The interest in organic feeds for horses is rising, just like the demand for organic produce in the grocery store. Of course, the avoidance of pesticides and other chemicals is the most prominent reason, but we’ve also heard of horse owners who are concerned about genetically modified ingredients and preservatives. A more encompassing motivation is to encourage interest in sustainable agriculture, which is producing food without depleting the soil or polluting the environment.
Organic Standards. The production of an organic product is strictly regulated from soil treatment to seeds used, harvesting, processing, bagging and storage. This applies to any feed or food carrying the organic label, whether it’s for animal use or human. The standards for organic foods or feeds are set by the FDA’s National Organic Program and based on the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
Land used to raise organic crops must have not had any of the listed prohibited chemicals applied to it for a period of three years. The land must also be physically separated from adjoining lands where chemicals may be applied. Only organic materials from plants or animal manure are permitted to be applied on the fields, and that must be composted for a minimum of 120 days if the edible portion of the crop has contact with the ground, 90 days if there is no ground contact. Biosolids (sewage sludge) are prohibited. Seeds or plants used must be organic, or at least not treated with any chemical substance. No chemical herbicide or pesticide may be used except for certain simple compounds like copper sulfate. Even the equipment used to harvest, process and store the grains must be free of chemicals or chemically exposed products.
Nutrients. All these efforts clearly produce cleaner food, but that’s not all. Studies have shown that organically produced foods have higher levels of antioxidants and many minerals. This is partially a result of the necessity to pick strains that have a high natural resistance to disease and partially because of the organic fertilizers used, which provide the soil with a wider range of nutrients than conventional fertilizers. A Norwegian study even found that organically produced cereal grains had lower levels of fungal toxins than conventionally produced grains. This is likely because of the need to use disease-resistant strains.
In addition to organic feed ingredients—grains, molasses, seeds, forage—products that are labeled "organic" are permitted to include supplemental levels of synthetic B vitamins, vitamins A, D, E and C, protein and nutritional minerals calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, iodine, copper, iron and potassium. No other nutrients (e.g. salt, selenium) are permitted. However, the FDA has recently (April 28, 2010) requested the National Organic Standards Board look at the possibility of adding other nutrients, such as essential fatty acids.
The Price. You’ll pay about double what a conventional grain product will cost. This is because the actual production costs per acre are about the same as for conventionally grown crops, but the yield per acre is only about half as much.
If you mix your own feed, many organic producers that make specific feeds for other species will sell you bags of single ingredients, like oats and organic alfalfa. (The link at the top of our chart of organic-grain producers will take you to a site with a search engine by state.) The market for organic beef, chicken and pork is growing steadily, which means a demand for organically grown feed. Before you purchase anything labeled organic, be sure you find out for certain that the farm has been certified. Ask to see the certificate.
Bottom Line. We give the concept of organic feeds a big thumbs up, and it looks like a no-brainer decision. However, these feeds are expensive and shipping costs can add considerably more. Until the price becomes closer to that of traditionally produced grains, we’re going to save these products for specialized individual needs, such as for horses that are highly sensitive or allergic.
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