Fun With Feed Math! Part 1: Demystifying The Label

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Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

In our previous series we discussed the energy needs of horses, how they are calculated, how they differ between classes or types of horses, and how your feeding strategies should reflect the energy needs of the horse. For this series, we are going to switch gears a little, and focus on understanding commercial feed tags. In today’s equine feed market, there are an overwhelming number of feeds and types of feeds available to select for your horse. It certainly can be bit confusing at times. Our goal is to clear up some of the confusion and allow you to make the best choices based on your horse’s needs.

Types of feeds available.Typically, concentrates (what most horse owners refer to as grain or feed) are added to the equine diet to supply additional energy that cannot be met by hay consumption, or to supply additional protein. We will consider anything not in the classification of forage or roughage to fall into the “horse feed” category. When shopping for horse feed, you should know there are different classifications of feeds available: textured feeds, processed feeds, complete feeds, and supplements.
Textured feeds.    

Textured feeds are those we typically think of as sweet feeds. They contain whole grains such as corn, oats, soybeans etc. that have been processed so that the horse can digest them more easily. Typically the grains are cracked, crushed, crimped or rolled which breaks up the outer layer of the kernel to allow the horse’s digestive enzymes easier access to the internal contents of the seed. The term “sweet feed” originates with the practice of adding molasses to the feed to enhance the flavor of the feed, suppress the dustiness of the feed, and to bind together additional ingredients. As most feeds are typically fortified with vitamins and minerals vital to the horse, it is important than these ingredients do not settle out of the feed and remain uneaten. The molasses essentially helps to prevent that from happening. Plus, most horses just plain love molasses!

Processed feeds.The second types of feed commonly encountered by the horse owner are the processed feeds. Rather than being able to identify individual grains, these feeds are either pelleted or extruded. Pelleting essentially eliminates the concern of the fine particles (such as the vitamins and minerals) from being sorted out and thus ensures that the horse is receiving all nutrients intended by the feed manufacturer. Extruded feeds are produced under pressure and heat to create a lighter, less dense product which would more closely resemble dog food. As extruded feeds take longer for your horse to chew, there are some advantages to feeding these if your horse likes to rapidly ingest its feed. Further, prolonging chew time has some real advantages for your horse’s health (which we will discuss in the coming months). While both pelleted and extruded feeds have some advantages for feeding, realize the feed company has more processing involved, thus these products will cost more.
Complete feeds.Complete feeds are those that are intended to potentially serve as the horse’s only source of feed, and may serve to replace the forage component of the feed. These feeds have a fiber source added to the more traditional cereal grains, such as chopped hay, beet pulp or other fiber sources. While they serve the same purpose of maintaining the gut health of the horse as feeding hay, your horse may not consider it the same! The amount of time the horse spends eating will be less if only these feeds are fed, with no long stem forage. Ideally for the normal healthy horse, we recommend feeding 2% of their body weight in hay per day. (More on that again soon). So who are they appropriate for? For one, the senior horses who have poor teeth. It is vital that these horses are still consuming roughage, albeit in a different form than from their younger years. Older horses may not be able to properly chew hay, but they still have the desire to forage. Allowing them a source of hay to pick through is a great way to keep the old guys happy. Complete feeds are also quite handy if your forage supply is questionable, either from lack of supply or quality. As hay making is quite dependent on the weather, there certainly may be times where it becomes necessary to feed complete feeds to horses. They may also make a handy way to travel with your horse, as they are less bulky to handle and transport than hay bales.

Omega Horseshine Bag

The final category of horse feeds available fall into the category of supplements. These feeds are designed to supply protein, specific amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins or minerals to the horse which may be missing from its diet. While a properly fortified textured, pelleted/extruded, or complete feed may eliminate the need for supplements, many people seek supplements to optimize the diet of their horse. Omega Horsehine® and Omega Grande® would both be examples of supplements. They are fed in amounts less than that of traditional horse feed, and are formulated to supply key essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Often times horses can meet their energy needs solely from forage alone, and many supplements are designed to meet the shortfall in specific nutrients that the forage may lack. Thus some specific supplements may eliminate the need to increase the grain component of the diet and provide calories the horse doesn’t need.


