Following Feeding Recommendations

Is anyone taking a road trip this summer? Chances are, if you are heading somewhere in your car you will probably consult a road map or at least plug the destination into your GPS or smart phone. We do this so we can get where we want to go and do what we have planned. The same can be said for directions on horse feeding. They help us get our horse in the condition we want him to be so that we can do the events or activities that made us get a horse in the first place.

We have a pretty good road map attached to every bag of horse feed that is purchased.  Feed tags not only list ingredients & guaranteed analysis, they also give detailed directions for feeding.  The normal result of shortcuts during a road trip is usually being somewhere you don’t want to be. With your horse, taking shortcuts when it comes to feeding rates can mean a horse who is underweight or overweight, getting too much or being fed insufficient levels of vitamins and minerals, among other issues.

My challenge to you is this – look at your feed tag and consider the following:

After you establish the above items…

  • Is the amount I am giving my horse within the tagged recommendations according to weight and activity level?
  • Am I feeding to accomplish something with my horse? (ie: weight gain or weight loss, lactation, etc.)

If you are in the parameters set by your feed tag on what you are giving your horse, good for you! If you are not, you need to ask some follow up questions:

  • Am I willing/able to change my feeding to match what the tag recommends? If the answer is no, then the question becomes:
  • Am I willing to change my horse’s feed to match how I am feeding him?

Many times we continue to do something just because it is what we’ve always done. By answering the questions above, it may become clear to you that your best feeding option may be changing feeds. Sometimes, this may mean switching to a feed with a lower feeding rate and higher fortification in order to accurately meet your horse’s needs (for example if you are currently underfeeding a senior horse).  Other times, you may find that you don’t really have an easy keeper – you are just feeding him a bit too much. Don’t neglect the feeding directions on your feed tag – they are the road map for a long, healthy life for your horse.

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!

Grain Mites in Horse Feed

Have you ever had the following situation happen to you? You go out to feed your horse and notice a fine dust on the outside of the feed bag. You look closer and realize the dust is moving! Yes, you can see all those little bugs bustling about, in search of food and other little bugs to reproduce with. Yuck! Where do they come from? Is the feed safe to give to your horse? Can they harm you?

Magnified image of grain mites

It turns out that these little critters are grain mites (Acarus siro L). Grain mites are common and exist in all grains, but only thrive and appear when the conditions – temperature and humidity – are just right for reproduction and growth. Their ideal environment is warmer than 77 degrees F, and over 85% humidity. Hence, you would have more problems with them in the warmer months of the year. Temperature changes, condensation, and poor ventilation may produce areas with enough moisture to encourage mite infestation.

If you have infested feed you should not feed it to your horse. These mites can contaminate the feed with allergens and can also transfer nasty germs. Infestation can negatively affect palatability and when animals are fed infested products the results can be decreased intake, inflammation of the intestines, diarrhea, impaired growth and allergic reactions. The good news for you personally is that these mites do not bite humans.

To help reduce your incidence of mite outbreaks:

  • Store your feed in a cool, dry place
  • Use your oldest feed first
  • Keep no more than a two week supply of feed on hand (especially in hot weather) to ensure freshness
  • If you store your feed in a container, clean it regularly between fillings to prevent buildup of fines
  • Keep your feed area clean and neat
  • Air movement, such as from a fan, can help prevent outbreaks

If you do have an outbreak in your feed room, remove affected feed from the room immediately and thoroughly clean the area. Pyrethrin can be applied to the area with a hand held fogging machine or aerosol spray can.

Fiber Ingredients in Horse Feed

Imagine that perfect summer day. Your horse is out grazing on his pasture and taking in nutrition through the leafy green grass. You are confident that he is eating a high quality, consistent fiber source that is providing an excellent foundation for his diet. By using the high quality, consistent source of fiber that you value in your hay and pasture and putting it in your feed bag we are able to give your horse the benefits of his summer pasture all year long and in any situation.

