In The Bag

With the many different types of feed available, it’s hard to figure out what is best for the horses in your barn. Start by reading the label.

It’s part of the routine, like that first cup of coffee: you reach into the feed bin for the rations that were prepared the night before, while the horses wait none-too-patiently for breakfast. You measure out just the right amount of feed for each horse. But how do you know that the feed itself is everything the label says it is?

Not once, as you walk down the aisle doling out the feed, do you think of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the agency that provides the guidelines manufacturers follow in formulating the ingredients in that feed, and consequently listed on the tags. Understanding those tags will help ensure that your horses are receiving the nutrition they need.

Judith Reynolds, Ph.D., P.A.S., Dipl. A.C.A.N., equine nutritionist, equine product and technical manager with ADM Alliance Nutrition, recommends choosing feeds that are balanced to the needs of your horse, with forage as the base of the diet.

“When choosing a bagged feed, it is very important to consider the forage source first, then choose the concentrate that will supply any nutrients missing in the forage,”she says. The tags will identify the type and class of horse for which the feed is designed, along with the feeding rate and directions for optimum use. “The tag will also help you compare prices, but make sure you choose a similar quantity of nutrient guarantees, quality of ingredients, and feeding rate for comparisons,” she cautions.


Equine feeds are divided into four categories: textured feeds, pelleted or extruded concentrates, complete feeds, and nutritional supplements. Deciphering these terminologies is the first step toward making an informed choice.

Textured feeds or “sweet feeds.” Mixed grains, whether whole or processed—cracked, rolled, crimped, flaked—are combined with molasses for a high degree of palatability, and are presented in a more natural form so that you can examine the individual ingredients. However, textured feeds may also contain pelleted forage or roughage products, i.e. beet pulp, alfalfa meal and/or soybean hulls, along with fats, such as vegetable oil and/or stabilized rice bran, to the lower the starch content that is linked to a number of metabolic and excitability conditions often referred to as equine grain associated disorders.

Pelleted or extruded concentrates. According to AAFCO, a concentrate is a mix of ingredients intended to provide a desired balance of nutrients, and intended to be used with another nutrient source, such as hay, that when combined together will provide a total balanced ration.

Pellets are comprised of ingredients that have been ground up, mixed thoroughly, heated and forced through a pellet die to create a homogenous product. Their smaller size increases the digestibility of some ingredients. Pellets can be fed dry, or mixed with water to create a soft feed for horses with dental problems. They also eliminate the opportunity for horses to choose certain ingredients while refusing others.

Extruded feeds are forced through a die opening under high heat and pressure, resulting in a nugget that is less dense than a pellet. Since the ingredients are “cooked,” there may be a higher degree of nutrient availability, and with the kibble-like form that may help slow the rate of consumption, the higher cost of extruded feeds may be worth the higher cost.

Compared to textured feeds, both pelleted and extruded feeds are easier to handle in cold weather, keep flies at bay during the summer, and have a longer shelf life, due to their low molasses content.

Complete Feeds. These combine concentrates and forages in one product. They typically have a higher fiber content than textured feeds and pelleted/extruded concentrates, though the energy content can vary widely, depending on the amount of fat/oil added. Horses with allergies (dust in long-stemmed hays can be a source of allergies), those with certain medical conditions, and senior horses with dental issues all tend to do well with this type of feed. As important, these feeds may be fed at a higher rate without metabolic danger or behavioral changes when compared with other types of feed, especially if good quality hay is very expensive or not available. Complete feeds are also great to use when traveling.

Note that the term “complete” is sometimes confused with the term “concentrate.” A concentrate, remember, must be combined with hay to form a total daily ration.

Nutritional Supplements. Vitamin and mineral supplements, possibly containing additional protein, are meant to balance out non-caloric, nutrient deficiencies in the diet. Commonly used for broodmares and growing horses, and when the forage is of poor quality, they also can benefit overweight horses and easy-keepers who don’t need the extra calories found in concentrates.


