On the Table

When it comes to equine nutrition, the rules keep changing... as do the prices.

With all the advances in equine nutrition, seemingly gone are the days of choosing between one or two types of grain. Feed companies have developed myriad different formulas to address specific needs.

What do these improvements mean for you? First of all, you have many more options—not just between feed companies but also types of feed. It also means you need to do your homework, or talk to an equine nutritionist to determine what is best for your situation.

The Low-Carb Option

The low-carb lifestyle has become all the rage in the equine feed industry. But carbs are not at all bad for horses, says Katie Young, Ph.D. with Purina Mills. There are two types of carbohydrates—structural and non-structural. Structural carbohydrates are found in hay and pasture, which you do not want to eliminate. Grains, fresh grass and some hays contain non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), which are sugars and starches. These are the ones people may want to decrease. But it is important to know that horses need some NSC to maintain proper health and well-being. Horses with a specific problem such as chronic laminitis, colic, Cushings disease, or metabolic disorders may need to have their NSC regulated.

Some horses may do fine with just a protein, vitamin and mineral supplement. If they need more energy, a lower-starch grain may help, but you should also decrease the amount of feed per meal. Feeding multiple, smaller meals will help keep insulin levels from spiking. This reflects a horse’s natural eating style, as well. Blue Seal’s Jeanne van der Veen writes, “Horses should be fed as close to nature as possible, reflecting the design of their digestive system: continuous intake of small meals, high in fiber and low in NSC, throughout the day. Adjustments to the diet should be based on individual horse requirements.”

The Protein Question

Over the years, many horse owners have chosen their feed based on protein content. However, horses don’t actually have a protein requirement. Rather, they have an amino acid requirement. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 22 known amino acids. Eight are considered essential, which means they need to be supplied by diet, because the body cannot make them. The other 14 are non-essential; the body can make them with proper nutrition.

When considering protein, it is important to read the feed tag. Different protein sources have different amino acid balances, and horses utilize some sources better than others. For example, soybean meal is better than cottonseed meal.

In reality, the percent of protein in a bag of grain doesn’t give the entire picture. It depends on how much you feed and the quality of the feed.

Chelated Minerals

Chelated minerals are becoming more common, especially in high quality feeds. They are connected to an organic molecule, such as a protein. This arrangement is stable and helps to prevent interactions that render the mineral useless. Chelated minerals are better utilized than other forms of minerals, so animals receive more benefits from them. To see if your grain contains chelated minerals, read the feed tag or talk with a nutritional representative.

Nutritional Levels Finally Updated

In 2007, the National Academies Press released the National Research Council’s (NRC) long-awaited update on the Nutritional Requirements of Horses. This is the first official update since 1989, and obviously there has been considerable research and advances in equine nutrition over the last 19 years. So much so that the publication is three times longer than the previous version.

In it are several chapters relevant to the feed industry. Grains, byproducts, protein supplements, vitamin and mineral supplements are all discussed. Also reviewed is the effect of processing on nutrient digestion and feed additives that affect feed characteristics and animal health.

More classes of horses are described, based on differences in activity and metabolic rate. One of the largest changes from 1989 concerns mares during mid-pregnancy. Previously, it was believed that nutritional requirements for a broodmare didn’t change from maintenance until the ninth month. The new edition says that requirements begin to increase as early as the fifth month of gestation. If you are interested in more details, the book can be purchased at

Feed Price Increases

One of the biggest changes in the feed industry is not in the feed bag but rather the price tag. According to Dr. Joe Pagan with Kentucky Equine Research, five factors are impacting grain prices: biofuel production, extreme global weather patterns, high oil prices, currency fluctuations and high global food demand.

Ethanol, which is mostly made from corn in the U.S., is the most widely used biofuel. As the demand for ethanol increases, corn prices have risen dramatically. Farmers are planting more acres in corn, which means other grains are scarcer and consequently more expensive. Drought problems across the world have impacted grain production as well. Australia, southern Africa and China have all had serious weather issues, and Canada and the U.S. have reported small yields as well.

We are all acutely aware of skyrocketing oil prices. These costs impact planting, growing and harvesting crops as well as freight and transportation costs. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight for this situation.

The next factor is currency fluctuations. “Most grains are traded internationally in dollars,” says Pagan. Since the dollar has continued to decline, it has persistently impacted feed prices.

Finally, as the global population increases, the demand for food (particularly in China and India) continues to rise. Meat consumption is rising, so more grain is going to feed animals intended for human consumption.

Bottom Line

Granted, there are many deciding factors in what type of grain to feed out. Still, the majority of horses still fall in the maintenance category and are able to exist mostly on high quality hay and pasture with perhaps a small amount of nutritionally balanced concentrate. However, if you have hardworking horses, senior horses, breeding stock or horses with specific health issues, choosing the right grains is important, and it might be time to contact the individual feed dealer or a nutritionist.

For More Info

• ADM Alliance Nutrition; 1-800-680-8254;

• AlfaGreen Supreme; 1-800-834-8563;

• Blue Seal; 1-800-367-2730;

• Buckeye; 1-800-898-9467;

• Equavena; 1-866-736-4226;

• Farnam Platform Feeds; 1-800-234-2269;

• Kentucky Equine Research; (859) 873-1988;

• Nutrena;

• Pennfield; 1-800-995-0333;

• Purina Mills; 1-800-227-8941;

• Southern States; (804) 281-1000;

• TDI Horse Feeds; 1-800 457-7577;

• Triple Crown; 1-800-451-9916;






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