Spending Too Much Money on Horse Feeds? – Henry & Associates

Spending Too Much Money on Horse Feeds? – Henry & Associates


Spending Too Much Money on Horse Feeds?

How to Avoid Wasting Your Bucks

Vaughn W. Henry, Henry & Associates

Breeding Farm Management Consulting

To paraphrase the old beef council ads, this article is about real food for real horses. With all the emphasis on human nutrition today, it’s become much easier to discuss horse feeding questions because the terms and problems are nearly interchangeable. Horses have similar requirements to people and since there are only six nutrient classifications, let’s quickly see what’s available. Don’t skip this next section, there are a few important points which need to be made before we get into the money angle. If you have access to reputable nutritionists, have them analyze your ration and make recommendations based on individual horse’s needs or groups of horses with similar needs. In the U.S., often the local state land-grant university or Cooperative Extension Service has a specialist responsible for answering questions about horse nutrition needs. As a rule, nutrition “armchair experts” at the local feed store or coffee shop lack the required background to answer technical questions, so it makes sense to look beyond the advertising hype and “old wives’ tales” and get to the real basics of nutrition for solutions to your feeding problems.

  • Water
  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins
  • Fats
  • Minerals (ash)
  • Vitamins

Water – probably the single most overlooked and cheapest nutrient, an adult horse will consume 10-20 gallons of water per day. Consumption is influenced by the environment (mostly temperature and humidity), work, lactation, stress, illness, dryness and texture of feed, mineral content of the feed and availability. Some areas of the country have such poor water quality that animals will not drink adequate water because of odor, mineral content (hardness) or contamination. Since your animal’s health depends on receiving adequate water, do not under supply this important nutrient. In the winter, many digestive upsets could be avoided if horses had more free access to water. There is nothing magical about this nutrient, but sometimes common sense management is often overlooked. Occasionally water consumption will be reduced in the winter because poorly grounded electrically heated waterers shock the horse enough to discourage drinking. Good managers take extra effort to assure ice-free water sources and avoid unnecessary colics. Horse owners who frequently travel with horses occasionally are often faced with horses refusing water in trailers or vans, so they will flavor the water prior to a trip and continue adding mint or similar extracts to disguise regional differences in water quality. While it’s rare that a healthy horse will over consume water, be extra careful if it has been withheld for a long time or the horse is overheated.

Energy is provided in the ration by only three of the six nutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. After water, energy sources are the next most important requirements to be met. Energy is needed for all metabolic activities, especially for performances for which horses are best known, like work and sport. The ability for feed sources to provide energy to horses is measured in calories and it’s important to remember that rapidly growing horses expected to work expend great quantities of energy. Sometimes it’s physically impossible for these horses to consume enough feed to meet the needs of both work and growth, so one or the other suffers.

Since carbohydrates are usually the cheapest source of calories for the horse, this article will emphasize their use. As a plant eating non ruminant, the horse breaks down carbohydrates from two primary sources, grains and roughages. Since the horse has not evolved with an efficient means of digesting roughage with high cellulose (fiber) content, roughage quality is very important. On the other hand, cattle, sheep and other ruminants are able to utilize lower quality roughage because the digestive fermenting processes effectively use micro-organisms. These symbiotic organisms, which have a beneficial partnership arrangement with their host, predigest roughage which then can be absorbed readily in the intestine. While it’s true that the horse has significant microbial action; this activity is found in the colon and the cecum which are anatomically located after the small intestine, the primary site of nutrient absorption. With such an “after-burner” arrangement, equines are going to be less efficient in digesting fiber, and horse owners need to keep that in mind when purchasing feed products. Short change the horse in the feed department, and you diminish potential growth, work and performance, so in many cases, it’s false economy to buy poor quality feed products and then try to provide the required nutrients in the form of expensive supplements.

