We set out to see what companies were producing the best horse feeds in the United States, to ask what precautions they take to ensure the safety and quality, and learn how the industry operates.
We expected a rush of manufacturers proud to say their feed is of the highest quality and why. We didn’t think they would share proprietary mix information, but we didn’t anticipate such a cold response either (see page 2). The most important questions we asked are in the chart on page 4.
Start With Good Grains.
Grains are graded by a USDA grading system. Grade 1 is the highest quality, with three more grades below this. Factors such as bushel weight, number of damaged kernels, heat damage, foreign material and odor determine the grade, so lower-grade grains aren’t just less nutritious. They’re potentially dangerous.
Moisture content is important since high-moisture grains can spoil/mold easily. The grade of grains used in your feed is information you rarely find on the label. We want to see #1 or #2 grains in our feed.
Beet pulp, soy hulls and distillers grains are good sources for highly fermentable fiber as non-starch calorie sources and acceptable to us in feed mixes. Peanut or oat hulls are poorly fermentable and basically fillers we can do without.
The protein content of a grain mix comes from the grains themselves, plus alfalfa and a variety of high-protein byproducts, such as seed meals, wheat mids and brans. Although the name suggests otherwise, byproducts are often very nutritious portions, stripped out during the processing of human foods. For example, beet pulp is a byproduct of extracting sugar from beets.
The value of any particular byproduct must be considered in the framework of what the basic feed recipe needs. Some mixes require specific amino acids, such as lysine and methionine, while others may need protein boosting across the board. It’s therefore impossible to identify the ideal protein booster. But, as a rule, milk or whey are the highest-quality protein supplements. Soy is also popular because of its high lysine content.
It’s difficult to find a feed that doesn’t have fat added to it, although not all horses need it. Fat-added feeds aren’t necessarily low-starch either, although it’s commonly believed that is so. Fat contains no vitamins, minerals or protein, just calories. Stabilized whole ground flaxseeds with their oils intact (making them high-fat) are the only readily available source of essential fatty acids at levels similar to the natural diet of grass. We don’t like any type of animal fat in horse feeds.
Most vitamins aren’t stable in a feed mix for long. While there are a few special ”protected” forms of vitamins available, which increases their stability inside a grain mix, there aren’t many and it’s unlikely you can tell from the label if your feed uses these.
Grain mixes tend to be heavy in vitamins A and D, even though these aren’t likely to be deficient in most horses getting hay. Dietary requirements for most B vitamins and for vitamin C (if any) are unknown.
Many grains add vitamin E in low amounts, which most horses need, but since E isn’t stable in a grain mix for long and levels are low, it doesn’t matter. In a nutshell: Be sure your horse’s vitamin requirements are met by a source other than grain.
These are much more stable than vitamins in a feed. However, paying more for chelated minerals might be a waste of money. Despite the fact that the 2007 National Research Council (NRC) feeding recommendations for horses confirmed what Horse Journal has been telling readers for years — that chelated forms of minerals aren’t superior to inorganic forms in the horse — many feed manufacturers continue to add them to feed mixes.
Several things could cause issues with the safety of your horse’s grain mixes. Aflatoxins (the most potent) and other fungal toxins, such as the fumonisin that causes moldy corn poisoning, may be present in the grains at time of harvest or grow in them after the feed is manufactured. Fungal toxins can also make their way into the feed bag if the mill uses untested, low-grade corn to mechanically flush out its milling equipment (a common practice). Medications added to cattle feeds can contaminate subsequent runs of horse feed and prove fatal to horses.
The lower the grade of grain, the more likely it is to contain contaminating substances, from dirt to weeds. Metal or rust bits from old equipment may contaminate the grain mix. Inadequate protection from rodents can mean they and/or their excrement end up in the grain.
The FDA issues guidelines on dangerous levels of molds/toxins, but it makes no requirements for when, how or how often to check for them. The FDA also has guidelines for use of equipment that has been used for medicated feeds, and inspects such plants, but the problem still happens. (The better mills never share equipment in this way.) The grade of grain in feed isn’t regulated by any government agency.
There are no minimum required standards for equipment maintenance or cleaning. The EPA issues instructions for use of insecticides, but it doesn’t appear anyone checks to make sure they’re being followed. The decision to use preservatives and mold inhibitors in feeds is left to manufacturers.
Individual states decide what information must be on the label and spot check to make sure label claims are met, but site inspections are spotty, if any.
Despite widespread agreement that mixed feeds should be fed within a few months of manufacture, you often don’t find an easy-to-read date of manufacturing.
It’s clear to us that the most important element in choosing a grain is what grade of grain is used in the feed.
We’re not impressed by mixes claiming to be vitamin fortified or containing chelated minerals, because we know we need other sources (hay or supplements) for that. We want a mix that starts with a quality grain.
We also want to know how old the product is. We want to know when the feed was manufacturered and/or if it has a ”use no later than” date on the bag before we buy it. If it has a code, we ask what it means. If it has nothing, we pass on it.
Under ideal storage conditions, we believe grains have a three-month shelf life, tops. After that, insects hatch, high-mositure ingredients like wheat mids can mold, and bacteria and fungi can multiply.
Feed quality and attention to safety is important, too. That’s why we thought manufacturers would jump up at the chance to tell you how they address quality and safety issues. We were wrong.
Whether this means they’re hiding information or are reluctant to go public when others don’t isn’t the issue. The issue is that the current situation i s a lose-lose one for you and your horse.
Obviously, no manufacturer wants their feed to cause a health problem. However, when the bottom line on ledger sheets goes up against quality issues, there’s no telling what might happen. We believe that if there were horse-feed laws and regulations, our government would have the ”teeth” it needs to punish violators.
We applaud the four companies who were willing to work with us — Bluebonnet, King Feeds, Southern States and Triple Crown Nutrition — as they clearly realize how much it benefits you to know what steps they take to protect your horse. If you can reward them with your business, do it.
As for the other feed companies, the only way to find out what you want to know is to demand it. If they refuse an individual’s questions, too, we’d be wary.
Article by Veterinary Editor Eleanor Kellon, VMD, and Contributing Editor Nina Fedrizzi.