article by Jessica Hein – photographs by Megan Parks

This year, headlines and Internet message boards were abuzz with news of multiple feed-product recalls—tainted wheat gluten and mycotoxin-infested corn threatened pets and livestock across the country. Recently, the equine industry has also felt a direct economic pinch, as rising fuel costs and increased ethanol production have raised feed prices and decreased supplies of traditional ingredients, forcing some feed manufacturers to substitute products in their feed formulas.

Horse owners know that feed stores stock a nearly limitless variety of grain products formulated for nearly every equine lifestyle, with prices that fit almost any pocketbook. But is a more expensive feed product always better for your horse? Armed with the right information, and by taking a quick look at grain products’ feed tags, you can make the healthiest and most economical feed selection for your horse.

Reading Through the Lines

The ingredient list on a typical bag of horse feed can be baffling—generic terms like grain products, processed grain by-products, roughage products and plant protein products often take the place of specific ingredients. While some companies list the exact products comprising their feeds, many others simply include the collective terms mentioned above.

Triple Crown Nutrition is one equine feed company that specifies its equine feed products’ ingredients. Vice President of Sales and Marketing Eric Haydt explains why other manufacturers are less exact.

“Using generic terms allows flexibility when formulating to use a group of ingredients, rather than specific ingredients,” he said. “Terms such as ‘processed grain by-products’ may include as many as 25 different ingredients.”

Haydt and Lu Morris, a sales representative for TDI Horse Feeds, share some of the specific equine feed ingredients included under the umbrella of commonplace collective terms. See the sidebar for a complete list of products comprising collective feed terms.
Grain Products include any “normal form” of grain, including barley, corn, oats, wheat, rice and rye. These grains may be whole, ground, cracked, flaked, kibbled, toasted or heat processed.

Processed Grain By-Products can include brewers dried grains, corn gluten meal, distillers dried grains, peanut skins, rice bran, rye and wheat middlings and grain sorghum mill feed.

Roughage Products may include ground straw, dried citrus meal, dried beet pulp, or almond, cottonseed, oat, peanut or rice hulls.

Forage Products can include alfalfa leaf meal, alfalfa or coastal Bermuda grass hay, ground grass or dehydrated silage.

Molasses Products include beet, cane or citrus molasses.

Plant Protein Products may include beans, cottonseed meal, peas, soybeans, sunflower meal and active dried yeast.

“You can see it’s a large quantity list that they have to choose from,” said Morris. “Some products are going to have better amino acid breakdown than others.”

Soybeans and soybean products are considered optimal protein sources for horses, says Morris.

“We use soybean meal as one of our main protein sources because the amino acid breakdown in soybean meal is what the horse needs,” she explained. “It is generally considered the best protein source for horses. It’s very high in lysine, which is a limiting amino acid.”

In contrast, Haydt says certain ingredients, such as peanut hulls, rice hulls, cob meal and corn screenings, have lower digestibility in horses.

Oats are a time-tested horse feed ingredient, but Morris says it’s the quality of oats in the feed product that counts.

“When you use a heavy oat [based on bushel weight], you’re going to get more calories and less fiber,” she said. “When you use a light oat, you’re getting fiber instead of what we’re looking for, which is calories. We want to make our horse feed as efficient as possible, so they can be fed in small quantities—that’s why we keep the fiber level a little on the low side. We want you to add good quality hay and forage to your horse’s diet.”

While high-fiber, low-starch feeds are beneficial for special-needs horses, such as those that are insulin-resistant or have Cushing’s disease, they may not be the best choice for every horse, says Morris. Often, when feeds have high fiber content, manufacturers also increase the product’s fat content, which in turn increases the rate of passage through the digestive tract and limits nutrient absorption.

“That feed is only going to be in the small intestine for a certain period of time,” Morris said. “If we speed that up too much, we’re not going to have as much time for the proteins or nutrients to be utilized. We can also increase the rate of passage through the hindgut when we add too much fat. To a certain degree, that’s good, but too much of a good thing isn’t always better.”

Listing generic feed ingredients on grain products does not necessarily mean the manufacturer is using low-quality ingredients, says Haydt.

“The company using generic terminology still has to meet the tag guarantees,” he said. “However, you will also see many of these companies also guarantee fewer nutrients, since they will vary with the fluctuation of ingredients.”

Such manufacturers cannot guarantee the amount of calories in their feed products, as it may vary from batch to batch depending on ingredients. Haydt says special-needs horses—such as those with food allergies or horses with metabolic issues that make them sensitive to sugar and starch levels—can also have adverse reactions to non-specified ingredients. These animals may benefit from a feed product with fixed ingredients.

