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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

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 crude fiber.

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 used."

Because 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 hulls, etc."

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 feed.

Although incomplete, sweet feeds are used in the diet for several reasons:

For extra 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."

To encourage 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.

Offers a 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 feed."

Readily 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

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 problem."

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 benefits include:

No sorting of preferred ingredients--Each pellet uniformly contains all of the ground ingredients, so sorting out preferred ingredients isn't possible.

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 needs.

"Sweet 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 advises.

In 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."

Cost Differences?

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 processing."

Be Realistic

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.


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