The feed or supplement you select must always be based first from the type of forage or roughage your horse is consuming! This is the bulk of what your horse consumes and feeds should be selected that complement your hay. For example, if you are feeding your horse high quality alfalfa hay which is high in protein, you do not need a high protein concentrate! Always consider your hay selection first!

What does a feed tag have to tell you?First, we need to discuss what information you will always find on a feed tag. On every feed label, both the product name and brand name must be included, so that the feed is identifiable. It will also include what the product is intended for, such as the type of horse including activity level, age, and reproductive state. This will provide you with an immediate guide to determine if the feed is appropriate for your horse. If you have a young, growing horse, you should look for a feed designed to meet the increased nutrient demands for growth.
Guaranteed Analysis.    


Omega Nibblers Guaranteed Analysis

The second key piece of information on a feed tag is the guaranteed analysis. The following must always be included by the feed company on every product it sells: the minimum amount of crude protein, the minimum amount of crude fat, the maximum amount of crude fiber, both the minimum and maximum amount of calcium and the minimum amount of phosphorous. All of these will be listed in a percentage basis. Other nutrients will be listed in parts per million or ppm. For equine feeds, copper, zinc and selenium will all be included on the feed tag in these units. Finally, the amount of Vitamin A will be listed in International Units/lb or IU/lb (if needed). Many times the feed companies will include much more information, especially if the feed is designed for specific types of horses.


Let’s look at Omega Horseshine’s feed tag information- as it appears on the new 20 lb bag. The values highlighted in red are those that Omega Fields is required by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to provide on their label. Those in black are not required, but may be of special interest to those selecting Omega Horseshine®.

Ingredient list.Third, after the guaranteed analysis, the feed company must then include a list of ingredients used to make the feed. The ingredients will be listed in the order of the ingredient included at the largest quantity to the ingredient included at the smallest level. Manufacturers may list specific feeds (such as corn or oats) or may use the term grain products. Grain products indicate some sort of processing method has occurred such as flaking, grinding etc. You may also see ingredients listed such as plant protein products. These are collective terms for an ingredient class. For example, cottonseed meal, linseed meal, soybean meal and yeast could all be included under the term plant protein product. The company is then able to change ingredients, usually dependent on market prices and availability, without changing the feed label. This allows the company some flexibility in the manufacturing process as to which ingredients may be selected, provided it does not change the guaranteed analysis of nutrient content! Other examples of collective feed terms are animal protein products (fish meal, meat meal, bone meal, skimmed milk, dried whey etc.), grain products (barley, corn, oats, wheat, etc.), processed grain products (brewers dried grains, wheat millings, distillers dried grains etc.) or roughage products (barley hulls, beet pulp, rice hulls etc.)In looking at our feed tag for Omega Horseshine® we can see that the three main ingredients are the flaxseed, yeast and ground oats. After these three products, the next ingredients listed are the minerals followed by vitamins, which is reflective of the amount of these items required in the equine diet.
Other information.Finally, the feed company will usually provide other information on their feed tag, such as feeding guidelines. This may include how much of the feed to provide, recommendations on the amount of forage to be fed or other such information. Providing the feed in the amount recommended by the feed company allows the feed to function as the manufactures designed it. For example, if one fed Omega Horseshine at only 1/4 cup per day, the horse would not be receiving the amount of Omega 3, minerals, and vitamins the feed was designed to provide in a daily ration. Conversely, over-feeding a feed can also be detrimental, as you may then be providing excess nutrients to your horse.The next article in this series will look at using feed tags according to horse’s actual nutrient requirements. This will involve a little bit of math, so get your calculators ready!


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