Fixed Verses Variable

The presence of generic ingredient terms on a feed tag may indicate that the manufacturer uses a variable, or least-cost, formula for the grain product. This is in contrast to companies like Triple Crown Nutrition and TDI Horse Feeds, which both use fixed formulas.

“With fixed formulas, the formulas will stay the same from week to week, regardless of ingredient costs,” explained Haydt. “The only time they would change is if the company made a fundamental change to meet updated research.

“Least-cost formulations would change to reflect the lowest cost of ingredient mix to still meet tag guarantees. Using generic terminology or small guarantee lists may be an indication, but the only true way to know is to ask your feed supplier.”

Some manufacturers using least-cost formulations limit the ingredient change per batch to 20 percent or less, says Morris, to avoid upsetting sensitive equine digestive tracts. For others, a computer program analyzes ingredients’ costs at the feed mill and designs a mixture that will meet the product’s tag guarantees at the least expense.

A least-cost formula can have a few problems, says Morris.

“Number one, it can throw a horse off its feed,” she said. “It can actually disrupt digestion. If you’ve got a racehorse or a performance horse, you certainly don’t want to abruptly change its feed.

“The other thing is protein source. You guarantee that your feed has 16 percent protein, for instance, but the protein source that you’re utilizing and its amino acid breakdown can be better or worse for the horse. For instance, high-quality soybean meal is digested mainly in the foregut of the horse, where the majority of amino acids are absorbed. When we start putting cheaper sources of protein in there and they’re not being broken down and utilized in the foregut, the horse isn’t utilizing the amino acids efficiently. When you’re least-costing your protein source, you might be doing that.”

Picking a Winner

Haydt and Morris share six suggestions to help you choose the healthiest and most efficient feed for your horse.

1. Don’t choose a feed product based on its name.

“Just because companies use the terms ‘safe,’ ‘ultimate’ or ‘premium’ doesn’t necessarily mean that they are,” said Haydt.


2. Look at the product’s ingredients.

Check out feed products’ feed tags, where you can find a list of ingredients. Observe the terms used—are they specific ingredients, or generic terms? Also, most companies list ingredients based on weight, so the substance listed first should be present in the greatest quantity.

“It is critically important for companies to list specific ingredients on the tag, and in the proper order of inclusion,” said Haydt. “But remember, something that may be listed fourth on the tag may still be a small inclusion rate.”

Notice the amount of ingredients listed. Extra-long lists may indicate the inclusion of many ingredients in very small amounts, making it hard to determine how much of each ingredient your horse is really getting, says Morris.


3. Look at the product’s guaranteed analysis, found on the feed tag.

“The more guarantees that a company makes is a commitment to the customer that they are confident on their product’s contents,” said Haydt. “All guarantees are open to testing by state regulatory agencies.”


4. Consider a forage balancer.

If you live in an area with plentiful hay or pasture, Morris suggests feeding a forage balancer—a feed product concentrated in vitamins and minerals, designed to compliment a forage-based diet. These products may be more expensive per bag than other feeds, but are generally fed in smaller quantities than traditional grain products.

“This is the most economical way to feed your horse and make sure they’re still getting all of their vitamins and minerals,” Morris said. “Today, almost every company has one. It is designed to provide a very safe, very natural way to feed the horse—it allows more room in the digestive tract for grazing and hay, so they have a constant level of fiber flowing through the gut.”

5. Don’t choose a product on price alone.

“If there is a feed out there priced lower than everyone else, there is probably a reason,” said Haydt. “You get what you pay for.”

6. Call the manufacturer directly if you have questions.

Contact information for the manufacturer of any grain product can be found on the feed tag attached to the product’s packaging, or on-line in most cases.

“If in doubt, call your feed company directly and you should get any answer you may have,” Haydt said. “They will not share proprietary formula information, but they should answer anything else.”

Reading a feed tag
Every bag of commercial horse feed is labeled with a feed tag, which provides information about ingredients, guaranteed analysis of nutrients and feeding guidelines. According to an Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service publication written by Dr. David Freeman, titled “Feed Tag

Information for Commercial Feeds for Horses,” a feed tag must include the following information:
– 1. Product name and brand name
– 2. Chemotherapeutic agent (medicated additive), if used
– 3. Purpose statement, including the class(es) of horses for which the feed is intended
– 4. Guaranteed analysis. This always includes the minimum percentage of crude protein, minimum percentage of crude fat, maximum percentage of crude fiber, minimum and maximum percentage of calcium, minimum percentage of phosphorus, minimum copper in parts per million (PPM), minimum selenium in PPM, minimum zinc in PPM, and the minimum Vitamin A in International Units per pound
– 5. Feed ingredients
– 6. Feeding directions and precautionary statements
– 7. Manufacturer’s contact information
– 8. Quantity statement (total weight of feed in one bag)

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What are you actually feeding?

