Nutrition articles frequently refer to protein quality and essential amino acids. When we use the term crude protein, we are essentially talking about a calculation based on measured nitrogen. Protein is about 16% nitrogen by weight, so if we measure the amount of nitrogen and multiply it by 6.25, this gives us a measurement of crude protein. It does not tell us anything about the quality of the protein. If you tested pure nitrogen this way, it would be 625% protein!
Digestible protein is that amount of the protein that is actually digested by the animal. In an over simplified example, if you fed 100 grams of protein and measured 50 grams in the feces, the protein would be 50% digestible.
What is really important to simple stomached animals (horses included) is the content of essential amino acids in the protein. We commonly talk about 10 essential amino acids (EAA), the amino acids that must be in the diet as the animal cannot synthesize them. These are:
A common memory aid in many nutrition texts books is to use the first letters of these 10 as PVT TIM HALL. (All of you who had a non-ruminant nutrition course still remember this acronym!)
The other 12 amino acids can generally be synthesized in the body and do not need to be in the diet, although there must be a supply of appropriate substrate to produce them. Animal nutrition text books cover this topic in excellent detail.
When we talk about limiting amino acids, these are the essential amino acids most likely to be restricting the use of the total amount of amino acids present. In most species, lysine is the first limiting amino acid, with methionine and threonine close behind. We commonly talk about amino acids as the building blocks of protein. If you are once you run out of an essential amino acid, you cannot build any more animal protein and the rest of the amino acids are used inefficiently for energy.
If you have a horse on a diet that is calculated to have adequate “crude protein”, but essential amino acids are not present, the horse simply cannot use the protein to build and maintain muscle, hair, hoof and skin and you will see changes in the appearance of the horse, such as loss of muscle mass, rough hair, scaly hoof surface.