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Understand Horse Feed Labels

Learn how to decode the labels on your horse's feed and make sure your horse is receiving the nutrition he needs.

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Is your horse getting the nutrition he needs from his feed? If you give him a commercial concentrate, the answer to that question is on the feed bag. Commercial feed labels provide specific information, and interpreting them isn't as difficult as it may seem at first glance. This article (and the sample feed labels) will tell you how to decode what you see when you read between the lines.

Commercial feed labels follow a format set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, whose members are state and federal feed regulators. The label must include the following information:

  • the feed name
  • the purpose or use of the feed
  • a guaranteed analysis of the nutrients in the feed
  • a list of ingredients
  • directions for feeding and use
  • the name and address of the manufacturer
  • the net weight of the bag
  • a list of drugs if the feed is medicated
  • any precautions or warnings.

AAFCO regulators test commercial feed mixes before they're marketed and at random times thereafter, so you can be reasonably confident that the information is accurate.

There are two types of labels: The label on the left has a collective-term ingredient list--it uses general terms for the ingredients, which gives the manufacturer some flexibility to change the recipe slightly, as long as it doesn't change the guaranteed analysis. The label on the right has a fixed-formula ingredient list—it lists each ingredient by name, which may be beneficial if your horse has an allergy or sensitivity. Each format has its own advantages, and one is not better than the other. All feed labels must list a brand and product name, purpose, guaranteed analysis, ingredient list, directions, precautions, contact information and quantity.

This is usually a term describing the type or form of feed.

  • Processed feeds: The ingredients are ground up, cooked and formed into pellets or extruded nuggets (which are puffed up like Rice Krispies).
  • Mixed grain, textured feed and sweet feed are grain mixtures with added molasses. This feed and the one above are meant to complement forage such as hay and grass.
  • Complete feeds are all-in-one combinations of concentrates and forage, although they don't supply the same long-stemmed fiber as hay and grass.

Purpose Statement
This tells you not only that the feed is for horses but also the classes (life stages and performance levels) it's intended for. A feed might be labeled "for growing foals" or "for maintenance of mature horses," for example. Horses are considered at "maintenance" when they are doing little or no work.

Between the lines: When a feed is a mix labeled for horses of a certain class, then it must be nutritionally balanced for those horses. That is, regulations require that the feed meet the minimum nutritional requirements for those horses--if fed according to directions on the label. AAFCO officials test it to make sure that it does meet the requirements, and to ensure quality and safety. In addition, the horse feed manufacturer must sign an affidavit of suitability stating that it has knowledge of the nutritional content of the feed and the nutritional requirements for the classes listed on the label. (The requirements follow the recommendations published by the National Research Council.)

Plain grains (such as 100-percent rolled oats) are not balanced for horses. Nor, obviously, are multi-purpose livestock feeds or feeds labeled for other animals. But if you buy a commercial feed labeled for, say, broodmares, and feed it according to the directions, it will meet the nutritional requirements of your broodmares.

Guaranteed Analysis
Here you'll find a breakdown of nutrients provided by the feed, as determined by laboratory testing. Regulations require the list to include certain nutrients; manufacturers can list others if they choose.
Crude protein: Commercial horse feeds typically contain at least 8 percent to 16 percent crude protein, with feeds formulated for maintenance of mature horses at the low end of the range and those for growing horses and broodmares that are lactating or in the last three months of pregnancy at the high end.

Between the lines: Horses need protein to maintain and develop muscle, to produce enzymes and hormones, and for other body functions. The kind of protein matters, too. Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, and the arrangement of the amino acids in these chains determines the type of protein. Some amino acids must be obtained in the diet; they're termed essential. Others are made by the body.

One essential amino acid, lysine, is critical for growth and muscle repair and may be the most important for horses. Lysine is often listed in the guaranteed analysis on the feed label. If it's not, check the ingredients. Soybean meal, a common protein source in horse feeds, is rich in lysine.

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