Proteins, composed of amino acids, are building blocks for muscle and tissue, making up about 20% of the mature horse’s weight. Protein requirements depend on the stage of the horse’s growth or production, as growing foals and lactating mares need more protein than mature working horses. Protein use is based on the quality and balance of amino acids which make up protein structure and digestibility for the horse. Although leather scraps are superficially as much a protein source as soybean meal, leather isn’t very digestible, so these scraps aren’t useful as protein supplements. So it’s more important to know what goes into a feed product making up the reported crude protein (% C.P.) content, as not all proteins are used by the horse equally. A few feed manufacturers promote their products by marketing crude protein evaluations, but C.P. is actually only a measure of nitrogen content, not nutrient utilization by the horse. Smart horse owners learn to look at feed sources, digestible protein levels and amino acid balance instead of just crude protein numbers on feed tags. Overfeeding protein is economically a serious problem on many farms, and feeding excess protein for energy is a real waste. When meeting the horse’s requirements with a good quality feed, protein provided above individual requirements will not enhance your horse’s performance and may actually cause harm. Besides, in a poorly ventilated barn, you can always smell the ammonia associated with farms feeding excessive protein supplements, and that’s not healthy either.

Fats are concentrated sources of energy and are well tolerated by horses. Often they are added to rations to increase energy content, palatability, reduce dust, keep supplements well mixed in the ration, improve hair coat and provide a source of fat soluble vitamins and the building blocks for natural steroid hormones. Fats may be subject to spoilage in warm weather and should be limited to about 5-8% of the ration in most cases.

Minerals (ash) form the basis for the skeletal system, many hormones and enzymes, and are necessary for normal metabolic functions. As a rule, minerals are supplied in varying quantities by feed products and will depend on the soil and growing conditions, maturity of the plant when harvested, digestibility and availability of minerals and their interactions within the ration. Most of the emphasis will be on macrominerals (calcium, phosphorus, sodium, chloride, potassium, sulfur and magnesium) and microminerals, those needed in smaller quantities (zinc, selenium, copper, iron, cobalt, iodine, fluorine, manganese). Generally a calcium-phosphorus source and trace mineral salt will satisfy most horse’s mineral requirements if they receive a well balanced ration of good quality feedstuffs. However, there are areas of the country that have serious deficiencies of some minerals and excesses of others, so consult your local nutritionist about potential shortages or toxic influences. The calcium:phosphorus ratio is one of the best known of mineral inter-actions, but there many others which make a mineral “team” work within a good feed product. Mineral imbalances are much more common and usually more severe than vitamin problems, so pay attention to those numbers on your feed tag.

Owners typically focus on vitamin supplementation to solve problems, whether the problem is nutritional or not. Unfortunately vitamin requirements are not as well understood in the horse as in other species, but supplementation may be needed if the ration is of poor quality or if the horse is under stress from excessive training or illness. By themselves vitamins will not provide energy to a horse, but they are necessary for the horse to properly utilize feed products. Generally a high quality ration or good pasture will supply the vitamins needed by most horses, the fat soluble A,D,E,K and water soluble B and C vitamins. Fat soluble vitamins can be fed to excess, and these often cause toxicity problems and impair growth, so keep in mind that “more is not better”. Excessive water soluble vitamins are generally excreted in the urine and feces, making it a expensive waste product, so don’t overfeed vitamin supplements, as it’s more efficient to just pour them down the drain rather than pass them through the horse.

Feed By Weight, Not Volume!

For convenience, horse owners like to feed their horses by volume (quarts, scoops or gallons) while the directions found on most products calls for feeding by weight. If you feed by volume you will be inconsistent in ration mixing and feeding. The average owner will heap the coffee can full one time and take a quick swipe through the grain the next. Your employees may define the scoop of grain and flake of hay directions you left on the stall door differently from your intentions and that does nothing for the horse except promote more colics. Inconsistency is really hard on horses, and well managed farms learn to avoid it by establishing programs that everyone can follow. Feed requirements are based on body weight and activity, so both young and old horses should be weighed or weight taped to keep current on their rate of gain or loss. After all, a pound is a pound and feeding by weight will be a more cost effective way to control your expensive grain and hay consumption, resulting in less waste. You will be more likely to spot changes with a scale or girth measurement than with your eye. When you see a horse every day, little incremental changes aren’t very noticeable.

