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!

4 Replies to “What Makes it ‘Premium’ Nutrition?”

  1. I have a draft horse that can not eat pellets — he chokes on them. So I feed him sweet feed and he does fine. Are any of the Nutrena feeds a sweet feed rather than a pellet? I have 3 Rocky Mountain horses doing fine on Safe Choice original.

    1. Hello Linda, Thanks for checking with us. We do have a couple sweet feed options, you’ll need to check with your local retailer to see if they are available in your area. Our Vitality line is similar in nutrient levels to the SafeChoice line. Another excellent choice is one of the Triumph sweet feed products – similar in vitamin & mineral levels to SafeChoice, but a few less “bells & whistles” – it doesn’t have the prebiotics/probiotics, or as much biotin, and slightly lower fat levels. One other alternative might be the SafeChoice Senior – it’s a mix of pellets but is a ‘wet’ feed like a sweet feed, as it is covered in vegetable oil – it might help with his issue.
      Hope that helps – let us know if you have any other questions! Thanks ~ Gina T.

  2. I’m reading through the articles on this site, trying to decide whether I should put my “maintenance” level horses on the same premium feed as my youngsters and broodmares. I’m not finding answers. Please consider writing about why a local feed is INSUFFICIENT if you are adding vitamins and minerals, such as GoStrong. (I feed it to my maintenance guys because, even though it is targeting for youngsters, it’s just convenient for me to give it to the others, too.) Again, my question is — assuming quality hay — why feed premium to maintenance-level adult horses who are in good to “too-fat” condition? (BTW, I am feeding SafeChoice Mare & Foal to my broodies.)

    1. Hello and thank you for your questions! There are a few in here, and I want to answer them all, so I’ll take them one at a time…

      The first question, why feed premium nutrition to a maintenance-level adult in good to too-good body condition?

      I’m so glad you asked this question! This gets to the heart of a matter that many horse owners/managers misunderstand. Feed is not always nutrition. Sometimes a feed provides mainly energy. Energy is not balanced nutrition. While many people equate premium nutrition to providing their horse energy, this is not so.

      All living animals require some amount of energy to survive. Energy is derived from many sources. But energy alone is not sufficient for the body to maintain functions such as muscle repair, tissue and hair regrowth etc., let alone growth or physical performance and recovery. Nutrients such as zinc, lysine, vitamin A and biotin are all critical for the body to be able to carry out these various functions.

      With premium nutrition, these nutrients are guaranteed in the feed to insure your horse has the nutrition to meet their metabolic and performance needs. In addition, the sources of these nutrients (ingredients) are highly available to your horse for absorption, in a premium feed. A true premium feed will also include functional ingredients which enable other nutrients to do their job. While it does add cost to the feed, these ‘extras’ also work to insure your horse is able to digest and benefit from the nutrients provided.

      There are premium feeds available with varying levels of energy to meet the unique needs of many horses. For example, the ration balancer Empower Balance is a premium feed but offers very little in the way of energy. Conversely, while SafeChoice Perform is a premium feed it is loaded with calories! In short, premium nutrition is not equal to energy.

      Should (I) put my “maintenance” level horses on the same premium feed as my youngsters and broodmares?

      Great question! The short answer is, no, and here’s why. Most feeds designed to be fed to broodmares and growing horses (including SafeChoice Mare & Foal) are specially formulated to provide higher calories to meet the energy demand of a growing horse/broodmare. This is more than a maintenance horse requires. Though it may be easier from a management standpoint, you’ll likely be overfeeding the maintenance horse in the calorie department and they’ll start to add too much body condition. Often when that happens, folks will cut back the amount fed in an attempt to reduce the calories consumed – a logical conclusion. However, while this will reduce body weight, the horse is now not receiving the proper amount and balance of all the other nutrients (amino acids, vitamins, minerals, functional ingredients etc.) provided in the feed.

      The best option to provide your maintenance level horse premium nutrition, is to consider a lower calorie option or ration balancer such as Empower Balance. With all the balanced nutrition of a premium feed with reduced calories, Empower Balance is fed at a lower feeding rate per day. With this approach, your maintenance level horse will derive the calories they need from their forage while the Empower Balance fills in the gaps for all the other nutrients.

      Why (is) a local feed insufficient if you are adding vitamins and minerals?

      This is a bit trickier of a question. Back to the answer to your first question, feed is not always nutrition. Sometimes feed is mainly energy.

      In general, local feed formulators do not have access to a research-based library of the nutrient requirements of a horse or, an understanding of how different ingredients are digested in the horse’s body. Therefore, they rely heavily on the National Research Council’s (NRC) book values – that is, an average nutrient profile of many ingredients – to formulate their feeds. This is not to say it is ‘insufficient’, rather, it is not very accurate.

      Why do people buy premium feeds? The most likely answer is, to provide their horse the balanced nutrition they require to look and feel their best. When a horse isn’t provided the nutrients they need in an easily digested form for their life stage or activity level, they struggle. And it starts to show with less shine, less energy, reduced muscle mass, behavior changes, hoof quality and more.

      So while local feeds are not all considered insufficient, they do tend to fall short of the premium category.

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