Feed tags cite a variety of ingredients under the “Guaranteed Analysis” banner, including protein, grains, grain products, grain by-products, roughage products, minerals and vitamins, and feed additives. Some of these are more clearly defined than others, and it’s important to understand how precise (or not) the “guarantee” is.

By way of explanation, David Kirk, PhD, director of nutrition at Pennfield Animal Feed Technologies, talks about the difference between “descriptive” and “collective” feed terms.

“When individual ingredients are clearly spelled out, it ensures that what is recorded on the tag is actually included in the bag,” Dr. Kirk says. Oats and corn are two examples of descriptive terms.

“However, when a particular ingredient group is listed, known as a collective term, the feed may contain one or more of many different ingredients within that group,” he says. “Collective terms recognize a general classification of ingredient origin, which perform a similar function, but do not imply equivalent nutritional values.” When a collective term is used, individual ingredients within that group are not listed on the label.

Even though the nutritional analysis remains the same, he says, there is more than a little wiggle room when it comes to changing, modifying or substituting ingredients. According to Dr. Kirk, “The manufacturer may substitute ingredients based on what is either available or least expensive, while maintaining the same nutrient guarantees found on the tag.”

There can be consequences to this ambiguity. “Roughage products,” for example, frequently include soybean hulls and beet pulp, nutritious spin-offs of the milling process. But “roughage products” may also contain peanut hulls. These are used as cheap fillers; they are lacking in nutrients, and worse, prone to containing harmful mold-based mycotoxins.

Then there are proteins. “Animal protein products” often are used to increase the concentration of proteins. This collective term includes wholesome dried milk protein and dried whey (by-products of the dairy industry), but can also include hydrolyzed poultry feathers and hydrolyzed hair. Dr. Kirk acknowledges these are extreme examples of the potential risks of using feeds that include collective terms on the feed tag, but they show the benefit of descriptive terms.


While labeling standards for commercial manufacturers are controlled by AAFCO, the actual product standards depend on the manufacturer. Randel Raub, PhD and director of horse business development and technical service for Land O’Lakes Purina Feed, recommends that horse owners and managers look to reputable manufacturers that have established protocols for reviewing and approving suppliers who provide consistent, high-quality ingredients. “Even with suppliers that have high standards of selection, extra precautions need to be taken, since the nutrient content and quality of specific ingredients can vary greatly depending on many factors, such as growing, harvesting and storage conditions,” he adds.

Further, he notes, the FDA requires manufacturers to report only minimums and maximums of certain ingredients, not exact amounts. Plus, while the FDA suggests that manufacturers list ingredients in descending order from the greatest percentage content to the least, as they are for human and pet foods, the practice is not required. So what you think is a featured ingredient may not be.

Dr. Reynolds underscores the importance of looking for feeds that have consistent formulas, and notes that some brands list their ingredients in order of nutritional importance. “Featuring premium ingredients ‘up front,’ such as stabilized rice bran [a highly digestible fat and fiber source], flaxseed [rich in Omega 3 essential fatty acids, which reduce inflammation and may provide protection against cardiovascular disease and arthritis], and vegetable oils [a source of Omega 6 essential fatty acids, important for maintaining healthy skin and hair-coat, and help to maintain hormonal and emotional stability], to name three, while more costly, testifies to the value the manufacturer places on providing high-quality, balanced nutrition programs on a consistent basis,” Dr. Reynolds says. In addition, feeds with 200 IU or more per pound of natural-source vitamin E (d-alpha tocopheryl), a powerful antioxidant, helps ensure you are getting high quality equine feed, he says.


As you read the “guaranteed analysis” more closely, you’ll see that it details the nutrient content of the feed for each of the main nutrient categories required by AAFCO. Use this to match up the appropriate concentrate with your forage to meet your horse’s daily nutritional requirements, says Emily D. Lamprecht, Ph.D. and innovation development manager for Cargill Animal Nutrition’s Nutrena and Acco brands.