Temper this advice with good sense, if a horse weaves in his stall or is particularly fretful, then it will use more calories than the placid nag standing under the shade tree. Caloric recommendations are just that, you have to tailor the numbers to fit the individual. On one occasion I calculated a ration for a weaned foal owned by a novice. Through the whole routine explanation about protein, mineral and energy needs for this transitional foal I eventually developed a nice easy ration which would work satisfactorily. A year later she told me the foal wasn’t growing well at all. I asked what she was feeding and she said, “exactly what you told me to – 6 lbs. of grain and roughage as calculated last Spring”. Silly me, I assumed that she understood all of my comments and would boost the ration proportionally as the foal grew and its requirements increased accordingly. Accordingly, I have found out that the word assume must evolve from a phrase about making an “ass of u and me”. So try to be even more explicit when asking for advice, even to the point of presuming nothing about nutrition when talking to your advisor.

How Much Does My Horse Weigh?

Commercial weight tapes are usually within 5% accuracy, which is better than an eyeball guesstimate and are cheaper to buy than livestock scales. Plus it is easier to use a tape than try to get the horse to hold still on your bathroom scales. As you haul your horse to shows or the veterinarian, many feed elevators have scales that will accommodate your horse, stop and ask to weigh. Remember that knowing the horse’s weight is also important in the use of many medications, so invest in an inexpensive weight tape and quit guessing.

Focus on energy needs

Since energy is the most expensive component of your horse’s diet and the one many horse owners neglect, you must emphasize its importance. Too many times an owner will shortchange the diet in calories and the horse will perform poorly. To solve the problem, the owner or trainer will turn to vitamin supplements, tonics, blood builders and other gimmicks. When equine nutritionist, Dr. Steve Jackson, was at the University of Kentucky, he often mentioned, in jest, using powdered bat wings as a feed supplement. It sums up nicely the mystique that surrounds ration formulation. Someone will develop a secret feed formula that is supposed to do everything necessary to make a horse win, then everybody tries to jump on the bandwagon and feed the same product. Many horse owners and trainers are the world’s best mimics, always looking for some new scheme and neglecting the basics. There are no secrets, just pay attention to basic details.

Not every calorie is efficiently converted into useful work. Just as a car engine wastes some fuel through friction, exhaust and heat, a horse will lose efficiency through waste products, methane, body heat, etc. However, calories are calories, and there are four kilocalories (kcal) produced from each gram of protein or carbohydrate and nine kcal. from each gram of fat. In theory you could meet a 1,000 pound horse’s caloric requirements with 64 MarsĀ® candy bars. However, just as with people, this is not the preferred ration because other critical nutrients are neglected. But to prove a point, look at the following ration provided by just 7 pounds of candy (please note, theobromine in chocolate is probably toxic to horses; I only used the candy as an example of empty calories):

63.58 candy bars provides these nutrients per bar Nutrients per day supplied just by candy bars Daily nutritional requirements of a 1000 lb. idle horse
240 Calories 15,259 Calories (kcal.) 15,259 Calories
4 gm. Protein 254.3 gm. Protein 600 gm. Protein
85 mg. Sodium 5,404.3 mg. Sodium 7,500 mg. Sodium

On evaluation, this limited ration is short on protein, sodium and other important nutrients, but the candy bars did meet the energy needs of an idle mature horse. So you see the whole picture is important and balance is the key.

Cheaper isn’t always better, different feed mills have varying standards for storage, feed quality, ethics, professional advice, standardization and so on. Sometimes a more expensive feed is cheaper in the long run rather than paying for colics and crooked legs on youngsters. One concern that should always be addressed deals with molds or toxins in grains and roughages. Your feed supplier should know that the feed is used for horses, as there are additives used for other species that are toxic to horses. Equines have less tolerance for poor feed quality than many other animals, so consistency and quality are important factors in selecting your feed dealers. On an operation of any size, feed cost is also a significant factor. For example a horse farm paying 19.5 cents for each pound of their commercially bagged feed considered a number of changes for the following reasons:

