Deciding what type of feeder to use in a barn seems like a simple decision. But there are many choices, each with its own list of benefits. Which option is right for you?
INSIDE THE STALL
Without a doubt, the most common grain feeders are plastic and rubber buckets and corner feeders. These are inexpensive, easy to purchase and require virtually no installation. Simply bolt them to a wall or, in the case of buckets, hang a snap, and you’re all set. Of course, with corner feeders, wasted grain and saliva in the crevices can be problems. Fortunately, there are now several brands that offer a raised lip around the edges to prevent excess feed from accumulating where a horse’s tongue can’t reach; look for these to keep mice and mold away.
With rubber and plastic so inexpensive, why consider using anything else? “First, they are easily scored,” notes Scott Torticill of Nelson Manufacturing Co., “and once you get a nick in the bucket, it creates a groove where bacteria, microorganisms, mold and fungi will grow. But you can’t clean it because plastic and rubber are highly porous [permeable]. That means that the bacteria and other organisms that get into those grooves can’t be destroyed. You can scrub those buckets, but you’ll never get them sanitized.
“The second reason plastic and rubber are bad,” continues Torticill, “is that they can be a hazard. Horses will kick and break them, or they will weaken in time and crack, causing sharp edges. Also, the handles can get ripped off and hurt a horse.”
Other options include aluminum and painted, galvanized or stainless steel. For aluminum, Dennis Marion, the president of Innovative Equine Systems, advises using bowls that are 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch thick. “They’re large, round and almost indestructible,” he says. Be cautious with painted steel, as the paint can chip. Once chipped, rust can form. Consider using galvanized steel instead, or even better, steel that has been powder coated, meaning the rust-resistant coating was applied using high heat during the manufacturing process.
The only real drawback to these feeders is that they can be difficult for horses to get everything, so look for units with drain holes or a spherical shaped bottom where the feed goes to a single low point. Torticill recommends using stainless steel feeders because they have a smooth surface and can be easily cleaned and sanitized. Also, instead of purchasing stand-alone bowls, Torticill suggests units where the bowl can be removed from either a wall-mounted or free-standing frame. This way, the bowl can be cleaned outside the stall, without the horse interfering. Be sure the feeder has a feed retention lip so the grain can’t get between the bowl and top of the unit.
Also make note of the gauge and grade of steel that is used on these units. The lower the gauge, the thicker (and thus stronger) the steel, while the grade will vary depending on the use. Torticill suggests a 12-gauge rating on the protective housing, while 16-gauge is excellent for the bowl. As for grade, a rating in the low 300s is preferable.
Regardless of the type of feeder you choose, place it far away from the waterer. Marion notes that “many people want the waterers and feeders together in the front of the stall for easy feeding. But horses like to wash their food in their water, so put the waterer diagonally opposite of the feeders. That way, even though the horses may still do it, it will cut down on the mess.” He also suggests creating a small privacy panel between stalls where feeders in adjoining stalls share a grilled wall. “That way,” explains Marion, “when the horses are fed, they’re not looking at the horse next to them. It helps prevent kicking and fighting.”
With so many products turning futuristic, it is only natural that horse feeders would eventually follow suit. HayDay, LLC, introduced a programmable hay dispenser a few years ago. The feeder mounts on any solid, flat wall and dispenses loose or flake hay at timed intervals.
Co-owner Dan Fehringer came up with the idea while searching for a feeding method that would mimic a horse’s natural grazing. Rather than feeding his horse twice a day, he felt it would be better for his horse to have smaller amounts of hay offered at more regular intervals. Unfortunately, like so many people, Fehringer spent most of his time at his job. The Stable Grazer, a battery-operated (to avoid wiring and power outage problems), automated hay feeder, was the result. Next on the horizon? Look for an optional grain feeder attachment with which you can also feed supplements.
For hay, the most common solution is to simply throw the flakes on the floor of the stall. Of course, the hay may get mixed with manure or ruined by horses who like to mix their hay into the bedding. One solution is to use a wall feeder that will hold from one to three flakes of hay, keeping it clean. Wall feeders can be as simple as a galvanized rack bolted to the wall or as fancy as a complete grain/hay unit with heavy-duty plastic catch trays for the grain (remember the cleaning difficulties).
There is some disagreement about feeding hay above ground level. As Marion explains, “We believe that horses should be fed on the ground, and we don’t sell anything that is used two feet or higher off the ground. I’ve talked to several vets who say they see it all the time—horses eating hay who are not in grazing position [with head down]. They are susceptible to having the hay get caught in their throats. If you watch horses when they eat from feeders, you’ll notice that they take the hay out and eat it off the ground anyway.”
Marion has numerous clients who build a corner floor manger for hay with several planks of wood. Of course, then you have the problem of a horse catching a hoof on the manger, so be sure to build it high enough to prevent this problem. Plastic versions of these mangers are also available, but Marion believes the safest method is to simply place the hay on the stall floor. (In areas where sand colic can be a problem, be sure to use a stall mat.)
Outside feeders are popular because they can drastically cut down on the time it takes to feed a barn full of horses—there’s no need to open and shut door after door. As with interior feeders, there are several varieties to choose from. Probably the most common is an opening on the steel grating of the stall so hay and grain can be slipped through to a waiting bowl. Another choice is a swing door on the lower, wooden portion of the stall front with a feeder attached. When not in use, the side with the bowl is kept outside the stall. The feeding bowls for these systems vary from a simple attached aluminum feeder to a stainless steel outer housing with an inner bowl that can be removed for cleaning. A similar system is one in which a portion of the metal grating is made into a swing door. The door is on hinges and swings out for feeding.
Every internal stall feeder, from corner feeders to deluxe, wall-mounted units with removable bowls, are relatively quick and simple to install. Most require only a flat surface and several bolts. Unfortunately, external feeding systems are not as easy and uncomplicated. Many of those we interviewed suggested that swing doors are best installed when the barn is built. To retro-fit a 20-stall barn, they argue, would be cost-prohibitive. Even for a simple swing door, notes Torticill, “You’d have to change the whole front stall panel, or at least remove some of the 2 x 6 tongue and groove boards. It would certainly require some construction work.” Adds Marion, “Retro-fitting is not a good option. It is just too expensive. Also, even adding a simple opening to the metal grating doesn’t make sense. You would have to cut the grate, which would require a welder. That would ruin the coating on the steel, whether powder coated or galvanized, and then rust could get into the steel.”
There are, however, units that can be installed onto the wooden portion of the stall front without too much trouble, says Dave Goossens of Country Manufacturing. “They come with a pre-fabricated frame that screws into the wood. The frame and screws will actually add strength to your stall. You can set the door height where you want it, and then you simply saw out the frame size.” Goossens also contends that installing a metal feeding unit into the grating above the wood is not too difficult. “If you can handle a hacksaw, then you can put one of these in your stall,” he says.
The price of feeders varies from $10 for a simple bucket to several hundred dollars for swivel-door feeders. Although plastic and rubber feeders are inexpensive, you should figure replacement units into your costs. Top quality, heavy-duty aluminum feeders cost about $80, far more than plastic. Galvanized hay racks are inexpensive, with an average price of $25. But once you add a grain feeder to that rack, the price jumps anywhere from $75 to $150. Swing out hay/grain feeders can vary greatly in price, in large part due to styling, construction and the amount of corrosion resistance you need. On average, expect to spend between $100 and $300.
Don’t overlook the benefits of choosing a feeding system that works well for your stable. Making the right choice can save money on wasted feed and replacement feeders as well as save time.