Horse Feed Quality

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Last month, in light of the massive pet-food recalls, we questioned whether safeguarding equine feeds is given a high regulatory priority. It isn’t, because testing millions of tons of feed for contaminating toxins and chemicals is simply impossible. OK. We don’t like it, but we have to accept it.

Next we looked to ensure that there are regulatory standards for actual horse-feed quality. Nope. The fact is, we don’t have any guarantees that horse feeds are manufactured with minimum standards in regard to cleanliness or quality. The horse owner is at the mercy of the manufacturers, which isn’t exactly reassuring. Your only way of protecting your horse is to learn how to determine if you’re getting a good product or not.

Start With the Label

Color, pretty horse pictures and fancy logos on a feed bag will grab your attention, but it’s what is inside the bag that counts. Individual states set requirements for labeling, but in general, mills are required to list the intended species (and sometimes use, e.g. maintenance), guaranteed levels of crude protein minimum, fiber maximum, fat minimum, minimum calcium, maximum calcium, and phosphorus minimum. Some also require minimum levels for copper, zinc, selenium and vitamin A. The bag should also have feeding directions and, most revealing, the list of ingredients. Read the analysis section carefully. Check first to make sure it is actually a ”guaranteed analysis,” not a ”typical analysis.”

Guaranteed means just that. A label guarantee is one of the few things that might get checked by a state agriculture department. A company willing to guarantee the levels of many nutrients is likely to be a company dedicated to feed quality. ”Typical” is much more vague and may or may not be right.

Mills tend to list the ingredients present in the largest amounts first, but they aren’t required to do so. If a label lists oats, corn and beet pulp, you have no way of knowing which of those is present in the highest amount.

Be especially leery of feeds that use what are called collective terms to describe the ingredients. These include:

• Forage products.

• Grain products.

• Plant protein products.

• Processed grain byproducts.

• Roughage products.

Terms like these give you little information about what’s in the feed. Roughage products, for example, could be anything from beet pulp to ground straw. Grain products could be high-quality oats or ground rice kernels. Forage products could be top-grade alfalfa or ground-up corn stalks.

There’s a huge difference in nutritional quality for the ingredients within each collective term classification. You can’t tell what’s in there, and you have no guarantee that the same ingredients will be used with each batch of feed. That can be a significant problem for horses with touchy digestive tracts, not to mention how much nutrition you horse can actually get from the feed.

Visual Inspection

All grains are not created equal. The USDA has established a detailed system of grain grading that you can access in full on their web site,, by entering ”grain grading” in the search box. Basically, there are four to five grades for each individual type of grain. The highest-quality is grade 1. Grains are graded by things such as weight, presence of contaminating plant material or dirt, and the integrity of the kernels. Unfortunately, the grade of the grain is not listed on your feed bag.

Small mills may buy ungraded grain from local farmers, but large feed companies generally buy from grain brokers. Grain brokers sell graded grains. If you want to know the grade of grain in your feed, call the manufacturer and tell them the specific brand name.

Look closely at the feed. Kernels should be plump. Oats should have a low husk-to-kernel ratio (i.e. more grain than husk) and few empty husks. Corn and barley should have a tight, shiny, unbroken outer hull to protect the kernel inside. Sift through the feed looking for things like sticks, rocks, cob, broken kernels or anything you can’t identify.

Fat or protein-boosting ingredients in feeds are often in the form of pellets. Break open a few pellets. Pellets should be the same color inside as they are outside. If they’re darker on the outside, they were likely subjected to excessive heat, which can damage key amino acids like lysine, destroy fragile essential fatty acids and change the structure of other fats. A different color inside can also mean mold.

Learn to smell your horse’s feed. Feeds vary from virtually no detectable odor to a fresh, appealing odor. At the slightest hint of an off odor, or if you notice the horses aren’t digging in like they normally would, don’t feed the grain. Return it to where you purchased it for a refund.

Storage and Freshness

Plain grains with intact husks/hulls store well under proper conditions, but most bagged commercial feeds have a shelf life of three months at the most. Distributors and dealers are supposed to remove outdated stock, but the fact of the matter is they don’t always do it. Make it a habit to check the date of manufacture on the bags you buy, as well as a ”best used by” or expiration date.

There’s no industry standard in how manufacturing dates are coded, or where they appear on the bag. If you’re having trouble finding or deciphering your grain’s code, ask the dealer. Be careful if you have to special order the feed or if it has a limited market (e.g. an expensive senior feed). Feeds that are big sellers in a particular area turn over quickly and are more likely to be fresh.

The shelf life of your feed is heavily influenced by storage conditions, so the date of manufacture is only a rough guide as to whether or not it’s suitable to feed. Overheating accelerates mold or bacterial growth and the breakdown of vitamins and fragile fatty acids. High-fat feeds will go rancid more quickly than those with no added fat.

Unfortunately, there are no guidelines or regulations in place for how your grain is handled every step of the way from manufacturer to shipper to storage and distribution. Buy a grain that is as close to its date of manufacture as you can, but inspect it when you open it anyway.

On the farm, grain should always be stored in the unopened bag until you need it. Inspect all bags for punctures or tears that would let in moisture. If possible, store all grains in rodent and insect-proof areas. At the minimum, store off the floor on pallets (exterior bag molding can eat through the bag) and in areas not subject to high heat. Check the bags for rodent damage or tears before you start feeding from them. Once opened, store only in metal bins or cans with secure lids to keep out insects and rodents.

Bottom Line

Because horse feed is so poorly regulated, the integrity of the manufacturer/mill is your major safeguard. No company wants to lose your business or be sued because horses got sick or died from their feed. On the other hand, they might cut corners to boost profits. A company’s size isn’t necessarily a guarantee of quality. Remember, there are no manufacturing regulations covering your back, but you need to be an informed consumer and ask questions.