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.

Feeding Fiber to Horses

Do you know the fiber level in your current feeding program?  If you don’t, you are not alone.  Few horse owners can answer that question, and even fewer understand why it might be important or where fiber comes from.  The first and foremost source of fiber in a horses’ diet is their roughage, or hay, source.  Secondary to that is what is present in any supplemental grain sources.

First of all, let’s define what fiber is:

  • Fiber is a measure of the plant cell wall, or the structural portions that give the plant support. 
  • Main components of fiber are the digestible cellulose and hemicellulose, and the indigestible lignin. 
    • As a crop of hay matures, the lignin content increases and the cellulose and hemicellulose decrease.

Here’s what happens as a horse consumes roughage:

  • Some quick digestion occurs in the stomach and small intestine, allowing starches and sugars to get digested as the forages pass through this portion of the digestive system. 
  • The fiber begins to get digested as the feed passes into the hindgut, or the cecum and colon. 
  • Fiber is digested well here is because of the presence of billions of microorganisms (bugs) whose sole function is to digest fiber. 
  • These microorganisms break down fibrous feeds into short chain volatile fatty acids, which are a source of energy for the horse. 

Here is why it becomes important to feed a high-quality, early-growth-stage roughage.  As a plant matures, the lignin portion increases, reducing the energy available from that roughage.  Add that to the other benefits of high-quality roughage for horses, namely the greater availability of other nutrients, and it is easy to see where spending a little more money for better hay is better in the long run for your horse.

So what does it all mean for your horse?  A horse consuming 1-1.5% of it’s body weight per day in quality roughage sources will meet its fiber needs.