A document produced by the American Association of Feed Control Officials, Inc., and distributed by TDI Horse Feeds, details specific ingredients manufacturers may be used when collective terms are listed on a feed product’s tag.

Grain Products—In any of the normal forms such as whole, ground, cracked, screen cracked, flaked, kibbled, toasted or heat processed:
– Barley
– Corn
– Corn Feed Meal
– Grain Sorghums
– Mixed Feed Oats
– Oats
– Wheat
– Rice, ground brown, ground paddy, ground rough, broken or chipped
– Brewers rice
– Rye
– Triticale

Processed Grain By-Products:
– Aspirated grain fractions
– Brewers dried grains
– Buckwheat middlings
– Condensed distillers, solubles
– Condensed fermented corn
– Extractives with germ meal bran
– Corn bran
– Corn flower
– Corn germ meal (wet and dry milled)
– Corn gluten feed
– Corn gluten meal
– Corn grits
– Distillers dried grains
– Distillers dried grains/solubles
– Distillers dried solubles flour
– Grain sorghum germ cakes
– Grain sorghum germ meal
– Grain sorghum grits
– Grain sorghum mill feed
– Hominy feed
– Malt sprouts
– Oat groats
– Feeding oat meal
– Pearl barley by-products
– Peanut skins
– Rice bran
– Rice polishings
– Rye Middlings
– Gelatinized sorghum grain flower
– Partially aspirated gelatinized sorghum grain flower
– Wheat bran
– Wheat feed flour
– Wheat shorts
– Wheat germ meal
– Defatted wheat germ meal
– Wheat middlings
– Wheat mill run
– Wheat red dog

Plant protein products:
– Algae meal
– Beans
– Canola meal
– Coconut meal
– Cottonseed flakes
– Cottonseed cake
– Cottonseed meal
– Low gossypol cottonseed meal
– Whole pressed cottonseed
– Guar meal
– Linseed meal
– Peanut meal
– Peas
– Rapeseed meal
– Safflower meal
– Soy protein concentrate
– Soybean feed
– Ground soybeans
– Soybean meal
– Kibbled soybean meal
– Heat processed soybeans
– Soy flour
– Soy grits
– Sunflower meal
– Dehulled sunflower meal
– Active dry yeast
– Brewers yeast
– Yeast culture
– Dried yeast
– Grain distillers dried yeast
– Molasses distillers dried yeast
– Primary dried yeast
– Torula dried yeast

Roughage Products:
– Ground almond hulls
– Dried apple pectin pulp
– Dried apple pomace
– Bagassee
– Barley hulls
– Barley mill by-product
– Dried beet pulp
– Buckwheat hulls
– Dried citrus meal
– Dried citrus pulp
– Citrus seed meal
– Corn cob fractions
– Corn plant pulp
– Cottonseed hulls
– Flax straw by-products
– Husks
– Malt hulls
– Oat mill by-product
– Oat hulls
– Peanut hulls
– Rice hulls
– Rice mill by-products
– Rye mill run
– Soybean hulls
– Soybean mill feed
– Soybean mill run
– Sunflower hulls
– Ground straw
– Dried tomato pomace

Forage products:
– Alfalfa leaf meal
– Dehydrated alfalfa meal
– Ground alfalfa hay
– Suncured alfalfa meal
– Coastal Bermuda grass hay
– Dehydrated corn plant
– Dehydrated silage
– Flax plant product
– Ground grass
– Lespedeza meal
– Lespedeza stem meal
– Ground soybean hay

Molasses Products:
– Beet molasses
– Dried product beet molasses
– Dried beet pulp molasses
– Cane molasses
– Citrus molasses
– Molasses yeast condensed
– Solubles
– Condensed molasses fermentation solubles
– Starch molasses
– Molasses distillers condensed solubles
– Molasses distillers dried solubles

In-depth resource

For more detailed explanations about equine nutritional requirements, Lu Moore of TDI Horse Feeds, recommends reading Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth revised edition.

“Most feed companies and nutritionists follow the guidelines set in this piece of literature,” she explained. “We always make sure our fees fit into the recommendations and are better than the nutrient requirements of horses. It’s a complete manual.”

Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth revised edition can be purchased at or other book retailers for approximately $80.

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