Don’t keep a commercial scale handy? Here is a simple and accurate way to weigh your horse without a scale at all!
Feed freshness is a concern for many horse owners. We all want to feed our horses the best we can. When it comes to freshness there are several factors involved, one of those being the expected shelf life of feed. Horse owners and barn managers who understand these factors and practice good inventory rotation will be able to provide their horses fresh feed on a regular basis.
First, what is shelf life? Shelf life can be described as the length of time a feed is considered to have the nutritional quality and physical characteristics as intended when it was produced from the manufacturer.
In food terms, you may see ‘Best if used by’ or ‘Sell by’ followed by a date. Human food is tightly managed and there are regulations that food processors, distributors and retailers need to follow to make sure that the food they put on their shelves is within date.
Most horse feeds do not have a ‘Use by’ date due to the process of manufacturing as well as the different storage conditions that feed is exposed to from when it is made to the time it is in your scoop. Therefore, understanding what affects the shelf life can help you to provide your horse with fresh feed on a regular basis.
The form of feed you purchase has an impact on its shelf life. For example, a feed in the form of a pellet has undergone a process which involves cooking with heat and steam, followed by the use of centripetal force to push it through a die (think Play Dough machine) before it is cooled and dried. This high temperature cook and cool helps to make the nutrients more available for digestion as well as improves the shelf life (cookie dough is only good for a few days, but baked cookies stored properly can last up to 2 weeks – well, not in my house!).
On the other hand, ‘textured’ or grain-based feed (where you see the oats, barley or cracked corn) which has had oil and/or molasses added has not undergone the same amount of ‘cooking’ as a pellet and therefore has a shorter shelf life. Alone, the dry grains have a good shelf life, but when oil, molasses or other liquids have been added, the shelf life is shortened.
Generally speaking, a pelleted feed stored in ideal conditions won’t begin to lose nutritional quality until it is approximately 6 months old. That’s a long time for a feed to still be good! On the other hand, textured feed tends to lose nutritional quality around 90 days from date of manufacture.
One of the biggest risks regarding storage of feed is the potential growth of molds. Molds are present in low levels all around us, but when exposed to certain conditions, molds can proliferate. Molds love an environment that is warm and moist therefore, feed should be stored in a cool, dry place.
So what can you do to make sure your horse gets the best nutrition from the feed you buy?
- Feed makers and retailers set their own guidelines for shelf life of their products and they vary by the product.
- Warm or humid temperatures will speed up the deterioration of quality as well, so pay especially close attention in the summer, and possibly even purchase less feed on a more frequent basis during those warmer months.
- When you purchase feed from your retailer, ask how long they have had the bag of feed and under what conditions it has been stored.
- When you get feed home, be sure to inspect it, looking for bugs or mold.
- If you see indications of either, take the bag back to your retailer immediately.
- Do not feed moldy or bug infested feed to your horses.
Any feed you store on farm should be kept in a cool, dry place, protected from infestation of pests. Read here for tips on how best to store feed on your farm.
I was visiting with some friends at a recent horse owners meeting. I saw a trainer I had visited several times in the past few years, answering nutrition questions and making recommendations. I asked how his horses were doing and if he had made any changes to his feed program. He replied that he had switched to a competitor’s product a few months ago and the results were terrible. His horses had lost weight, their coats were dull and he went back to feeding his old mill mix.
I asked which product he was feeding in particular and if he was feeding it to all of his horses? He had chosen a product that was designed for maintenance level horses, not show horses or breeding stock. For horses working harder an added supplementation and proper feed rates would be imperative.
Although I was disappointed he hadn’t tried Nutrena products, I went on to ask if he followed the directions on the tag? He responded that he can never figure out all that garbage on the tag and fed his horses as he always does. There was part of the problem!
A feed tag will give you a statement of purpose, what type of horse and life style it is formulated to be fed. Next it will list the recommended feed rate. This can vary from 1/4 pound to 2 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, depending on the fortification and quality of nutrients.
I was familiar with the product he had tried and their feed rate for horses working at a performance level would be 1.5 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, or 15 pounds per day for a 1000 horse. This would have to be broken down into 3 feedings to be fed at a safe consumption rate, and could also mean added labor for his farm, not a bargain.
When I mentioned what I believed was the recommended feed rate for the product he was surprised. He said he would never feed that much of a concentrate to any horse. Again, he reiterated he doesn’t have time to read tags and do the math. I told him it is like making a box cake. You need to follow the directions, if you don’t use the entire box of cake mix, you won’t get the desired results. He did laugh at my remark, but I also think he understood the concept.
