Horse owners are given countless options at the feed store when it comes to purchasing the perfect feed for their horses. These numerous options can sometimes bring both stress and headaches. To navigate the options and nutrify a healthy, well-balanced animal, it is important to learn exactly what the feed tag means to your specific horse’s needs.
More is not always better. There are restrictions put on levels for feeds and tag labeling along with restrictions on your horse’s daily nutrient requirements. Instead of asking yourself which brand contains more of a certain ingredient or nutrient, look for quality ingredients instead. Creating the perfect feeding program takes time but by balancing your horse’s needs to what a product can provide can help alleviate this problem. Here is a start to finish tag justification that will help you not only look at what is in the tag, but be able to relate that information to how your horse can utilize that feed.
Evaluate your horse. What are their current nutritional needs? Take into consideration their age, amount of work, and even if your horse is a hard or easy-keeper. Since forage should always be the foundation of your horse’s diet, it is also beneficial to find a feed that complements the type and quality of your hay. Every commercially-made feed should have a tag sewn to the bottom of the bag, or include information on the bag itself. According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, the following information is required for any non-medicated feed: Brand Name and Product Name, Purpose Statement, Guaranteed Analysis, List of Ingredients, Direction of use and any warning or caution statements, Name and address of manufacturer, and a Quantity Statement.
Brand and product name aside, the purpose statement should include the class of horse for which the feed is intended. For example: “for horses over three months of age” or “when forages are grass or grass/legume mixed”. Another common purpose statement is “scientifically formulated for mature horses in light work” or “maintenance feed” allowing consumers to rule out certain feeds if their horse does not meet that criteria. There are four classes of feed that commercial manufacturers can divide into including complete concentrate including both forage and concentrate sources, processed concentrate including pelleted and extruded feeds, texturized concentrate (or sweet feed) including molasses, and supplement including vitamin or mineral sources. Complete feeds are preferred when hay is either difficult for your horse to consume, or in low supply. Processed feeds are utilized to increase digestibility and palatability. Texturized feeds are helpful if your horse has a sweet tooth or for more finicky eaters and supplements are used to help balance out the diet of any nutrients your other feeds may be lacking.
The guaranteed analysis should be located directly below this statement. The only guaranteed analysis nutrients required by AAFCO to be included on a label are Crude Protein Minimum, Crude Fat Minimum, Crude Fiber Maximum, (in terms of percent) Calcium Minimum, Calcium Maximum, Phosphorus Minimum (in terms of percent). Copper Minimum, Selenium Minimum, Zinc Minimum all have to be labeled in terms of parts per million, and Vitamin A Minimum should be in terms of International Units per pound. Many feed companies have added other nutrients to this list in the past few years but are not required to do so
Crude Protein is the most misunderstood and misused nutrient gauged by the consumer when comparing feed. For proper protein utilization horses require a certain amount of dietary protein in terms of pounds per day. According to the National Resource Council, the average 1100 lb horse with light work requires 1.54 lb of protein per day. Taking this into consideration when finding the right concentrate, a 10% Crude Protein concentrate fed at 10 lbs per day supplies that working horse with 1.0 lbs of dietary protein (10% X 10 lbs = 1 lb protein). If a feed is 32% Crude Protein fed at 3 lbs per day your horse will receive .96 lbs of protein. Your hay can be calculated the same way in order to incorporate forage into your total intake for total protein sources. Along with protein, essential amino acids are a vital part of your horses diet contributing largely to enzyme function and muscle development. Lysine is the first limiting amino acid, followed by Methionine and Threonine. A guaranteed analysis that includes multiple amino acids can be very helpful in making sure your horse receives proper amounts of the necessary building blocks they require for proper growth and development.
Crude Fat provides energy, or calories, to the diet. By increasing the amount of fat you can decrease the total pounds per day needed of the concentrate. This is a great way to cut back on starch and sugar in the diet by feeding the minimum amount of protein and fiber and still include an appropriate digestible energy range. Fat supplements are a unique way to tailor your horse’s diet. If a horse is susceptible to anything from Tying-up, EPSM, Cushing’s, Laminitis, or even hyperactivity or nervousness, low starch is a plus. Increasing the calories alone, while keeping protein, starch, and sugar to a minimum can help decrease issues caused by these ailments.
