Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Horse nutrition: Reading feed labels

Last Friday I attended a lecture on equine nutrition offered by a local veterinarian. Dr. Ron Feindt of Bucks County, PA spoke to a group of about 35 inquisitive people--there were lots of questions! He covered a wide range of topics --soup to nuts--but I was most interested in his advice on reading feed labels. I thought I'd share some of my notes...

Feed label regulation
Feed labels are subject to national and state regulation, and guidelines are provided by professional associations.

Types of feeds

  • Textured concentrates. Sweet feed, or grains (whole or processed) mixed molasses for palatability, along with other nutrients to improve the balance of the total ration.
  • Processed concentrates. Pelleted or extruded feed, usually processed for improved digestibility and to eliminate fines/sorting which affects ration balance.
  • Complete feed. A mixture of concentrates and forage intended to replace the need for forage or any other feed -- it meets all nutrient requirements by itself.
  • Supplements. Protein, mineral, and trace elements or vitamins.

Feed label practices: Buyer beware!
Some states require that feed companies use specific listings on their labels. This way you know exactly what you are getting. Other states permit the use of generic, or collective terms like "plant protein by-products" rather than individual ingredients. This allows them to use the same label even when the bag contents changes, and they can buy whatever is cheapest on the open market. Generic listings allow a much broader ability to substitute ingredients into and out of a particular product. For example, barley could be substituted for oats, or cottonseed meal could be substituted for soybean meal. This is a change in contents that you cannot predict from bag to bag, and your horse may react differently to each formulation. Generic ingredient categories include terms such as grain products, plant protein products, forage products, grain by-products and so forth. Specific listings must list the actual ingredient, such as oats, barley, soybean meal, or cottonseed meal. It has been found that soybean meal as a protein source is superior to cottonseed meal, which is the most common protein source for horse feed. Look for feed labels that lists ingredients individually. This assures you of a fixed formula and consistency from bag to bag.

Protein sources
Feeds can use a variety of protein sources, from corn, oats, cottonseed, barley, to soybeans. Currently the highest quality protein source for horses being added to feed is soybean meal, or a soybean product. Also remember that crude protein is not digestible protein. If the protein sources are inferior and have a low digestibility, the horse will not be able to use that as a protein source. This is especially important for growing horses.

Lysine and amino acids
Amino acid levels are a good indication of the digestibility and overall quality of protein. In fact, lysine levels are more important than protein levels for growing horses. Use feeds that guarantee lysine levels. A 12-percent protein feed with a guaranteed lysine level of 0.6 percent will give you better results than a 14 percent protein feed with a lysine level of 0.4 percent. It is the amino acid content of the feed, not the total protein level of the feed, that will determine how well a horse uses ingested protein. Soybean meal, milk protein, and alfalfa are high in lysine, while grains and grasses are generally low.

Cheap fillers in feed:
Here are examples of "cheap fillers" that you want to avoid:
  • Wheat Middlings: A by-product of wheat processing; cheap filler,little nutritional value.
  • Soybean or Oat Hulls: The outer covering of the grain or seed; cheap filler
  • Artificial Flavorings: not overseen by the USDA
  • Alfalfa Meal or Bermuda Straw: Filler made from poor quality and older hay; not much nutritive value
  • By-Products: leftover from processing another material. Not federal laws or guidlines defining what is meant by a by-product.

Low starch diets
A low starch/sugar diet is healthier for the horse, and for horses with Cushings or who are prone to founder, it is especially important. A small amount of high quality whole oats is much better than lower quality, over-processed grainby-products and materials. Ingredients which contribute to starch and sugar in feeds include grains as well as molasses which can wreck havoc on the horse's glucose levels.

Some companies are marketing a low starch/sugar product that consists of inferior grain ingredients and by-products. While low in starch, these products are also low in nutritional value. Quality companies are using rice bran, flaxseed and/or beet pulp.

Check quantities!
Some concentrated feeds also contain ingredients that may sound great but the amounts aren't enough to make a difference to the animal. If labels show quantities of MSM, biotin and probiotics, check the amounts. MSM is only beneficial in amounts of 10 grams per day. With probiotics, companies often include only one or two strains of bacteria when a minimum of six or seven are needed.

Over-Processing and Storage
Highly processed concentrated feed products lack beneficial enzymes as well as some vitamins and minerals--the heat from processing depletes them. More nutrients are lost with age.

Fat and Fiber
Look for feeds that have a minimum of 3% fat and/or a maximum of 10% fiber.
The higher the fat guarantee and the lower the fiber guarantee, the higher the digestible energy content. Lower fiber-containing feeds tend to be more digestible. Fat contains more energy per pound than any other dietary component. Therefore, as fat increases and fiber decreases, digestible energy levels increase.

Minerals and vitamins
Say you are comparing two feeds that have equal guaranteed copper and zinc levels. One feed label lists copper carbonate and zinc oxide, while the other feed label lists copper sulfate and zinc sulfate. Which one would you rather have? The answer: select the feed with copper sulfate and zinc sulfate since mineral sulfates, because they tend to be more digestible than mineral carbonate or oxide forms.

Organic mineral sources are even better than mineral sulfate forms, but they tend to be more expensive. You will see them in the ingredient listing section of the label as "proteinates" or "chelates" (that is, copper proteinate or zinc proteinate). These chelated minerals are 25-55% more available than their “inorganic” counterparts (sulfates and oxides).

There are many Web sites covering this topic. Here are a few...

How to read a feed label from The Horse magazine (restricted access)

Basics of Feeding Horses: Reading the Feed Tag

Feed Tag Information for Commercial Feeds for Horses

Guaranteed Analysis Feed Label

Buying Prepared Horse Feed : sweet feed, pellets, extruded

Feed Tag Information for Commercial Feeds for Horses

Equine Nutrition series (1) (2) (3) (4)


  1. I enjoyed your post. I started reading feed labels years ago for our livestock and switched to whole grains and free range grazing. They were never sick. Reading the labels led me to reading labels on the foods we were eating too. It's amazing what we call food now days.

    Again, loved your post!

  2. My husband and I live on a large piece of property. He travels a lot, so I spend a lot of time alone. The other day, he surprised me with a horse, so I would have someone to take care of while he is away. I'm so excited, and I want to make sure that he gets the best care. I really like what you said about making sure horses get enough protein. That is so important for them, so I will be sure that Dusty gets what he needs!


  3. I liked the way you put together everything, there is certainly no need to go any further to look for any additional

    information. You mentioned each and everything that too with much of ease.

    organic soymeal

  4. Nutrition-2015 is aimed to provide a distinguished opportunity to the professionals in the field of nutrition to discuss latest advancements and challenges in the field.
    pure acai berry max customer reviews


Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.