By Jyme Nichols, Director of Nutrition, sponsored by Bluebonnet Feeds

Why protein, fat, fiber, starch and sugar levels are the last things you should look for in a feed

Your horse’s grain has one primary function: to provide the essential nutrients required to support a healthy life. Sounds simple enough, right? But, if you’ve spent time balancing pasture, hay, grain and supplements to meet your horse’s specific needs, then you know it can get complicated—fast. Not to mention we all have budgets to consider!

So often, the conversations about horse feed are centered around protein, fat and starch. “I have an excitable horse, so I need a low-starch grain.” or “I have a performance horse, and I think he needs more ‘cool energy’ from fat.”

While either of these statements may be true, we can’t forget that meeting all of our horse’s essential needs is critical for their general wellness and performance.

Additionally, the manufacturing process is equally important. Understanding the ingredient quality and sources, as well as safety standards, of your manufacturer should be at the top of your list when comparing feeds.

This is why we recommend evaluating protein, fat, fiber, starch and sugar levels as your final checkpoint to a feed selection.

We recommend answering the eight questions below to evaluate your feed selection.

Eight Questions to Ask When Choosing Choosing a Feed for Your Horse

1. Is the nutritionist formulating the products qualified?

Do some research on your feed manufacturer to learn more about their qualifications. It’s our recommendation that this person has a PhD or at least a master’s in equine nutrition, specifically. This means that they have dedicated their education to nutrition.

We love our vets, but a study presented at the Equine Science Society meetings in 2019 found that 51 percent of equine veterinarians were dissatisfied with the nutritional training they received in vet school. Collaborating with your vet on your horse’s needs is important, but we can’t expect them to be experts in everything, just as a nutritionist shouldn’t perform surgery. Pairing your vet’s advice with a feed formulated by an equine nutrition expert is the winning combination.

You can also look for published research or papers from the lead nutritionist as further evaluation of their qualifications and to better understand their approach to equine nutrition in general.

2. Does the feed company utilize a least-cost formula or locked formula?

Feed companies that practice a least-cost formulated approach utilize a variety of ingredients to meet the guaranteed analysis on the feed tag. Most of the time this means that the ingredients are subject to change at any time, without any notice.

Often you’ll see collective terms like “grain products” in the ingredients. For a least-cost formula, this can be any single or combination of 10 or 12 ingredients in that classification. Examples would be corn, oats, barley, milo/grain sorghum, wheat, rye, etc. Whatever ingredients were cheaper at the time are most likely to be what was used.

While the benefit here is that you get a feed that is the lowest price possible at all times, we all know how sensitive a horse’s digestive system is to change.

So how do you know if your feed is following a least-cost formula?

  • Often, if the first line or two of ingredients contain the words “processed products” or “by products,” that means it is likely a least-cost formulation.
  • If you’re still unsure, you can always call the manufacturer and ask.

We recommend that you look for feeds with a locked formula. Locked formulas utilize consistent ingredients and nutrient values. The same ingredients will be in your feed every time, with some adjustment to quantities to meet the same, optimized nutrient value.

Most companies that have locked or fixed formulas are going to actively promote this approach as a top benefit, as it’s expensive and difficult to do. Several companies do this, including us here at Bluebonnet Feeds, as well as Triple Crown, Buckeye and Tribute. Again, if you’re unsure, just give them a call and ask!

If a locked or fixed formula sounds like the direction that you want to go for your feeding program, you’ll probably also want to look for open labels.

With open labels, the ingredients are listed by their actual name. For example, you’ll even see base ingredients like alfalfa meal and beet pulp.

3. Is the manufacturing facility safe and ionophore-free?

The most important thing to remember about ionophores is that it can kill a horse or cause long-term damage to the body. Ionophores should be kept far away from your horse feed, starting with the manufacturing process, and ending with how you store and distribute your feed.

Okay, so now that we’ve scared you a bit. What is an ionophore? Ionophores are a medication that is used very commonly in cattle feeds and other production livestock.

Most feed companies with a focus on making cattle feeds will be using this medication. Also keep an eye out for trade names like Rumensin or Bovatec, and others.

Wait…how would that get into my horse feed?

When ionophores end up in horse feed, it’s usually the result of accidental cross-contamination or human error. Companies that produce cattle and horse feed in the same facility will take many precautions to prevent cross-contamination. These include flushes and production of other livestock feeds without ionophores between runs. However, nothing is perfect and mistakes happen when humans are involved.

Why take a chance? There are companies out there that produce equine products only in ionophore-free facilities. Bluebonnet Feeds is certainly one of them. This is another question you may consider calling to ask about.