Crude Fiber is another misleading nutrient in the horse’s diet. Fiber is required and beneficial for microbial growth and sustenance, which is why forages are so important and the foundation of a good balanced diet. Depending on the quality of your hay, the emphasis of fiber in the concentrate can vary. Crude fiber encompasses both digestible and indigestible sources. Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) and Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) make up Crude Fiber. ADF refers to cell wall portions including cellulose or lignin. These values are important it is used to evaluate horse’s capability of digesting the feed. As ADF increases, digestibility typically decreases. NDF refers to the total cell wall portions of feed components and can relate to your horse in terms of dry matter intake. As NDF values increase, dry matter intake generally decreases. Crude Fiber is the nutrient that is required to be listed on the tag although that information alone is difficult to gauge the actual digestible fiber consumed by the animal. Non-structural Carbohydrates, or NSC values are a measurement of starch and sugar in the feed. Starch and sugar have been deemed the culprit in many health issues previously mentioned. This is yet another beneficial tidbit of information that if not labeled on the tag itself, consumers that own horses with these problems should be very skeptical about. Calling your feed company and asking for the NSC value of your feed can be to your advantage. The lower the NSC value, the better. Typically, feeds less than around 20% NSC are recommended for horses with these special need diets.
Calcium and Phosphorus ratios can be a balancing act in itself depending on your hay. They are the most important minerals to consider as they contribute greatly to muscle and bone strength and repair. Many feed companies have attempted to resolve this ratio dilemma by providing feeds specifically formulated for legume or grass types of hay. Mother Nature has set forth a calcium to phosphorus ration of around 1.6:1 found naturally in most milk and therefore, it is a great gauge for what these mammals should be receiving. Generally, you see preferred ration at 2:1, and not be lower than 1.1:1. These ratios all reflect a total calcium intake per day - not to be mistaken with concentrate ranges alone. The sort of percentages you can find on a tag usually fall between 0.4 and 1.0 percent for calcium and between 0.3 and 0.5 percent for phosphorus depending on the diet for which that feed was designed. Calcium and phosphorus requirements increase greatly for the young and growing horses and gradually decrease as they mature.
Their amounts may seem small. However, these minerals are not to be overlooked. Copper, selenium, and zinc contribute to anything from joint and bone health to reproductive and immune response. They are noted on a feed tag in parts per million, or ppm. It takes 10,000 ppm to equal 1%, which explains why 40 ppm is never listed on a feed tag by percentage. Minerals of all kinds must be in correct ratios with other nutrients. Often times, if there is an imbalance, certain minerals can “tie-up” other minerals. If this is the case, a mineral could be so overbearing in the diet that it would be as if other minerals weren’t included at all. This is yet another example of “more is not always better”. Other minerals sometimes included in the feed tag, as incentive to the consumer, are potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron, iodine, and cobalt. Each mineral has its own purpose and function in the body and the more information you can obtain from the feed company, the better.
Vitamin A is the only required vitamin to be listed on the feed tag. Vitamin A aids in vision, integrity of skin and mucous membranes, connective tissue, resistance to infection, bone development, and reproduction. Typically we see vitamins listed in International Units per pound, or IU/lb). IU’s are used to measure activity or effect of a vitamin or drug. To obtain an exact measurement in metric terms is sometimes difficult because of their variable activity depending on preparation. Other vitamins provided on the feed tag by certain companies are Vitamin D and E. Vitamin C is provided on some tags as ascorbic acid in mg/lb. Vitamin B-1, or Thiamine and Biotin are also listed in mg/lb. These vitamins are equally important contributing to metabolism, fatty acid synthesis, hoof quality, hair and bone growth, immune function, and are good sources of anti-oxidants. Omega acids, more sources of anti-oxidants with a multitude of benefits, can also be included in a feed tag and are a good resource for consumers to know.
The more information your feed company can provide you on the tag, the better informed you could be. If a question ever arises about tag information or a nutrient not listed on a tag, call your feed company and ask. They are more than willing to work with customers to get them the information they need. Always keep in mind; a feed tag is much more than numbers and percentages. And, tags are not just about “the more the better”. Feed tags are informational tools given to the end-user to help make better decisions about your horse’s diet. Your horse does not care what the bag looks like or how pretty the tag is; it’s the nutrition inside the bag that counts and your feed tag should help tell that story.