Taking proper care of your grain supply can not only save you money, but will also ensure that the horses in your care (and not the rodents) get their proper meal.
Before deciding on the type of container to use, you should first understand the basics of grain spoilage. There are several reasons why feed may go bad, although the primary causes of moldy, rotten grain are excessive moisture content and high temperatures.
Ideally, moisture levels in grain should be below 13 percent, as anything above this will encourage microorganisms (and mites) to grow. But don’t let the moisture level drop too low either because that can cause excessive grain breakage (which, in turn, gives microorganisms access to the interior of the kernel). How do you know what the moisture content is in your grain? If it is not posted on your grain bags, then you can have a sample tested at a lab. Check with your feed dealer first, though, because some companies will do it for you.
Different grains have different moisture contents and thus spoil at different rates, explains Jeanne van der Veen, an animal nutritionist at Blue Seal Feeds in Londonderry, N.H. Sweet feeds, with an abundance of molasses and sugar, are particularly prone to moisture-related problems. “Molasses contains about 75 percent water,” notes van der Veen, “so when you mix it with grains, you end up with a feed that’s about 12 percent moisture. Some of that moisture gets soaked into the feed itself, depending on what the ingredients are. If you’re using flaked corn or crimped oats, they tend to draw more moisture than, say, whole corn, because they’ve been opened up. In contrast, pelleted feeds have been dried during processing so there is less moisture within the pellet and they are less likely to spoil.”
In addition to the moisture in the grain product, soaring temperatures and humid weather can play havoc with your feed supplies. Excessive moisture will produce a bacteria-friendly environment, while soaring temperatures will speed up the entire process.
Take Your Vitamins
Another problem to consider with long-term, improper storage is the loss of nutrients. Your grain may not spoil, but if it has lost it’s nutrient value, why feed it? “The storage conditions,” continues van der Veen, “will have a direct effect on the nutrient value. These conditions include temperature, moisture, length of time in storage, how much air it’s exposed to, light and handling.
“Vitamins A, D and E are all unstable over time, and heat and humidity make the problem worse. Certain B vitamins and Vitamin C are very light-sensitive, so they’ll be destroyed if exposed to a lot of light. High-fat feeds are also affected by surrounding conditions. Fat is very oxidizing and with a lot of heat and humidity, it can become rancid.”
How do you know if your feed has lost any of its nutrient value? “There really is no way to know other than to test your feed,” says van der Veen. “Typically, in the summertime, we say a sweet feed will spoil in a month. But do you actually lose vitamins in a month? It’s probably closer to two months, although it depends to some degree on the weather and storage conditions.”
Bins, Bags or Cans?
The first concern when deciding where to store your grain should be in finding a suitable location that is inaccessible to any equine, even one that manages to get loose. This area must also be inaccessible to rodents and insects.
To extend the life of your grain, give it plenty of air circulation, protection from light and, if possible, a room with a cool, stable temperature. Farms with many horses to feed frequently choose large bins for their grain. Care must be taken, however, to clean the bins on a regular basis. And that’s easier said than done.
“I think bins are the worst way to keep food,” says Tiffany Payton of Carousel Horse Farm in Casco, Maine. Tiffany, who keeps 30 horses at her farm, also sells grain to other local farms. “Bins are very hard to clean out. Also, if you don’t get every last little bit of grain out of there, then that old grain is going to mold because it has been packed into the bottom and not getting any air.
“If you do use a bin, you should vacuum it. With pelleted feeds it’s a little easier because the dust that accumulates at the bottom can be swept out. But with sweet feeds, there are a lot of little particles that stick to the bottom and sides which can lead again to mold.”
To avoid these problems, some bins come with a plastic insert that fits tightly into the bins. When it comes time to clean, they simply pop out. Be sure that they are completely dry before returning to the bin.
Which material should you choose for your bin? Steel or aluminum offer easy cleaning as well as rodent protection. Stay away from wood, because all wood will eventually succumb to the gnawing teeth of rodents. In addition, the molasses from sweet feeds tends to seep into the wood, making it difficult to clean. Finally, if you do wash them out, they take longer to dry, once again inviting mold.
Other options include either metal or plastic trash cans, either of which will work well with smaller quantities of grain. If you have a rat problem, then stay away from plastic which they can easily chew through. Don’t forget to keep a tight fitting lid on at all times to keep moisture, horses and rodents out. You may also want to paint your metal cans white (white reflects heat) and keep them out of direct sunlight.
All grain containers should be placed above the floor, on a pallet, plywood, fiber paper or even newspaper. The reason? Because many floors, particularly cement, will “sweat” in warm weather, and this moisture will cause rust as well as condensation inside of the container.
Farms that use a large quantity of grain each day may opt to feed directly out of the bags. “If you don’t have a rodent problem and you use them quickly, it’s the best way,” says Payton. “But be sure to keep them up off the ground to encourage airflow around them.”
The Silo Solution
Do you go through a substantial amount of grain each month? Then you might want to consider purchasing a grain silo.
Silos only work for pelleted feeds, as the molasses from sweet feeds would make the grain stick to the sides.
And, while it’s around 15 percent less expensive for bulk purchases, bulk savings normally begin at three tons. Can you use that much grain in six weeks? Longer storage is possible in good weather, but not recommended during hot, humid days.
Another plus to silo feeding is that new grain is added to the top while the old grain is fed out first from the bottom—so grain never sits around for long. Ideally, silos should be cleaned out before each new delivery; realistically, they can probably go three loads before being swept out.
Proper grain storage doesn’t have to be a complicated procedure. Consider all of the weather- and rodent-related problems specific to your area, along with the type of grain you plan to feed and how much, and choose a system that will work best for you.