The Scoop On Feed
by: Marcia King
Sweet feeds, pelleted feeds, textured feeds, concentrate
mixes, processed mixes...many novice (and seasoned) horse owners are confused
over what these feeds are, the purposes they serve, and which horses benefit
from them. Read on to learn how you can separate the wheat (or grain) from the
chaff to see what is right for your horse.
Sweet feed--also known as textured feed, textured
concentrate, and concentrate mix--is a grain-based horse feed, sold by the bag
and formulated to be readily consumed by the horse, says Gary Heusner, PhD
(equine nutrition), associate professor and extension horse specialist at the
University of Georgia. "Sweet feed is primarily composed of grains (usually
oats, barley, or corn), a supplemental protein, minerals, and vitamins, with
relatively high levels of molasses."
The grain is whole or coarsely crushed
and is plainly visible and discernible in the mix; the supplement is usually in
pelleted form. Grains might be listed by name (i.e., oats) or simply as "grain
products," in which case the consumer doesn't know what grains are present in
the mix without visually inspecting the contents. The tag also lists the minimum
levels (in percentages) of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum level of
The molasses improves palatability, reduces the depth (bulk) of the feed, and,
if added in liquid (wet) form, makes the feed a little sticky, thus preventing
pellets from settling or being sorted out and ignored by the horse. Notes Judy
Marteniuk, DVM, associate professor of equine medicine and extension at Michigan
State University, "For those reasons, you usually want a mix containing wet
molasses. Some feeds contain dry molasses, which doesn't bind the supplements or
cause depth reduction. The label will indicate whether wet or dry molasses is
most sweet feeds do not contain enough roughage sources, they are not considered
to be complete or balanced feeds.
"Roughage is any feed ingredient that contains more than
18% crude fiber," Heusner explains. "Generally this means some type of hay, but
also can imply a coarser, bulkier feedstuff such as cottonseed hulls, peanut
Thus, most horses should still eat hay, forage, or a nutritionally complete and
balanced pelleted feed (more on pelleted feed later) in addition to their sweet
incomplete, sweet feeds are used in the diet for several reasons:
energy--Racehorses, endurance horses, working horses, farm horses, growing
horses, and lactating horses are among those that might not get enough calories
or energy from forage. Sweet feed provides that. "But a lot of owners mistakenly
perceive their horses need grain to survive, which is not the case," warns
Marteniuk. "Depending on the hay quality or the pasture situation, a horse may
need a vitamin/mineral supplement, but the majority of horses in this country
need little to no extra energy for the amount of work they do."
eating--This might be when a horse's appetite is depressed or the horse is off
feed due to some type of stressor. "The horses that most benefit from sweet feed
are weanlings and those that are recovering from illness," says Heusner. "Sweet
feeds seem more acceptable to these horses than other feeds: Horses will tend to
start eating the sweet feeds quicker, as horses tend to choose sweet feeds over
pelleted feeds." He also notes that horses are less likely to go off sweet feed,
whereas with pelleted feeds horses seem to be more likely to refuse to eat.
greater "chew factor" than pelleted feed--States Heusner, "Horses seem to need
to chew a minimum number of times per day to maintain normal gastrointestinal
function. This may be partially related to saliva production to help maintain
proper pH (saliva buffers or helps regulate acidity in the stomach) and the fact
that the horse's GI tract was designed to consume many small meals over an
extended period of time (grazing). If a horse does not have enough 'chew factor'
in its diet, not only may gastrointestinal function be compromised, but the
horse may become bored and look for something to chew on. Along the same lines,
some horses that eat too fast or are prone to choke are less likely to choke on
sweet feed because the horse has to chew it longer than pelleted feed. Horses in
general eat a pelleted feed faster than the same amount of a textured or sweet
available, consistent quality, easy to feed--"A lot of people either cannot get
or store enough good-quality hay, or hay is not cost effective," says Marteniuk.
"With packaged feeds, you go down to your dealer or grain elevator and purchase
100 or 200 pounds for a week or two. From week to week, the quality is the same,
so you can work it into your horse's diet versus lining up enough good-quality
hay, then finding a place to store it." Packaged feeds are easy to feed, too.
Since they're sold in plastic, paper, or hemp bags, just scoop out a ration,
place it in the horse's grain bucket, and you're good to go.
For use in feeding
medications--"Sweet feeds may mix better with medication that you wish to feed
with your grain," notes Robert Kline, PhD (animal science), extension horse
specialist for The Ohio State University. That's because the wet molasses helps
bind the medication to the grain.
Sweet feed does have a few drawbacks, though. For starters,
even with wet molasses, the various grains can separate and settle out, allowing
the horse to selectively eat the grains he chooses. "The molasses content can
also cause the feed to be more prone to caking and spoiling in hot, humid
weather and more prone to freezing in the winter," warns Heusner. "This can mean
big problems if you are storing the sweet feed in a bulk bin." To prevent
spoilage, Marteniuk recommends that sweet feed be used within a week or two of
opening the bag.
