Feeding horses can be enough of a challenge, without having to wonder if what you’ve heard lately is true. Here, we bust five common horse feed myths to help you out.
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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?
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 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!
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…
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:
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.
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!
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?
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.