I recently taught an Equine Nutrition class to a group of seniors at an area college. Our focus for the classroom lecture was dietary assessment by body condition scoring, weight and topline evaluation. After the lecture I conducted a lab to apply hands on practice of what we had just reviewed.
One of the students asked if we could evaluate her horse during the lab session. The evaluation proved to be a classroom classic. The horse was a 4 year old Warmblood gelding. He was 17.1 hands and 1350 pounds. The horse at first glance appeared to be round and in good flesh, but as I ran my hands over his withers and back you could feel a lack of muscle and coverage.
I asked the student what the horse’s current diet consisted of, she replied 20 pounds of first cutting hay per day and 8 pounds of locally grown oats. The calorie content of the diet appeared to be sufficient, however the amino acid balance was lacking. The student also mentioned she had her saddle recently refitted and the chiropractor out because the horse was having back issues.
With the move to college, the horse’s workload had increased and the need for additional fortification was obvious. I suggested that the student purchase a ration balancer to balance the needs of the young horse’s diet and help replenish his topline.
One of the students in the lab then challenged my recommendation. She stated that she was an Equine Physiology major and felt my diagnosis was incorrect. She felt that by working the horse in a more collected manner, engaging his hind quarters and coming up under him would help to strengthen and develop his topline. She thought he looked fat and did not need to change his diet.
I went on to explain that the horse’s current diet was similar to a young child that would be on a straight rice diet, which is deficient in amino acids. You would see a round abdomen, but lack of muscle mass. If that child were getting ready to compete in a marathon, I doubt running extra laps would increase muscle mass, unless we supplemented the diet properly.
Again, your horse will tell you what is lacking in his diet, if you just take the time to look.
I am fortunate in my job to speak with horse owners face-to-face on a frequent basis. During these conversations, I enjoy hearing about the horses they own and how great their horse’s look and perform.
Occasionally, I will hear someone mention that their horse looks great on hay alone and they only feed a ‘handful’ of grain in the morning and night, just for the vitamins and minerals.
I delicately point out that the analogous human activity would be chopping your daily vitamin into pieces and taking a fraction of one a day. This is an opportunity to discuss feeding rate, calorie requirements, muscle and hair coat quality, and making sure owners have selected the right feed for their horse.
In many of these instances, the horse in question is an adult in good body condition, on a good quality forage and light work load; in other words, a horse at maintenance activity level. Even though this horse may be able to keep a good body condition score, without balanced nutrition, they will exhibit less-than-ideal muscling, hair coat and hoof quality.
A well-intentioned owner of this kind of horse might feel they need to provide some form of nutrition supplementation to their hay, as they should, but may not fully understand what is needed or the appropriate quantities. Feed, being as complicated as it can be, is often misinterpreted and either under or over fed. Here’s where we can help!
If a maintenance horse is in good or better-than-good body condition (a 6+) from their hay or pasture alone, they really don’t need more calories in the diet. But they do need something to fill in the gaps that the hay or pasture is not providing. These include vitamins, minerals and quality proteins (amino acids) their body needs for normal tissue repair, hair growth and muscle maintenance.
For this horse, a ration balancer is the ideal solution. A ration balancer (sometimes called diet balancer) is a concentrated form of feed without the energy provided by fats, fibers, starch and sugar of a regular feed. Ration balancers tend to have higher guaranteed levels of nutrients, but significantly lower feeding rates. Don’t panic! A protein level of 30% with a feeding rate of 2 pounds per day means your horse gets 0.6 pounds of protein. Compare that to feeding 6 pounds of a 14% regular feed = 0.84 pounds of protein per day. When you do the math, it’s really in line with a “normal” diet.
If this same horse would be slightly below ideal body condition, a feed designed to be fed to maintenance horses would be appropriate for calories and the balance of other nutrients. Be sure to follow the feeding rates and keep a close eye on how your horse responds to the feed, as you may need to adjust within the feeding rate guidelines.
When it comes to calorie management of the maintenance-level activity horse, remember to watch out for those treats, too. Calorie levels can vary widely so all the work you’re doing to manage intake with the feed scoop can easily be washed away with an indulgence in treats!
Feeding a horse at a maintenance activity level doesn’t have to be complicated. With a few pieces of information and the right feed, your horse can look and feel their best, even if they aren’t heading for the show pen.