  1. The feed suppliers were 70-100 miles from the farm and when the employees took the farm truck to get feed, it always turned into an all day adventure. Besides the cost of the feed, labor and a vehicle had to be paid for as well.
  2. The commercial ration was a good one, but a 16+% Crude Protein (CP) formulation for this farm that had mostly overweight and aged broodmares was excessive. Already they fed a predominantly high quality alfalfa hay ration, so why pay for the extra and unneeded protein in the commercial product?
  3. Although the ration was calculated to serve the highest nutritional need for weanling foals, it was fed to all of the animals. There was no ability to customize the ration for different groups of horses and their various needs. Even if you didn’t count the waste of feed and money, which was prohibitive, it still couldn’t effectively meet the needs of all the horses.
  4. The farm staff was mostly self taught about nutrition and followed the confused horse owners’ rule, “if a little is good, then more is better”. By purchasing lots of exotic vitamin supplements to add to this already over-rich feed product, several young horses were crippled due to vitamin and mineral imbalances.

Simple solutions about storage, smart buying, appropriate feeding to individuals or similar groups and types of horses cut the feed bill significantly. What’s significant? In a group of 100 horses consuming an average of 8 lbs. of grain per day, feed grain costs at this farm averaged $56,940 per year, not counting labor and vehicle costs for transportation. After a review of procedures and needs, the grain and supplement expenses were dropped to less than $15,000 and all of the labor and vehicle costs were removed by smarter bidding and buying procedures. Additionally rations were tailored to meet the specific needs of each group of horses, and that reduced the number leg problems in their growing horses. It pays to shop wisely, but you should look at the whole picture with professional advice. Many recommendations from your state horse specialist, many professional nutrition experts or the Cooperative Extension Service are free, so use those resources wisely.

Make decisions based on: cost, ease of use, safety, availability, etc.

Let’s see how one would calculate the nutrients for two common rations typically used for an idle, mature horse using just alfalfa hay and corn and compare it to a common timothy hay and oats ration. To meet this “maintenance” ration, I used just two ingredients only for simplicity, as most rations would add an inexpensive vitamin-mineral supplement to fill in the gaps as needed. A column after each ration’s analysis shows either a (+) that indicates the ration meets or exceeds the requirement or a (-) that indicates there is a shortage in the ration for that particular nutrient, as defined by the N.R.C. Even though the weight of the two rations is equal, the actual nutrients provided to the horse are much different.

NUTRIENTS REQUIRED FOR MAINTENANCE 6.5 lbs. Oats and 11 lbs. of Timothy Hay Provides Nutrients 6.5 lbs. Corn and 11 lbs. of Alfalfa Hay Provides Nutrients
Digestible energy 15.0 Mcal/day 13.1 Mcal/day 16.6 Mcal/day
Crude protein 600 gms/day 556 gms/day 990 gms/day
Lysine 21 gms/day 7.82 gms/day 43.2 gms/day
Calcium 18.1 gms/day 17.37 gms/day 60.23 gms/day
Phosphorus 12.7 gms/day 12.9 gms/day 15.9 gms/day
Magnesium 6.8 gms/day 6.5 gms/day 17.47 gms/day
Potassium 23 gms/day 73.9 gms/day 74.2 gms/day
Sodium 7.5 gms/day 3.8 gms/day 5.9 gms/day
Sulfur 11.3 gms/day 10.7 gms/day 14.6 gms/day
Iron 300 mg/day 1071 mg/day 1036 mg/day
Zinc 300 mg/day 70.2 mg/day 171.4 mg/day
Copper 75 mg/day 12.0 mg/day 84.2 mg/day
Manganese 300 mg/day 72.3 mg/day 129.3 mg/day
Selenium 0.8 mg/day 0.4 mg/day 2.4 mg/day
Vitamin A 13609 IU/day 83541 IU/day 224632 IU/day
Vitamin D 2251 IU/day 9197 IU/day 9555 IU/day
Vitamin E 375 IU/day 94.0 IU/day 99.7 IU/day

A quick look at the two ration options shows how just two ingredients may supply most of the requirements of a mature horse for maintenance. The quantities may be adjusted upward to accommodate increased needs for work, but there may still be deficiencies and imbalances and that’s why feed companies pay nutritionists “big money” to solve these problems. Keep in mind that excesses can be a serious problem for some nutrients, so moderation is important.

