at one time can overwhelm the horse’s digestive system.  That excess, undigested starch could leak into the hind gut where it can rapidly ferment, leading to an overproduction of gas and lactic acid, which in turn, could cause gas colic and/or acidosis which could then lead to laminitis or other issues.

You’re probably wondering, if it’s needed by horses for energy, but also potentially dangerous then how does the horse get what he needs without wreaking havoc?  The answer lies in the QUANTITY of starch consumed in each meal.

The majority* horses can tolerate a moderate level of starch each day.   This is not to say, all at one time.  There is a big difference!  Consider the digestive system of a horse to be like a waterway – it can tolerate a certain quantity of water running through it (or in this example starch) but if there is too much at one time, the water overflows and goes where it is not supposed to go.  Same with starch in the digestive system – the body can handle a moderate quantity of starch released at a controlled rate, but too much at one time (or from too big of a meal) and the whole system gets out of whack. 

I offer up one last nugget to consider: oats – the long-time staple of ‘safe’ feedstuffs for horses, actually contains approximately 40% starch. Now there’s something to think about…

So, in defense of starch, I’d just like plead the following.  When consumed in moderate amounts/meals,  frequently over time, starch is a useful and practical source of energy for most horses. 

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to evaluate starch levels in feeds.  Stay tuned for more….

*Horses diagnosed with a form of Equine Metabolic Disease (EMS) require a diet that is closely managed to control and limit the amount of NSC (including fructan from forage) in their diet. 

What Makes it ‘Premium’ Nutrition?

Aside from price, how do you know if a feed that is advertised as premium nutrition, really is? Here are some tips to help you decode the premium puzzle.

First, a word about forage….Forage, being hay and/or pasture, should make up the majority of your horse’s diet.  Therefore, the amount of effort and investment you make in your feeding program should be heavily weighted toward offering your horse the best quality forage you have access to.  Your feed selection should complement your forage. Feed or supplemental fortification should fill gaps in forage nutrition, but the most important aspect is the quality of forage, as that makes up the majority of your horse’s source of energy.  Always consider your horse’s forage first and foremost.

What is on a tag?  Onto the feed concentrate; the most important aspect of your feed choice is the nutrients the feed will provide for your horse.  When you buy premium nutrition, you expect to get premium results…but, what you pay for may or may not be what you get.  So how can you tell?

First, check the tag for guaranteed analysis of nutrients.  A premium feed will be formulated to deliver your horse the optimal nutrition for their age and activity level.  Each horse varies to some degree in their metabolism and requirements, but in most cases, optimal nutrition will be formulated to provide the most digestible nutrients in levels that ensure your horse makes the most of every meal. 

With regard to nutrient levels, is more actually better? Not always.  Sometimes more is just more.  Take into consideration minerals.  Mineral fortification of a diet is only as good as the amount that is absorbed, so having more copper, zinc or manganese listed on the tag doesn’t mean that your horse is making use of it all.  Look for key words that indicate digestibility; for minerals, ‘organic’ means the mineral is tied to an amino acid and is readily absorbed.  For proteins, look for guaranteed levels of ‘lysine’, ‘methionine’ and ‘threonine’.  These are the protein components that matter most to your horse.  Sometimes more is just…well more.

In the scoop…Another way to compare feeds is to determine y how much you have to feed to give your horse the optimal level of nutrients guaranteed on the tag.  Most feed companies formulate their rations to provide an amount of digestible energy (DE) which determines the rate (or amount) which they recommend you feed.  All other nutrients, such as the vitamins and minerals, are concentrated based on that feeding rate.

For example, you have two different feeds you are considering for your horse who is at a ‘maintenance’ level energy requirement (meaning to keep his body condition score at or about a 6).  Feed A recommends you give him 2.5 pounds per day, while feed B recommends you feed a minimum of 4 pounds per day.  Keep in mind that  if you feed less than the recommended 4 pounds of feed B, not only will your horse not get the DE for his activity level, he will also not get the optimal amount of vitamins, minerals and amino acids (if they are guaranteed). Keep in mind percentages on the tag are only as good as the rate at which they are fed.

Functional Ingredients…..There are ingredients that provide the diet with big nutrients such as fat, fiber and protein.  There are ingredients that provide micro nutrients, such as minerals and vitamins.  And then there is a whole other class of ingredients are called ‘functional’ ingredients.  These items are intended to enhance the efficiency or digestibility of the feed, meaning your horse gets more out of every bite.  Consider prebiotics and probiotics for example.   Through research, both of these functional ingredients have shown to enhance the digestibility of many nutrients and improve overall gut health.  The addition of prebiotics and probiotics to a diet is intendedto aid your horse in getting that optimal nutrition for a premium result!

Valid Research… One last thing to take into consideration; a feed brand or company that has a research program is far more likely to understand the digestibility of ingredients and the nutrient requirements of the horse, versus a company that does not conduct research.  Many aspects of optimal nutrition, such as understanding digestibility, aren’t found on a tag, but are proprietary to the researching company.  Before you consider a feed that is advertised ‘just as good as, only cheaper’, consider what makes the real deal.  In most cases, a company that copy-cats a popular product doesn’t get you to the same level of quality, premium nutrition as the original.

So, is it really a premium feed?   Check the tag to find out.  Armed with this information, you can answer this question for yourself!

Winter Condition Check to be Ready for Spring

Bay horse in a snow fallCold weather, particularly below freezing temperatures, requires that owners pay careful attention to their horses to make certain that the horses stay in good condition through the winter months.

First, make certain the horses are in good body condition, at least a body condition score of 5 or 6, meaning that the horses are carrying some fat cover over their ribs. This is particularly important for older horses and pregnant mares.  Winter hair coats can create the illusion of adequate body condition, so some hands on checking is in order.  If broodmares lose body condition and are below a BCS of 5 at foaling, they may be more difficult to rebreed after they foal. Now is a good time to check body condition in case horses are losing weight due to weather and forage conditions.

Second, adequate water, preferably between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, should be available.  Owners should not rely on horses eating snow for their water supply.  A 1200-pound horse will require 12-15 gallons of water per day during cold weather.  Having inadequate water available or water that is too cold for horses to drink comfortably may contribute to impaction colic.  A horse that does not have adequate water available may also decrease feed intake, which may lead to loss of body condition.  Horses that have to consume snow as a water source consume less water than desired and also use up a great deal of energy melting the snow as it is consumed.  Salt should be available free choice, preferably loose salt rather than a salt block during cold weather.

Third, adjust feeding according to temperature and body condition. A horse’s energy requirement increases about 0.7% for each degree the air temperature is below 18 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the horse’s hair coat and body condition.  Wind chill increases the energy requirement also.  Hay or high fiber products produce more heat during digestion than do straight cereal grains, so adding extra roughage to the diet is a good option.  Grain intake can also be adjusted to maintain the desired body condition, but needs to be adjusted gradually.  Sudden increases in grain intake due to changes in temperature should be avoided.

Proper winter care and feeding will help assure that the horses are ready for spring when it finally arrives!