Because fiber is such a huge part of your horse’s healthy diet (he should be eating no less than 1% of his bodyweight daily in hay or pasture) it is essential that it is present in nearly everything he consumes. With manufactured feed we are able to control the amount of fiber in the ration by using some specific ingredients.  Using alfalfa/legume products can  help to add protein, energy and calcium to the feed, while grass products can help add protein and fiber. Some of the most common sources of fiber in horse feeds are:Forage Products give the benefits of hay or pasture

  • Alfalfa Meal
  • Dehydrated Alfalfa
  • Suncured alfalfa
  • Coastal Bermuda Grass
  • Ground Grass
  • Ground Soybean Hay

It is important to always remember to read your feeding recommendations – just because a feed utilizes one or more of these forage products and has a high fiber content that does not mean that it can be fed as a sole ration.

Grains in Horse Feeds

Grain is one of the most traditional meals fed to horses. For years people have fed oats to race horses, corn and barley to plow horses, and the good old “cob” (Corn-Oats-Barley mix) as a treat or as a staple of the diet.  With the research and studies that have been done in the past decade, we have discovered that feeding straight grain, especially in large amounts and without vitamin or mineral supplementation, is not a healthy choice for your horse. That said, grains are still very good ingredients in a horse feed when used to provide valuable sources of energy and fiber, but need to be combined with other products and adjusted to meet requirements for protein, vitamins and minerals, so that a balanced diet can be achieved.

When grains are used in horse feeds they are most commonly processed to help enhance digestion. Processing methods can include cracking, screen cracking, flaking, kibble, toasting or heat processing . The grains that  can be fed to horses include triticale, wheat, rye, rice and grain sorghum although these are much less common than “The Big Three” grains that are most typically used in horse diets:

  • Corn is added to feed as an energy source and provides a whopping 1.54 Mcal of digestible energy (DE) per pound. However, corn is also one of the grains that is highest in content of starch. Whole corn is not typically used in textured horse feeds unless it is processed (flaked , cracked, etc.), and fine ground corn should not be used in textured feed because it increases the risk of colic. While it has received a bit of a bad rap in recent years due to its higher starch content, it can be, and is, still a valuable piece of the formulation of a total feed, as long as the proper attention is given to the overall starch level of the finished feed.
  • Oats is one of the more common grains used under the heading of Grain Products

    Oats are probably the most traditional grain fed to horses. Oats provide a source of fiber but energy content is considered low for a cereal grain, and they have a moderate amount of starch when compared to other straight grain rations. Whole oats consist of clean, cultivated oat grains. Crimped oats have the hull of the oat broken while rolled oats have been steamed and rolled flat.

  • Barley is also an energy source, and has a fiber and starch content somewhere in between oats and corn. Whole barley consists of whole kernels of barley with the outer covering intact. Barley has a tougher hull than oats, so it is most commonly processed (crimped, rolled or steam flaked) when put into horse feeds. Whole barley is used in some instances, but is not ideal.

 

Roughage Ingredients in Horse Feed

If you were to take your horse’s digestive tract and stretch it out, it would measure nearly 100 feet from end to end. That is a long trip for the nutrients in feed to make! We feed roughage to our horses to provide a source of bulk and fiber to the diet, and this roughage helps to carry nutrients through that long digestive tract. Roughage consists primarily of bulky, coarse plant parts with high fiber contents. Most sources of roughage are things like hulls, husks or pulp – this type of ingredient provides the fiber and bulk needed for proper digestion, and keeps the horse’s gut functioning as it should. Roughage sources can include things like rice hulls, dried citrus meal, rye mill run, etc., but some of the most common forms of roughage are listed and explained below:

  • Beet Pulp: this is a by-product of the sugar beet industry. It is the dried residue that has been extracted in the process of manufacturing sugar from sugar beets. Beet pulp has long been fed as a way to put weight on horses.
    • It is high in digestible fiber and digestible energy and is low in starch, which makes it fairly safe to feed.
    • Beet pulp pellets are usually soaked when fed; this can also help increase water intake.
    • However, beet pulp by itself is not a balanced product. It can fit very well into a feeding program, either as a supplement or as an ingredient in a commercial feed, but if fed by itself the horse will be missing essential minerals, amino acids and protein.
  • Soy Hulls: these are the outer covering of the soybean. These hulls are removed before soybeans are crushed for oil, and are an excellent ingredient that is mainly used in pelleted feeds.
    • They provide a good source of energy and are an easily digested fiber source.
  • Oat Hulls: these are the outer covering of the oat kernel.
    • They are high in fiber, low in energy, and low in protein.
    • Because of their high fiber content they make a good source of roughage.

