Beet pulp is appearing with increasing frequency in senior feeds, complete feeds and even performance feeds — for good reason. While endurance riders have known the benefits of beet-pulp “loading” for years, other horsemen find conflicting information on its uses and benefits. The fact is, beet pulp has a number of solid advantages.
Beet pulp is fed wet, absorbing two and four times its weight in water. Although all feeds require water to effectively move along the intestinal tract, wet feeds are inherently easier to digest, particularly in horses that aren’t good drinkers. In addition, beet pulp has a higher fiber content than grains — almost 10 times more than corn, about double that of oats — which helps keep the water in the intestinal tract longer and provides a sort of internal canteen that is beneficial for horses working in hot weather or for prolonged periods.
Although many people consider beet pulp a fiber source, it actually has much less fiber than hays. The real advantage to beet-pulp fiber lies in the type of fiber it contains.
Beet pulp contains a generous amount of easily digested fiber, which is broken down into substances called volatile fatty acids or VFAs. The VFAs are then absorbed and transported to the liver where they can be converted into glucose. This pathway provides the horse with a slow but steady supply of glucose to keep his blood sugar normal — one of the advantages endurance riders appreciate about beet pulp.
Beet pulp is one of the most palatable feeds available. Horses that are picky about their grain mixes or reluctant to eat supplements often dig right in when beet pulp is added to the mix. You don’t even have to add that much beet pulp to the mix. Remember, beet pulp swells up greatly and is always fed to your horse wet.
Despite its fiber content, beet pulp is considered a concentrated calorie source, like grains. Beet pulp contains only about 19% fewer calories than oats and may have twice the calories, pound per pound, as many grass hays.
Most horses tolerate beet pulp with minimal-to-no digestive upset. When substituting beet pulp for a portion of the grain ration, the transition is typically smooth and rapid. In fact, changing the type of hay is more likely to cause a digestive upset than feeding beet pulp.
Of all the common feed sources — both hays and grains — beet pulp has the lowest concentration of potassium. HYPP horses must avoid high dietary levels of potassium.
In many ways, beet pulp is the perfect companion to grain when it comes to balancing minerals. Basically, where the grain is low (such as calcium), beet pulp is high, and vice versa. A 1:1 mixture of beet pulp and oats, fed with timothy hay, has an excellent ratio of major minerals and trace minerals as well, being just a little low on zinc.
Betaine Or TMG
A little-known health benefit of sugar beets — the origin of beet pulp — is their high content of a substance called glycine betaine, also known as TMG or trimethyglycine.
TMG is broken down in the body in pathways that generate the popular performance supplement dimethylglycine or DMG, which is involved in the intracellular transport of oxygen. Plus, the high TMG levels in cells make them more resistant to the effects of dehydration.
TMG also keeps metabolic pathways involved in the use of essential sulfur-containing amino acids functioning at their maximum. This effect is important to the production and maintenance of tendons, ligaments and joints, as well as the production of normal levels of important brain chemicals.
In fact, one of the hottest new human nutraceuticals for depression and even arthritis is the product s-adenosylmethionine, called SAM or SAM-e (“Sammy”). SAM-e is an extremely expensive human product, but research shows supplementation with TMG can result in increased levels of SAM-e.
Research into the effects of TMG on horses is sparse, but studies have demonstrated lower lactic-acid production and better aerobic energy generation in TMG-supplemented horses — at least when they are untrained. We also noted the betaine-containing supplement Liqui-Fuel was helpful in restoring normal hydration in chronically dehydrated horses (see gastric ulcers article, October 2000 and sidebar at end of story).
Most of the TMG contained in sugar beets comes off during processing in the molasses fraction, with concentrations ranging from six to 12%. Although we know some make it into the beet-pulp fraction, the sugar-beet processors we talked with were unable to tell us how much.
However, we did learn that most producers of beet pulp for livestock add some of the high betaine molasses back into the beet pulp, commonly at a rate somewhere around 3% or so.
At this level of molasses, a pound of beet pulp would contain a little over 800 mg. of betaine. Feeding just four to five pounds a day would provide the horse with an amount equivalent to that commonly used therapeutically in people. It appears the endurance folks just might be doing more than provide their horses with a steady supply of water and energy when they include that beet pulp in their feeding programs.
If you feed straight beet pulp and want to know how much TMG your horse might be getting, check the bag to see if it says molasses was added. If it was, call the manufacturer and ask what percentage of beet molasses the beet pulp contains and ask if they extract betaine or if they know the betaine level in their molasses.
If they don’t extract betaine, they might not know how much is in there, although you also can use a conservative estimate of 6% betaine in beet molasses.
To calculate the amount of betaine you are feeding, multiply the number of pounds of dry beet pulp fed x 454,000 (mg. in a lb.) x 0.06 (% of betaine in the molasses) x the percent molasses in your beet pulp.
Beet pulp is well accepted by most horses, even those prone to digestive problems like bloating, diarrhea and mild chronic colic. Some horses seem to almost instinctively go for it when there’s a digestive problem.
In addition, beet pulp’s a good source of palatable calories for finicky eaters, and the benefits of increased hydration and betaine may add some “fuel” to your performance horse’s reserves.
Served in small amounts, it can also serve as a tasty carrier for horses who are disinclined to eat their supplements or are on a grain-restricted diet but need to consume a powdered supplement. It can also be safely fed to insulin-problem horses when used in smaller amounts to basically “dose” the medications.
We do not, however, consider it a solid fiber source. While it contains a highly digestible source of fiber, it does not compare to that of hays. Unless your horse is unable to eat hay, we consider beet pulp really just a concentrate and a good complement to your grain.