Reading Feed Tags: Part 1

We’ve all been there; standing in the feed aisle trying to decide which product to choose, wanting to make an informed decision, the best decision. We think about the needs of our horse and we research the internet. We even compare feed tags, but when you don’t really know what to look for, they all look the same and it’s hard to tell if there really is any difference between one bag and another. In the first part of this nutrition series, we will evaluate the major components of a feed and show you what to look for on a feed tag so that you can be informed as a buyer and horse owner.

The first thing people typically look for on a feed tag is the crude protein percentage. This is one of the most misunderstood pieces of nutrition information in the equine industry. Crude protein is just the number we arrive at when we multiply the amount of nitrogen in the feed by 6.25. Crude protein doesn’t give us any information about the quality of the amino acid profile. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, so what we really want to know is amino acid content of the feed. Lysine is the first limiting amino acid, which means it is the most important building block of protein. Without enough lysine, the other essential amino acids will not be available in appropriate amounts.

To make matters even more confusing, tags are listed with percentage values, but horses don’t have a requirement for a certain percent of protein or lysine at all. Instead, they require a specific weight of each nutrient. So, the percentage is not relevant until you multiply it by the total weight of feed that you are feeding. For example, an 1100 lb horse in light exercise requires about 700 grams of crude protein and 30 grams of lysine. If your feed is 14% protein and 0.8% lysine, each pound provides 63.5 g protein and 3.5 g lysine. Keep in mind the grain you feed is just a “balancer” for the horse’s total ration; most of the protein and lysine will be provided in the horse’s diet through forage, feed should be used to make up for the protein and lysine that is lacking in the forage.

Fat is becoming ever so popular in equine feeds because it is a “safer” way to increase the calorie content of a feed (compared to adding starchy ingredients such as corn and oats). Fat provides 2.25 times more calories than starch and is considered a “cool energy” source, meaning it won’t cause the horse to be excitable or “hot-headed”. Fat is also great for helping put weight on a horse and contributing to a glossy hair coat.

Crude fiber is a measurement of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin (structural components of plants). Crude fiber in a feed typically comes from products such as alfalfa, beet pulp, and hulls (the portion remaining once starch and oil is removed). Horses require fiber in their diet, and most horses meet that requirement though forage. Feeds that are higher in fiber are usually safer to feed to horses compared to feeds that are low in fiber (and high in starch) because there is less risk of starch overload to the hind-gut which could cause colic, gas, and laminitis. High fiber generally means fewer calories, so if a feed has a high fiber content and your horse needs extra calories, you will want to look for a high fat content as well in order to provide the needed calories.

The next major area to evaluate on a feed tag is the ingredient listing. Some manufacturers list the major ingredients by name which is referred to as an “open label”. Other manufacturers list major ingredients in collective terms such as “by-products” which allows them to substitute ingredients based on commodity market prices and make the formula as cheap as possible. When a company uses an open label, they are showing exactly which ingredients they used in the feed. An example of the first few ingredients on an open label may read like this: Alfalfa meal, Soybean Meal, Wheat Middlings, Rice Bran. A company using collective terms will have first ingredients such as Roughage Products, Processed Grain By-Products, Plant Protein Products. The downside of by-product labeling is that the feed can vary radically from bag to bag and mill to mill because each mill is using ingredients that are in close proximity and low in cost. Ingredients available in one region of the country are not available in other regions, so if you are traveling from state to state it is really difficult to get the same feed every time if the brand is not using an open label and locked formula policy.

Open Label doesn’t mean “Locked Formula”. Locked Formulas mean that a company sets the ingredients for a particular feed and chooses not to add or subtract ingredients from that formula. The Open Label, Locked Formula model creates the most consistent product from bag to bag, but it typically comes with a slightly higher price, because it takes intense management to ensure raw ingredients are of appropriate quality and finished feeds meet all nutrient guarantees and visual expectations.

Equine nutrition is complex and ever-changing. It is a science. Nutritionists, researchers, and feed manufactures continue to challenge past practices in an effort to improve what we already know. Education is power, we can never know too much, and it is the responsibility of each horse owner to provide the best nutrition that we can in our given circumstance. Stay tuned for next month’s column, where we will discuss what to look for when evaluating the vitamin and mineral guarantees on a feed tag.