These are a few of the most common sources of roughage. Depending on where you live, there may be other more prevelant sources of roughage available. No matter what the specific ingredient is, the main function of roughage in the diet is to provide bulky fiber that helps pull the contents of the digestive tract along and assist in keeping the gut functioning.

Grain By-Products in Horse Feeds

To many people, by-products have a negative connotation. Most think of by-products as “left overs”, “junk” or “fillers”.  This is simply not true. Some of the most nutrient rich ingredients we have for horse feeds are made of the product that remains after a grain has been processed for another specific purpose. These ingredients can include things like brewer’s grain, corn gluten feed, oat groats, etc. Some of the most common members of this category that we see used in our horse feeds or even fed as a sole ingredient today are:

Wheat Midds are obtained from the milling of wheat, wheat bran, wheat shorts, wheat germ, wheat flour, etc.  Midds are a good source of energy, protein and fiber for horses. Additionally, wheat midds help create a nice pellet that holds together well; midds can enhance the pellet quality and make a clean pellet with minimal dust and fines.  

Rice bran is a by-product of the rice milling process. Rice bran is found between the outer hull and inner grain of rice and is used as a plant-based fat source (typical rice bran products contain 20% fat or more). Rice bran can be fed in a powder form, extruded into a nugget, or added to commercial rations and pelleted to increase overall fat content of the feed. Rice bran works well as an ingredient but must be balanced to make up for a high phosphorous and low calcium content. It also must be stabilized or it will turn rancid very quickly due to the high oil content.

Wheat Bran is a by-product of the flour industry. It is rich in dietary fiber and essential fatty acids; bran mash has been historically fed to horses both as a treat and for a laxative effect that was thought to prevent colic.  We now know that too much wheat bran can cause problems such as enteroliths, and that laxative effect is actually a result of too much wheat bran irritating the gut lining of the horse. Similar to rice bran, wheat bran intakes must be managed to account for a very high phosphorous content.

These are just a few examples of some common grain by-products that are used in horse feed and can help create a healthy and nutritious diet. While not a “grain” by-product, even the ever-popular beet pulp is a by-product – it’s what’s left after sugar beets are processed! Before you dismiss a feed because it lists by-product as an ingredient, remember that these items, when balanced properly as a part of the overall formulation of the diet, can be an excellent source of many different nutrients.

Protein Ingredients in Horse Feed

Protein (and more specifically the amino acids that make up protein) is essential to a balanced diet. It is probably one of the most referenced nutrients in horse feed, and most horse owners will know the protein content of their feed. But how do we get the protein into the feed? Sources of protein for humans may come from a juicy steak, a nice salmon filet, or a tender pork chop. We derive most of our protein from meat sources which makes sense for us since we are carnivores. The horse, on the other hand, is an herbivore; many of the types of protein that we consume as humans do not come into play in our horse’s diet. However, we do know that the horse has a nutritional requirement for protein and so when we formulate feeds we can use certain plants that are high in this particular nutrient. Some of the most popular ingredients used to add protein to horse feed are:

Soybean Meal – This is the most common form of plant protein. Soybeans are readily available throughout the country and have the highest concentration of protein of any of our plant sources, with a typical level of 44-48%. Additionally, soybean meal contains a close match nutritionally to what horses require for amino acids. Especially important in this profile is the amino acid lysine, which is essential in young growing horses.

Canola Meal – Canola meal is the closest to meeting the nutritional profile of soybean meal and has a protein content of 35-44%. Canola meal is a by-product of oil removal from

canola and has slightly less lysine content than soybean meal, but still enough to meet the requirements of horses.