I am fortunate to count myself among those who grew up with horses. My mother had grown up with a horse as her pet (Babe was her name) and much of what I learned came from how she had managed her horse. This meant that I grew up with a …how to say….‘traditional’ mindset about nutrition; ‘hay and sweet feed now and then is all any horse needs’ and that is what my horse was fed….until I started working for a feed company. Then, my nutritional education hit the fast lane! Here are the top 5 things that I have learned about nutrition and management as a result of working for a feed company.
1. The purpose of feed. Growing up, we’d use feed as bait to bring the horses off the pasture, a reward after a good ride (after properly cooling out of course) or on very cold days, but certainly not every day. Most feeds are designed to provide a horse with the nutrients that hay or pasture alone cannot. Many people think of feed as simply providing ‘energy’ which, many of them do. When it comes to feed, you generally get what you pay for, so very often, the less expensive feeds are designed to provide the minimum amount of nutrition. That’s why it’s important that you select the right feed for your horse so that they are getting the balance of nutrients that fit their needs, be it energy, biotin or high quality proteins, fed consistently. Once you find the right nutrition for you horse, you might be amazed at how good they look and how happy they seem.
2. Paying more for feed can save money in the long run. I used to feed an inexpensive sweet mix to my horse and spent my money on supplements to provide what the feed didn’t, as opposed to feeding her a fully fortified feed. For the most part, a high quality, fortified feed that is fed at the right amount removes the need for most supplements and, you might be surprised to find it can be cheaper. There are a few exceptions where it is either illegal or extremely difficult to include specific nutrients in a feed, such as joint support (it is against the law to include any ingredient that is considered a drug in horse feed). In those instances, it does make sense to add a supplement to provide what the feed can not.
3. Feeding directions do make a difference. Feeding directions matter because most feeds are formulated to provide a specific concentration of nutrients based on the pounds (not scoops) that are fed, which is a ratio of your horse’s weight. In order to feed at the recommended levels, you need to know how much your horse weighs and how much your feed weighs. Growing up, we just fed a ‘scoop’ regardless of the horse or feed. Taking this approach will often mean under or over feeding your horse. If you start to feed at the recommended feeding levels and notice your horse not being in ideal body condition, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate whether you’re feeding the right feed.
4. Those extras actually do count for something. I used to think that some of the extra ‘stuff’ that was provided in a fully fortified feed was just foo-foo dust or tag dressing. One of my biggest ‘ah ha’ moments came when I realized that (at least with Nutrena feeds) it’s not just adding another line to the guaranteed nutrients tag; it’s really providing a benefit to the horse. I saw it when I switched my horses away from a local mill sweet mix. The little things that are added do make a visible improvement in hoof quality, hair coat and even muscling.
5. Knowing your horse is the best way to feed him. Horses are individuals; as a rider, that is evident. However, I used to think that when it came to nutrition, there was very little variation. How wrong I was! Unlike production animals, humans have been selectively breeding horses for attributes other than feed efficiency. Therefore, the general horse population has a wide range of nutrition needs from the easy keeper to the hard keeper and everything in between. Staying closely tuned into your horse, changes in his performance, attitude and body condition score throughout the year and how he reacts to his feed and forage is all part of managing him as an individual. When his job changes (increase or decrease in workload) or he reaches the next life stage, it’s important to reevaluate his feeding program to provide him what he needs.
I have learned so much about nutrition and management during my time as an employee of a feed company. My assumptions have been challenged. My knowledge expanded. Thanks to scientific research, my horses now enjoy an improved level of nutrition, performance and appearance, and so can yours!
Would you drink dirty water? Water that had algae, mud, maybe even feces in it? Would you be able to put it to your mouth and swallow?
I would, if it was a matter of survival. Chances are, if it was a matter of life or death, you would too. If that was the only water available and the choice was to drink that water or die, I am betting there are not many people who wouldn’t take at least a sip. But, would you drink your fill of that dirty, nasty water? Would you drink deeply so that your thirst was satisfied and your body was hydrated, all the way down to a cellular level? Probably not. And neither would your horse.
We all know that water is the most important nutrient that any animal can have. It is essential for almost every function, from digestion and respiration, to reproduction and lactation. But what we may often forget is that even though our animals have access to water, that doesn’t mean they are well hydrated. If their water is teeming with algae or full of mud or excrement, chances are that they are choosing not to drink as much as they could. In the winter, if it is too cold or even frozen over, horses will have lowered intake as well.
A horse that is not well hydrated can run into a myriad of problems, not the least of which can be impactions that can lead to colic. Veterinarians will tell you that winter is prime-time for colic episodes that are directly related to lack of water. This is why it is important to monitor your horse’s water intake and make sure they are getting their fill on a daily basis.