4. What is the feeding rate that meets my and my horse’s needs?

Feeding rates can vary significantly both across brands and product lines from the same brand. Be sure to understand the feeding rate that best suits your horse, and your feeding process.

Additionally, the nutrients guaranteed in a feed only meet your horse’s needs when fed at the recommended feeding rate.

Are you wanting to feed a lot of grain, or a lower level of grain?

A high feeding rate means the feed is going to be higher in fiber and lower in other nutrients. The vitamins, minerals and amino acids may be balanced to feed at a rate of 15 to 20 lbs per day (for an average horse). This is often provided to senior horses, who struggle to eat forage and may need more calories from grain. But, if you cut back to less than the recommended feeding rate, your horse could be short on essential nutrients.

Conversely, a low feeding rate feed will be formulated to balance a horse’s needs in the smallest amount possible, so closer to 4 or 6 lb per day—for an average horse. If you feed more than recommended, you may over-index on some nutrients.

Evaluate your horse’s specific needs and compare the feeding rates on products you may be considering.

5. What are the included trace minerals and their quality?

Trace minerals are critical for everything from hair quality to hoof health to ulcer prevention, heat stress tolerance, pregnancy benefits, and more.

The three trace minerals that you should most certainly see in your feed are copper, zinc and manganese. Make sure you see all three listed under the guaranteed analysis.

Next, take a look for indicators to support that these are included in the most bioavailable form possible, and at research-proven levels. Check for the first instances of copper, zinc, and manganese in the ingredients list.

You want to see them listed as:

  • Zinc Methionine Complex
  • Copper Lysine Complex
  • Manganese Methionine Complex

If they don’t appear again, this is likely a high quality feed that provides 100 percent of these trace minerals in the most bioavailable form possible, at research-proven levels.

If you do see them again, with words like sulfate or oxide, this is an indicator that this feed is likely formulated with minerals that are lower-cost and less beneficial to your horse. Most often, these are seen in feeds designed for affordability.

With this information, you should feel empowered with the information that you need to balance personal priorities with cost.

6. What are the amino acid guarantees?

Horses cannot produce essential amino acids, which means that they must get it from their diet.

Protein is made up of amino acids, but the crude protein level on a feed tag isn’t necessarily a direct indicator of amino acid quantity. Instead, guaranteed levels of amino acids should be used to indicate the levels that are available for absorption, from that feed.

We recommend looking for a lysine guarantee, at the very least. Many good feeds will also include methionine and threonine, and other amino acids.

Now, this is where feeding rate matters. Be sure to compare the total amount of lysine, per feeding rate. The easiest way to do this is to use the formula below:

Daily feeding rate (lbs) x 454 (convert to grams) x % lysine = X grams per day

For example, compare these two feeds with the same guaranteed percent of lysine, but different daily feeding rates.

(6lbs feed x 454) x 0.8% lysine =  21.8 grams of lysine per day

(4lbs feed x 454) x 0.8% lysine =  14.5 grams of lysine per day

7. Do I need fewer or more supplements?

Any time you can feed fewer components, it can cut back on costs and time. It’s definitely worth looking at feeds that include more benefits and determine whether you can eliminate some supplements.

Many feeds will include prebiotics and probiotics, enzymes, B-vitamins, Vitamin C, Biotin, and appropriate levels of vitamin E. You can even look at feeds with added digestive support from things like Seaweed derived calcium/Dried Seaweed Meal/Lithothamnion/Red Algae (the same ingredient can be written all 4 ways). You could even look for butyric acid and plasma to increase those digestive benefits.

It will depend on your horse’s needs and your personal preferences but, hey, who doesn’t want to save where they can?

8. Finally, do the basics—protein, fat, fiber, starch/sugar—meet my horse’s needs?

Now that you know how your feed is made, that it meets your horse’s essential needs and considered added benefits, it’s time to look at matching the basics to your horse’s lifestyle.

If they need a little extra energy, you might lean on higher NSC and lower fiber contents. That said, if you have excitable horses, you can look for higher fat percentages for “cool energy”. These feeds will also generally have a little more fiber, with lower starch and sugar levels.

Other considerations would be things like metabolic conditions. For this, we recommend starch and sugar levels that calculate out to be less than 12 percent NSC.

Need help choosing the perfect feed?

Visit the Bluebonnet Feeds website for a free nutrition consult.

To learn more about Bluebonnet Feeds, read the Bluebonnet difference, check the full equine catalog, or listen to Feed Room Chemist podcast Episode 54: How to Choose Feed.

Available on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | or your favorite platform.


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