Linseed Meal – this is also a by-product and is derived from the processing of flaxseed. Linseed used to be commonly fed to show horses to add shine and bloom but its popularity has waned as ingredients like rice bran and vegetable oil have taken its place. Linseed meal has a typical protein level of 33 – 35% but it has significantly less lysine than either soybean or canola meal.

As you can see, we have several options to help us meet the requirements that our horses have for protein. By adding one or more of those options to our formulas we are able to provide a diet that is balanced, healthy, and nutritious!

Unbalancing a Balanced Horse Feed Diet

I was helping a colleague do a horse nutrition training seminar the other day and the question came up “Is it okay to supplement a commercial feed?” Specifically, this person was feeding half oats and half SafeChoice to her horse. My colleague had a great answer for this. He picked up a half full glass of Coke – “Pretend this is SafeChoice. Balanced perfectly to provide just the right things in the right amounts.” Then he picked up a pitcher of water – “Now pretend this is the oats. Not nutritionally balanced, low in protein and high in starch.” He started pouring the water into the glass until the mixture reached the top. The result was a watered down, light brown mess that looked unappealing and I am sure tasted the same way. The message here is simple – commercial feeds are formulated to be complete in their vitamin/mineral content, protein level, energy and fat levels. When fed at the recommended amounts per day based on work level you are meeting your horses’ nutritional requirements and delivering a specific and targeted amount of nutrients. There is no need to add/substitute/mix anything else. If you take that same feed and mix it (with things like straight grains, sweet cob, etc) – the result is an unbalanced feed that does not meet the needs of the horse. The protein gets lowered, the vitamin and mineral contents become diluted and things like calcium and phosphorous and copper and zinc can get out of balance. What you get is a diluted mess that is only doing half the job. To get the full benefit of a commercial balanced feed, use it according to tag directions and resist the urge to dilute it with anything else!

Managing The Horse With Cushing’s

The vet has diagnosed it and the reality begins to sink in – your horse has Cushing’s disease. Now what?  Cushing’s is an endocrine disease caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland that is most often seen in older horses and ponies. This tumor results in high cortisol and is most often exhibited by  hyperglycemia (high glucose), excessive thirst, excessive eating, excess urination and a shaggy haircoat.  At this time there is no cure for Cushing’s but by keeping a close eye on nutrition and management, we can improve the quality and possibly lengthen the life span of a Cushing’s horse.

Routine is important to the Cushing’s horse because changes in diet, medication, etc. can have negative effects on health.  Cushing’s horses have a compromised immune system and for that reason, seemingly small or mundane parts of their care become very important.  There are a few management practices that are particularly important: 

  • Deworming – Cushing’s horses can be more susceptible to parasites because of their weakened immune system.  Work closely with your vet to develop a deworming schedule and program that is catered to your horse. Your vet should also be seen regularly for dental care and wellness exams.
  • Farrier Care– Regular farrier visits are important because certain types of leg and foot conditions are more likely with a Cushing’s horse, such as abcesses of the hoof and laminitis. Signs of laminitis can be a tender footed stance and the horse acting like he is “walking on egg shells”. 
  • Grooming – Hair coat and temperature regulation are problems in Cushing’s horses so you will want to help your horse as much as you can by preventative grooming practices. Consider body clipping in hot/humid weather and be mindful of temperature and weather changes. When blanketing, make sure the hair coat is dry and clean to help reduce the incidence of skin issues. Prompt treatment of any wounds or infections is essential.
  • Feeding– One of the main goals in feeding the Cushing’s horse is to control the starch + sugar (NSC) content per meal. This helps to regulate the blood glucose and insulin levels.  The NSC content of the concentrates fed to the horse is important, but even more so is the content of the hay /forage and the combination of the two together. Some guidelines have suggested an NSC maximum value of 10-13% based on the total diet (forage + concentrate). Testing your hay will give you a good idea of the NSC values.
  • Consider a feed that is fortified with lysine, methionine, biotin, vitamin E and complexed trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) to help maintain muscle mass, support hoof growth and support the immune system.

Following these tips will help improve the quality and possibly length of life for the horse diagnosed with Cushing’s.  If you have specific questions regarding your horse, please work with a qualified nutrition consultant or your veterinarian.