The bare minimum amount of water that a horse needs on a daily basis is 0.5 to 1 gallon for every 100 lbs. of weight in a maintenance environment with a temperate climate. Add in performance demands, lactation, hot weather, humidity, etc. and the demand for water increases significantly. Your best bet? Keeping free choice clean cool water available at all times.
But how do you know if your water supply is up to snuff? There is a pretty easy test to tell. Ask yourself these questions as you stand at your horses’ pond, water trough or bucket:
- Is it the right temprature? (between 45 - 65 degrees farenheit is preferred)
- Is it fresh?
- Is it clean?
- Is it abundant?
Would I want to drink it?
If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then you are providing a good water source that your horse should be happy to drink their fill from.
Take this “water quality quiz” today, and then take it again in the middle of winter, when the way you supply water to your horse may be entirely different. Because no matter what the season, water is key to a healthy, active horse.
Cribbing, the process of a horse biting down on a stationary wooden structure, applying pressure and then breathing in deeply, can be destructive to more than just your barn and stalls!
While cribbing has traditionally been thought to be just a vice or bad habit, new information indicates that a horse that cribs may be responding to a digestive upset. The act of cribbing produces excess saliva. This saliva helps to buffer the stomach and can calm the pain of things like ulcers and other digestive problems.
If you have a horse that cribs, the first step should be determining why the problem started. This may very well include a trip to the vet to rule out gastric ulcers or digestive issues. In cribbers who are diagnosed with ulcers, the behavior often stops or is reduced when treatment for the ulcers is started. Cribbing can also be caused by extreme boredom and is usually associated with horses who spend most of their time in stall situations.
It is important to note that cribbing is not a learned behavior – horses don’t start cribbing because they see their stablemates doing it. Rather, in a group of horses that all begin to crib the catalyst may be management practices that lead to some type of gastric distress. Some of these practices that can lead to cribbing include:
- Not providing enough long stemmed forage
- Feeding large grain meals all at one time
- Not providing a properly balanced diet
- Not giving adequate access to salt
- Inadequate turn out time
The bad news is that once a horse has started cribbing, it can be a hard habit to break. As the horse bites down on the wood and inhales, endorphins are released that can give the animal a “high”. That is why it can be very difficult for the horse that has started cribbing to stop – they get addicted to what it does to their body. Unfortunately, cribbing is a very good way to cause colic (as well as destroy property), so all possible steps should be taken to end the behavior.
Once the source of the cribbing is confirmed and addressed, some recommendations to help stop the behavior and break the addiction can include:
- Adequate long stemmed forage provided throughout the day
- Plenty of turn out time with opportunities to interact with other horses
- Stall toys to help ease boredom
- Placing feed in multiple locations around the pen to make the horse mimic his natural grazing behavior
- Feeding grain meals in small amounts several times per day rather than all at once
- Providing a balanced diet
- Giving ample access to loose white salt
- Using a special cribbing collar or strap
- Covering wooden surfaces with anti-chew paint
Treating the cribbing horse can be a challenge, but remember that the first step is figuring out why the problem started. Your horse’s cribbing may just be his way of telling you that he is in pain and needs your help.
I visited a horse owner that had just purchased her own farm this spring. She said she was following the same feeding program that was followed at the boarding barn, but the mare had gained weight. A quick evaluation showed the mare had defiantly crossed the line to a good solid body condition score of a 6.
We knew the forage had not changed as the owner purchased her hay from the boarding barn. When we weighed out the mares daily ration of hay, we came up with 25 pounds per day on average. The mare weighed 990 pounds so she was receiving just over 2.5% of her body weight per day in hay. This was on target with her diet at the boarding barn.
The pasture was still being fenced, so she had a sand ring as turnout. Definitely no added calories there! The mare was also receiving the same amount of work, if not more, since she was now at the owner’s home.
The owner said she had purchased the same feed and still feeding 5 pounds per day, divided into two feedings. She then asked if our formulation had changed. We walked into the feed room and I checked the product. It was the same feed the mare was previously on, and I assured her we had not made any changes.
I then asked how many bags of feed she was using a month. The owner replied “4 … exactly 1 per week.” I quickly did the math: 50 pounds/ 7 days is 7+ pounds per day.
I asked the owner if she had weighed a serving of the feed. She replied “No” because it was the same kind of scoop the boarding barn had used. However, when we weighed her scoop it held 3.5 pounds of feed when filled, not the 2.5 pounds she thought she was providing.
With the extra source of calories identified, we adjusted the mare’s diet and she is on her way back to a healthy body condition!