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Written by: Jenna Tranter
Published on: 03/01/2022
So you have endeavored to learn more about feed and what you are putting into your horse's body everyday but how do we really make sense of what is on a feed tag? What do all of those short forms really mean? We are going to break down how to read a basic feed tag so you can have a better understanding of whether or not your horse's requirements are being met.
Every feed tag should include the following information:
There can be some variation depending on what country you live in however the above information is fairly standard across the board. A lot of this information is self explanatory but how do we make sense of all the percentages affixed to that tag without a background in science and nutrition? Read on for more information.
So we have our feed tag and we’ve given it a cursory look and the first thing that jumps out at us is the crude protein levels. Most typical horse feeds crude protein levels range anywhere from 8% to 16% and horses at different life stages and working levels will require more or less protein. Lower percentage crude protein feeds are generally catered to the adult horse in maintenance. Higher percentage crude protein feeds are generally for young, growing horses as well as broodmares in the last 3 months of pregnancy or who are nursing/lactating. Horses of all ages require protein to produce hormones, enzymes, maintain or develop muscle, as well as many other necessary bodily functions.
The type of protein your horse is receiving is important as well. Proteins are composed of amino acids and some amino acids are produced and made by the body itself. Other amino acids must be provided in the diet and are considered essential by NRC. Some horses do have medical conditions in which they need to be fed a low protein diet, eg. horses having Kidney issues- knowing your horse’s medical status is very important too when starting to formulate a diet. Protein is essential and horses can have protein deficiencies. A protein deficiency can present as poor stamina, hoof growth and coat quality,or a lack of growth in young horses.
Let’s touch on fats or ‘Crude Fat’ as it appears on the feed tag. Fat is absolutely essential in the equine diet and provides more energy than carbs and protein. The usual range for fats on a feed tag falls between 2-8% however some feeds may provide even more fat. These are generally labelled on the tag under the feed type and may simply be noted as ‘high fat’. The fat content therefore gives you an idea of just how much digestible energy is available in the feed- higher fat equals digestible energy. What you won’t see on the feed tag is a ‘calorie count’ per serving. The total digestible energy is not simple to calculate and can vary with a horse's individual genetics (body type/breed) as well as health, age etc.
Fiber is absolutely essential to keeping the equine digestive system functioning properly. It is the single most important part of your horse's diet after water. fiber are carbohydrates and come in several different forms- lignin, hemicelluloses, and cellulose to name some. High fiber concentrated feeds tend to be less digestible than low fiber feeds which means that low fiber feeds actually give more digestible energy.
The usual range for fiber in concentrated feeds is 7-12% but high fiber feeds may reach upwards of 14%. Horses do not generally require high fiber concentrated feeds as the majority of your horse's fiber should be coming from their forage/hay. As we have talked about before, forage should always be first in your horse’s diet and you should not be trying to make up the majority of their fiber content from concentrated grains. fiber should be making up 50-100% of your horse's daily intake (100% would mean you're not feeding concentrates at all) and at a rate of a minimum of 1.5% of your horse’s body weight daily.
A lack of fiber in your horse’s diet can leave you with tons of problems, from colic, diarrhea and gastric ulcers to behavioural issues. It is so important to ensure your horses fiber needs are being met predominately through forage. In extreme instances forage may not be available- think of areas devastated by floods, fires, or similar natural disasters. In these instances where there is simply minimal forage available you can increase your horses fiber content by feeding alternatives such as beet pulp, legume & seed hulls or haylage or chaff in addition to increasing the amount of concentrated feed to meet their daily requirements.
That brings us to all those vitamins and minerals. At a minimum on every feed tag you should see the levels of calcium, phosphorus, zinc, Vitamin A, selenium and copper. You may find that the tag you're investigating has many more listed and that’s great too but the aforementioned vitamins and minerals should absolutely be there. Some feed tags will show these as min-max. percentages while others may measure it in PPM (parts per million). Vitamin A (and E!) are generally shown in IU (international units) per pound. Of particular interest are items like selenium. Selenium, as an example, is essential in the equine diet however too much selenium can lead to toxicity. If your feed is ample in selenium you need to ensure you're not using a supplement that also provides ample selenium because in some scenarios, like this one, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Vitamin A is often added to a lot of feeds because much like Omega 3, horses generally receive ample vitamin A when grazing on fresh pasture. As we have discussed many times, year round pasture is not always available so many feeds will contain added Vitamin A for this reason.
There is so much more to talk about when it comes to reading and understanding a feed tag that we decided to break this up into two parts for you. We will be back in touch with you next week to talk about the rest of the things you need to know when picking the right feed for your horse.
Jenna Tranter is Smart Earth Camelina Corp's equine nutritionist. She is the owner and operator of Four Corners Equestrian and has been involved in the industry for over 20 years.
Jenna is a lifelong equestrian and lover of all animals big and small. She has both studied and worked within the industry for 20+ years in both the feed sector as well as being a coach and hunter/jumper facility owner with time spent in the UK and Canada. She holds a number of equine certifications from universities in both countries. She also has completed numerous courses in equine body work, including equi-bow, but is not a practitioner at this time due to there just not being enough time in the day! Jenna lives on her farm in Ontario, Canada with her husband, 19 horses, 2 goats, a flock of ducks, a flock of chickens, her barn cats and her 3 loyal dogs, Bosco, Evaa & Eeyore.