Keep in mind that the guaranteed analysis only applies to the feed in that product, not the whole diet, she adds. “The feeding rate of hay and concentrate—pounds per meal or pounds per day—determines the nutrition a horse receives, not the percentages on the feed tag. Testing your hay for nutrient content, as well as working with an equine specialist to select the concentrate that will complement the forage nutrient profile, is the best way to ensure your horse gets a balanced diet,” she concludes.

Now, about those terms:

Minimum Percentage of Crude Protein. Horses need varying amounts of protein depending on their life-stage and activity level. Amino acids (components of protein) are essential for muscle development, tissue growth, repair and general maintenance. Protein can take many forms, but it is important to look for ingredients a horse can best utilize, such as soybean meal or linseed meal. Dr. Lamprecht says that it is also important to make sure a horse is receiving a high quality protein, determined by amino acid content vs. a certain volume of crude protein.

According to AAFCO, the percentage of crude protein is the portion of the total weight of the feed that is comprised of crude protein. For instance, 10 lbs. of a 14% protein feed will net 1.4 lbs. of crude protein. To meet the needs of a wide range of horses, commercial feed companies offer a variety of formulations, from 8% to 16% crude protein. Keep in mind that the protein in your hay may meet most of the protein requirement for mature, non-working horses.

Dr. Lamprecht disputes the general conception that protein is equated with energy. She views protein as a very inefficient source of energy. “Adding fat from plant sources to the equine diet is a far more efficient way to provide calories,” she says.

Minimum Percentage of Crude Fat. Dr. Lamprecht says that the densest sources of energy are found in fats; they have more than twice the calories, calculated by weight, of carbohydrates. “As with the protein percentages, crude fat is also calculated as a part of the total weight of the feed; the higher the percentage, the higher the energy content, and the less total feed that is needed to meet energy demands,” she says.

When adding fat, she continues, “it is important to pay attention to the other nutrients in the diet as well, in order to maintain the proper energy to nutrient ratio, or overall balance in the diet.” That said, fat in feeds may run the gamut up to 10%, since manufacturers are lately tending to increase the percentages of fats to counter the calories lost from leaving starch out of modern rations. This is a decidedly healthier approach to adding energy.

Maximum percentage of crude fiber. Fiber is an essential component of any equine diet, and provides an important source of energy as well as supporting gastrointestinal health. Ingredients such as soybean hulls, dried beet pulp, and alfalfa meal can be very effective in supplying dietary fiber to support these needs. On the other hand, grains such as oats are low in fiber when compared to forages or hay, but are higher in fiber when compared with corn or wheat. The crude fiber percentages, which also are figured by the portion of fiber in relation to the total weight of the feed, can range from 4% to 8% for high-carbohydrate/low-fiber feeds, and up to 12% to 25% for high-fiber/low-carb feeds.

Mineral minimums and maximums. Calcium and phosphorus are two of the most important minerals in the roster, especially for young, growing horses and lactating mares. Feeds formulated for them typically contain a 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus. Horse feeds should always contain more calcium than phosphorus.

Grains always have more phosphorus than calcium; hays usually have more calcium than phosphorus. So, to ensure a balance between them, concentrates will have calcium content from 0.3% to a high of 1.0%, while phosphorus content can range from 0.25% to 0.6%. “Properly formulated feeds take ingredient mineral content into account by including other calcium and phosphorous sources to provide for a correct balance,” Dr. Lamprecht notes.

Micro-minerals are measured in milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg), which measures parts per million (PPM). These minerals include copper, which, like calcium, is important for growing horses, but is measured at 10 to 50 PPM of the total feed; and selenium, which is recommended at 0.1 to 0.3 PPM added in the total ration.

Commercial feed manufacturers use different ingredients and methods to make feeds appropriate for all types of horses. By reading the feed tags, you can better understand which feeds are best for the horses in your care. The take-home message is “do your homework and really know what’s in your feeds to determine if they’re actually doing the job you want them to.” It takes some effort, but finding the right balance can make the difference in your horses’ well being and performance.






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