by Shari Zachrich of Mars Horsecare US
Our first discussion on the feed tag encouraged you to evaluate your horse against the description of the feed and pointed out important information on the guaranteed analysis. In the edition, we move on to the rest of the tag which, by AAFCO regulations, should immediately begin with the ingredient section.
Ingredients can be listed in two different ways. One method is least or best cost. This method lists ingredients in collective terms, where substitutions can be made for that type of ingredient. For example, “Grain Products” can be listed on the tag but inside the bag can be barley, corn, grain sorghum, oats, wheat, rice, or rye. Price is usually the main factor in determining which of these “Grain Products” will be included in the formula. Where collective terms are used, consistency of actual product from bag to bag can be fairly uneven - depending on which substitutes are made. But by regulation, these tags have to meet the guaranteed analysis. Keep in mind too the quality of that feed. If a guarantee is the only specification a company has to meet, how does that affect the nutrition of that feed. As horses have digestive systems far different from cows or humans, some ingredients may not be as readily utilized in the horse’s body as you might think. What this means is, from a guaranteed analysis point of view, feeds can be clearly within regulation, but fail to actually meet your horse’s nutritional needs - based on the accessibility of that grain or protein product. For some collective terms there can be as many as forty different sources acceptable to substitute.
The other method of feed labeling is known as “fixed formulation”, which specifies the exact ingredient used in the product - making it impossible to formulate by price week by week. There are specific conventions for listing ingredients in a tag. Take distillers for example. In a fixed formulation, distillers must include its plant source (e.g. “Maize Distillers Dried Grains”). Using that title, no other dried grain or distillers can be substituted. This terminology for fixed formulation rations assures the consistency, quality, and nutrition of each product. Feeds using this method are not always the cheapest because ingredients must be bought at a rate that reaches a certain pre-determined analysis of their own. These sources must also be accessible to purchase time after time in order to keep within the guaranteed analysis standards.
Generally, feed companies will list their ingredients in order of amount, much like human food we see in the stores. Tags will begin with the ingredient in the greatest amount (typically a grain of some sort), followed by mineral and vitamin sources, and the last ingredient is likely found in the least amount. This is not required by AAFCO for equine products, though it is required for pet food. Despite this, you will find that many companies voluntarily follow these guidelines for the benefit of the horse owner.
After ingredients, feed companies will include specific feeding directions - including the type of horse, their work or age, and possibly weight or working conditions. This will help the owner and the horse get the most out of the feed so that it will not be wasted - and the horse will receive all of the important nutrients necessary for optimal performance. Recommendations typically follow requirements listed from the National Research Council’s Nutritional Recommendations of Horses based on numerous years of research.
Risk statements or warnings are listed last on the feed tag - informing owners not to feed product to specific animals due to toxic or detrimental effects. This is critical in multi-species farms. Horse feed should only be fed to horses and sheep feed be only be fed to sheep. Most toxicity problems occur in when a feed is used against its prescribed use, just like medications. Certain cattle medications are extremely toxic to horses or other animals, for example. Never feed your horse a medicated feed not specifically designated for horses.
At the bottom of the tag you will find information about where the feed was made and contact information if you have any questions or concerns. CALL YOUR FEED COMPANY! If anything about your feed doesn’t seem “right” to you, let the company who manufactured it know. They will either be able to fix the situation or explain why the feed is the way it is. A reputable company will be more than happy to assist you with your feeding questions - whether it’s “how much to feed” or “how the quality of your hay will change your horse’s nutrition.”
One last thing to look for is the tag itself. Make sure it is visible - and think about its presentation. Typically, tags are sewn onto the bag; this is a common practice this is both efficient and trustworthy. If a tag is actually printed on the bag, there is a good chance that company has made that formula virtually permanent. It is very difficult to change a feed when the tag is printed on the bag itself. If a tag is a sticker, or some other form of temporary inclusion, have a watchful eye. This could make it easy for a company to maintain a fixed formula, but there is a good chance that formula is not permanent. A sticker is easily replaced and the manufacturer could very well be using this method as a new way to label a least cost formulation. Companies can include specifics about what is in that particular bag of feed, but there is no way of telling if next week’s bag will have the same sticker.
There is a lot of information offered on a feed tag, which can be either useful or headache-inducing. But don’t be shy! Ask questions, go to seminars, do whatever you can to help educate yourself on reading a feed tag properly. Find a reputable company and stick with it! Some feeds may look and seem similar to others, but many profound differences can come to light with a closer look. Whether it comes to process or presentation, owners have numerous options when it comes to selecting a feed - and not all feeds are created equal. Companies have more options than ever before in terms of tailoring a diet to a specific horse. Ask them about it if that is something your farm could utilize. Will this feed fulfill my horse’s nutritional requirements? Am I getting the most nutrition for my dollar? Is this company dependable and reliable? At the end of the day, make sure your tag tells you what is most important to you!