Sweet feed can also attract flies due to its molasses
content, says Kline.
Additionally, sweet feed could be bad for horses with
certain health problems, including metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance,
polysaccharide storage myopathy, and peripheral Cushing's disease, says
Marteniuk. "These horses should not be fed a carbohydrate-based diet, as it can
exacerbate their problems."
Pelleted feeds are kibbled or nuggeted. Says Kline, "Pelleted
feed takes all of the grains, protein supplements, vitamin supplements, and
minerals, and grinds them up. Then, using heat and moisture, the mixture is
formed into pellets."
Unlike sweet feeds where the grains are separate and
visible and the vitamin/mineral/protein mix is pelleted, all of the label
ingredients in pelleted food are contained in each pellet or nugget; nothing is
segregated. Extruded feeds are a similar type of pellet, except they undergo
high-pressure processing that causes the pellets to expand and puff out after
they emerge from the pellet maker. "Extruding makes a uniform product that is
more digestible than unprocessed grains," Kline says. "It does destroy some of
the vitamins in the feed, but manufacturers add them back, so there is no
Heusner states, "Pellet sizes vary from about one-quarter to one inch in
diameter to one-third to one inch in length. The size of the pellet depends upon
the die through which the ground mixed feed is passed under low pressure and in
the presence of injected steam. There is an art to making a good pellet, as you
can easily make them too hard or too soft. Pelleted feeds can be made from any
feedstuffs or combination of feedstuffs possible. Generally for horse feed, the
pellets will fall into one of four different types--grain mixes, complete feeds,
roughages, and supplements."
Pelleted feed offers the same convenience as sweet
feed--it's readily available, easy to store, easy to work with, and has
consistent quality. Pelleted feeds also offer more energy with less bulk,
something that could be important for racehorses and endurance horses. Other
No sorting of preferred ingredients--Each pellet uniformly
contains all of the ground ingredients, so sorting out preferred ingredients
Longer shelf life--"Pellets usually remain fresh longer
than sweet feeds due to ingredients added to preserve storage life," says Kline.
"They resist spoilage." They also are generally more dense and easier to store.
Can be used to
individualize a diet--"Pelleted feeds that are supplements work very well for
people who like to feed their own grain and mix in a protein/mineral/vitamin
supplemental pellet," says Heusner. "They can adjust the level of
supplementation based on the forage they are feeding as well as the grains they
may be using."
Easier to chew--This is good for geriatric horses without
premolars or molars left to masticate feed. Says Heusner, "Pellets can be wetted
for these types of horses to provide a gruel."
Offers a balanced diet for foals and
weanlings--Says Kline, "All horses, no matter the age, should receive at least
50% of their ration as roughage. To meet the foal's need for protein and energy
for rapid growth, grain needs to make up about 50% of the total ration.
Yearlings need about 25% of the total ration as grain to meet their growth
feeds, even with molasses to bind fine particles to the grain, do not always
hold the fines to the grain well; the foal will leave the fines in the feed pan
and thus not get a good, balanced diet," adds Kline.
On the downside, because pelleted feed
isn't sticky, the horse could sift out medications tossed into a bucket of
pelleted feed. To reduce that possibility, dampen the feed with water or mix in
a little bit of molasses to help the medications stick to the pellets, Marteniuk
addition, the owner can't look at the feed and discern what's in there.
"A lot of feed labels
say, 'May contain the following list of ingredients: Grain products, processed
grain by-products,' etc.," says Marteniuk, "so you don't have a clue what it
is--corn, oats, barley, whatever."
In general, expect to pay more for sweet and pelleted
feed than for good-quality hay. "Grains cost more than hay, in most situations,"
explains Kline. "But that will depend on where you live and how good the current
hay is. Pellets and sweet feed tend to cost about the same, although sweet feed
is usually a little cheaper than a pelleted feed as pelleting takes more
There are valid reasons to feed grain products or
complete feed products, but if you can get enough good-quality hay and find the
storage for it, most horses will do much better on a roughage diet versus a
grain diet, Marteniuk says. "Never exceed 50% of the diet coming from
concentrate," she advises.
When it comes to making feeding decisions, keep in mind
that horses did not evolve as oat and corn crunchers. While the hard-toiling
athlete or working horse often thrives on the additional energy provided by
sweet feeds, and the tender-toothed senior benefits from more easily chewed
pelleted feeds, the physical and behavioral well-being of most horses is best
served with a forage diet.
Be realistic in assessing the demands placed on your horse,
the energy he truly expends, and his health status, allowing those criteria to
be your feeding guide.