Feeding horses is already confusing enough, but analyzing feed tags adds a mind-boggling element to the feeding process. While the dozens of ingredients on a tag seem impossible to understand, possessing a general knowledge of tag information can make reading the tags much more attainable.
Before analyzing a feed tag, it is important to know what type of feed your horse requires based on its level of work, lifestyle, and age. For instance, a horse in full, heavy work, such as a racehorse or a high-performing show horse, will require greater amounts of calories and fat to supplement the horse with energy. A young, growing horse will require feeds fortified in high levels of nutrients and fats so that it continues healthy development. Pregnant and lactating mares require quality feeds with elevated amounts of energy, minerals, and protein. A horse in little to no work does not need a feed with high fat or calorie content – this horse will thrive on a low protein and low-fat feed. Even with the right feed selected for a horse, it is important to maintain good feeding practices so that the horse receives the maximum benefit from the grain. The classic principle of “feed little and often” is true- it is best to feed a horse in small, consistent amounts at the same time each day to minimize the risk of ulcer development. Additionally, when feeding a large stable, it is best to treat each horse as an individual. Every horse should be put on a feeding plan that benefits itself; this may mean that each horse may have different feed rates and feeding schedules.
Once there is an understanding of which grain is best for a horse, the feed tag can be analyzed. Each state has regulatory services that determine what should and should not be included on a tag – feeds produced and sold in separate states may have varying tags based on each state’s regulations. In Kentucky, for instance, the product’s name; guaranteed analysis; ingredients; weight; protein, fat, and crude fiber content; acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF), among other nutrients, are required to be labeled on a tag. However, elements such as calorie, sugar, and starch contents are not required to be listed in Kentucky. The guaranteed analysis is the list of the minimum and maximum amounts that are guaranteed to be in the feed. The minimum specifies that the feed is guaranteed to have at least the stated amount of a nutrient. The maximum specifies that the feed is guaranteed to have no more than the stated amount of a nutrient. This means that a feed that has a guaranteed minimum of 10% fiber, for instance, could have 12% fiber content and still pass regulatory requirements.
The most important nutrients to analyze on a grain’s guaranteed analysis are the protein, fat, and crude fiber contents. The protein, listed as a minimum on the analysis, is the most expensive part of the mix and is vital to sustaining growth and production. However, protein is less crucial in alfalfa-fed horses, as these horses receive protein from the alfalfa. Fat serves as the main energy source in the feed, providing very safe calories to fuel a horse for its lifestyle. Fat is safe and digestible and is listed as a minimum in the guaranteed analysis. Feeds with fat contents greater than 6% are considered high in fat – up to 12% minimum fat is considered a safe fat source. Lastly, the crude fiber, listed as a maximum, contains both digestible and nondigestible fibers. Complete feeds, such as Senior Needs®, have higher crude fiber contents, some with a maximum of 18%. Other grain mixes will have lower crude fiber contents, with a maximum more around 6%. However, a higher fiber content signifies lower digestibility and lower energy for the horse, thus highlighting the importance of high-quality sources of fiber.
So, what goes into the horse feed to make up the fat/fiber/protein contents? The calorie-adding ingredients include cereal grains (wheat, barley, oats, etc.), soybean oil, and corn oil. The protein content primarily comes from soybean meal, which is safe and palatable but lower in energy, and oats, which are palatable and energy-dense. Fiber is introduced through beet pulp, dehydrated alfalfa, and soybean hulls, to name a few sources. Minerals in horse feed include salt, limestone, copper, and zinc, for example. Feeds may also include molasses as a flavoring and binding ingredient, and several preservatives, such as citric acid and propionic acid. Some, but not all, feeds include microbials and probiotics, such as yeast and bacteria, to benefit the digestive system. Equilistic® includes marine-derived bioavailable calcium to alleviate stomach ailments and strengthen a horse’s digestive system.
The chart below highlights the nutritional content of common horse feed grains.
The ingredients listed on a feed tag can either be categorized as a collective ingredient or an individual ingredient. Collective ingredients are broadly named, non-specific terms for ingredients allowed on a feed label. The collective terms that may be seen on a feed label include grain byproducts or forage byproducts. Since collective terms incorporate a large grouping of ingredients, the individual ingredients they incorporate are not identified. Individual ingredient terms are the most preferred listing in horse feed tags, as they define the exact ingredients contained in the feed, i.e., oats, beet pulp, molasses, corn, and soybean meal. They are preferred since companies must list each ingredient by prevalence in the feed, with the most prevalent listed first. This gives the consumer a more concise understanding of the feed’s ingredients.
When feeding a quality grain, it is important to not “overdo” the feeding. For instance, more feed is not always better, even if it is a quality grain. An overfed horse could develop high body condition scores or develop metabolic issues. Forage should remain a vital part of a horse’s diet and should fill the nutritional gaps in a horse’s feeding program to ensure it receives adequate vitamins and minerals. The nutrient levels and ingredients in a horse’s grain should be research-proven and “generally regarded as safe”, or GRAS. If there are ever any questions concerning the safety of the feed, the company’s nutritionist is usually happy to answer any questions.
Feed tags, while seemingly daunting, can be conquered and evaluated correctly with the right knowledge.