The label (or feed tag) on a bag of feed provides a great deal of information on the product as well as how it should be fed. Although some information may vary from state to state, feed tags are governed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials and contain mandatory information that helps the consumer decide whether a particular feed is suitable for their needs.

Information on a feed tag usually includes the brand and product name; the purpose statement, which defines the animal class the feed is prepared for; information on the feed itself such as “a pelleted feed for enhanced performance”; the guaranteed analysis, which describes the percentage of protein, fat, fiber, calcium and various nutrients and is the manufacturer’s guarantee of the amount of nutrients in the product; the list of ingredients, such as oats, corn, molasses, etc., listed in descending order of inclusion by weight; directions for use, which describes the amount to feed according to the horse’s weight and activity level and any other considerations; the net weight of the product; and manufacturer’s information, including the name and address of the manufacturer.

There should also be a lot number and/or date which the product can be referenced by. This came in handy a few years back when we opened a bag of feed and found it was filled with moths! We quickly closed the bag in a metal barrel and called our feed store, who requested the date/lot number to reference when they contacted the company, and then provided us with a fresh bag of feed.

All this information is helpful when trying to decide which feed to use; however, the following considerations are not listed on the feed tag: the quality of the feed, the amount of each ingredient in the feed (the only guide is that the ingredients are listed in descending order – the feed will contain the most of the first listed ingredient and the least of the last listed ingredient, rather than how many ounces of each is included), whether or not the feed has been researched and tested, the calorie content of the feed and whether or not the feed will meet your horse’s nutritional needs. This is why it is important to consult with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist and follow the feeding directions.

You’ll notice that some ingredients, such as crude protein, crude fat, calcium (Ca), phosphorus (P), vitamins A, C, D and E and other vitamins and minerals are listed as “min” (minimum). This is due to government regulations that are required for a healthy feed, as they are often ingredients that are expensive. The actual amount of these ingredients may be more, but not less, than listed. “Crude” as in crude protein, fat and fiber is the calculated estimate of what is present in the feed.

Horse Tales: What’s in that feed you’re feeding?

Many feeds will provide the timeline for feed change as well as recommendations for feeding the product. In this case, the product we feed is 100% timothy grass pellets wet down with separate supplements we’ve chosen for our horses, in addition to free-choice hay. The feed company recommends not feeding pelleted or cubed forage as the sole source of forage since feeding long stem forage (hay) may help eliminate boredom and prevent stall vices. Photo by Judy Van Put

It’s important to choose a feed for your horse that contains the proper amount of protein for its needs. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, growing horses require the highest amount of protein, usually 14% – 16%. Aged horses (more than 20 years old) may require a similar amount of protein as young and growing horses in order to maintain body condition; however, you should consult with your veterinarian before changing your horse’s protein intake.

Latter stages of pregnancy and lactating mares will require 12% – 14% protein. Most adult horses (mature horses) will require protein from 8% – 10% of their total ration, depending on the amount of work they are doing. Remember that these are the recommended protein levels for each class of horse listed; more protein is not necessary as the extra protein is broken down into urea and excreted through the urine, leaving a strong ammonia odor which for horses confined to their stalls can result in respiratory problems.

Note that the guaranteed analysis of protein on the feed tag does not provide any information on the quality of that protein. Some feeds may list essential amino acids, such as lysine, which is an important factor for the horse to build protein in its body and is especially important to be fed to young, growing horses at the recommended levels. For example, weanlings require 0.65% lysine; this amount decreases to 0.45% for yearlings.

All horses require a Ca:P ratio of greater than 1:1. A ration of 1.5:1 is acceptable for mature horses, while growing horses and lactating mares may require an increased amount. Aged horses may require more P in the amount of 0.3% to 0.4% of the ration.

The amount of fat listed is an important source of energy; it can provide almost 2.5 times as much energy as carbohydrates (starch) and protein. With older or underweight horses, you can increase the amount of fat by gradually adding in oil – up to a few tablespoons of corn or other stabilized oil – especially in cold winter months.

The recommended levels for starch (nonstructural carbohydrates, or NSC) are not required to be listed, although some manufacturers are starting to include this on their feed tags due to concern about feeding a lower starch ration. NSC of greater than 35% is a high-starch feed, which is not recommended for horses that are obese or suffer from Cushing’s disease or other metabolic conditions. An NSC of 20% – 35% contains a moderate amount of starch; an NSC of less than 20% is considered low starch and is more in line with what overweight or metabolic condition horses should be given.

Being aware of what’s in the feed you’re feeding is the first step toward ensuring your horse is being given the proper diet. Consult with your veterinarian before making changes in your horse’s feed to be sure the product meets your horse’s needs.

by Judy Van Put