Buying Feed on Volume Measurements

A practical quiz on your feed buying abilities. As you go into the local feed store or elevator and note that the price of oats posted at $2.20 per bushel and corn at $2.60 per bushel. You immediately decide that oats is the better buy, right?

Cash price per bushel (volume) $2.20 $2.60
1 Bushel weighs 32 lbs. 56 lbs.
Cost per pound in cents 6.875 4.643
1 pound yields these calories 1,300 kcal 1,540 kcal
Kilo Calories purchased for 1 cent 189.1 331.7

Who’d a thought it? You get 75% more calories with corn for the same penny. Remember that energy (calorie) costs to support your horse typically run somewhere around 70-80% of your feed budget, so counting calories has more than one meaning in the business. There are three major grains used in horse feeds in the U.S.: oats, corn and barley. Corn has taken a lot of abuse as a horse feed because it is packed with calories, compared to the more fibrous oats, and horse owners typically insist on feeding by volume and not weight. Corn can be safely used and is a great horse feed, if and only if you substitute the calories supplied from oats or barley with corn, CALORIE for CALORIE. If you insist on feeding by scoop or coffee can (imprecise volumes at best), then you’re going to dump significantly more energy, nearly twice the calories, into your horse’s feed bucket. Colic, founder and excessive weight gains probably will result from this mistake. Make your feed transitions slowly to allow the horse’s digestive system time to accommodate the change in your new feed source and there usually shouldn’t be any problems. There are a lot of myths associated with grain feeding in horses, and corn has a big share of them. The same basic analysis should be performed on all of your feed sources, in order to get the most value for your dollar. Tougher economic times require the horse owner to look at all of the costs associated with keeping their animals. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and examine the ways you’ve been budgeting your farm’s feed expenses. Too often, we spend money by habit, rather than because there is a specific need. A good plan will allow you to reach your goals and still control your costs.

The National Research Council (N.R.C.) has the services of the most respected nutritionists in the U.S on developing equine requirements and feed use. For those interested, the NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses publication is available from the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 20418 for about $20. It’s a technical publication filled with tables, so it’s not something to read for pure enjoyment. It has information on topics of concern to all horse owners and should be a part of your library. For computer users, an accompanying diskette is easy to install and use, offering recommendations for your ration development. The diskette is a little limited in its application, if you plan to mix types of horses in your planning, but it offers you a good starting point. For the computer spreadsheet aficionado, it’s a snap to develop a ration calculation template that uses the most common feed and hay products for your area. You can customize it with actual feed evaluation numbers, rather than the estimates, if your feeds are routinely analyzed.

There are two ways to calculate energy requirements, use a calculator /computer and a complicated scientific calculation or use the Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) system. The old worksheet distributed by Purina Mills uses the older and simpler TDN system based on the horse’s weight x 0.8 lbs. TDN per 100 lbs. of horse weight as an estimate of energy needs. Based on the assumption that the heavier the horse, the more energy was needed and this system was used for many years. The old TDN rules of thumb generally worked well, but it presumed the energy needs were directly related to weight. In reality, the larger horse’s needs are less than projected, because the relationship is not a straight line math function (for example a 1000 lb. horse does not require 10 times the calories of a 100 lb. foal). The more complicated metabolic weight calculation is considered to be more accurate, but it’s hard to do in your head. In 1989 the NRC recommended a third and more detailed means of calculations to estimate energy needs, but I still typically use the previous system because I’ve had good results with it and it works well for me in the field. Energy calculations are only estimates after all, because the individual horse’s activities and quirks do affect calorie use and it’s impossible to keep a horse in a metabolic crate like many lab animals and still expect them to be athletes.

Disclaimer – The practice of formulating equine rations is a complex one, and you should consult with your professional advisors before making significant changes to your horse rations. This article is not designed to replace competent professional advisors, instead it should be used as a means to encourage owners to ask questions and seek competent advice.

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