Dr Nerida Richards
With more than 60 individual horse feed manufacturers in Australia and over 350 feeds available the choice in horse feeds is staggering. Walk into any feed store and you are immediately confronted by pallet upon pallet of different brands and types of feeds. Selecting the right feeds for your breeding or racing operation can be a time consuming and often confusing task.
To help to narrow down your choices and ‘sort the wheat from the chaff’, the following article gives you a checklist you can use to help find companies that make high quality, safe and consistent horse feeds.
Horse dedicated manufacturer
Only a handful of feed manufacturers run a horse dedicated mill. Being horse dedicated means that the risk of anything that could be harmful or even deadly to horses like ionophores (monensin), antibiotics, hormones or urea is all but eliminated. This one is the show stopper for me... if a feed isn’t coming out of a horse dedicated manufacturing facility it is immediately put onto my ‘no’ list. There have been catastrophic mix ups in mixed species mills that have resulted in the deaths of many horses over the years so from my perspective it just isn’t worth the risk.
Set recipes for feeds
There are two main ways a feed can be formulated and made. These are:
- Least cost mixing, where the energy, protein, vitamin and mineral levels of the feed are set but the manufacturer is at liberty to choose from any number of ingredients at hand to make up the feed at least cost to them; or
- The use of set recipes where the energy, protein, vitamin and mineral levels AND the exact ingredients used are never changed.
To work out which method your feeds are currently being made by look at the ingredients list. Feeds made by least cost will have a statement something like ‘Ingredients selected from’ or ‘contains grains including...’ or they will list obscure ingredients like ‘vegetable protein meals’ which can be anything from high quality soybean meal to much lower quality cottonseed meal. Because of the way they are made, least cost feeds can have widely varying protein quality (see below) and starch contents from batch to batch which is not ideal for horses.
For me, this is show stopper number two. While there is certainly nothing unethical about feeds being made via least cost, experience has shown over the years that while two feeds may look comparable ‘on paper’, feeds that are made using set recipes perform a lot better in the field. Much of this I believe can be put down to protein quality which is discussed below.
So, assuming feeds are well formulated to begin with, choosing products from companies that make feeds using set recipes guarantees you a more consistent, higher quality product.
Protein quality and quantity
The quality of protein used in a feed is a major determinant of how well a horse does on that feed. Look for feeds that list high quality protein sources in the ingredients with soybean meal and full fat soybean being the most desirable followed by canola meal, lupins and faba beans.
The least desired source of protein in horse feed is cottonseed meal. With a record crop of cotton from the 2010-2011 season, there is currently a lot of cheap cottonseed meal available on the stockfeed market. Cottonseed meal is 36% crude protein so it is a cheap way to add protein to stockfeeds, but for horses it is poorly digested with only around 60% of the lysine it contains being available for absorption, so beware if you are using feeds made by least cost as protein quality in these feeds is often poor because of cottonseed meal.
Getting the total amount of protein in a feed right is also important. In house testing of protein levels, both of the ingredients used to make feeds and of the final finished products will help to ensure the level of protein specified on labels is what is actually in the feeds. We recently tested some feeds made by an Australian horse feed manufacturer and found protein levels that were less than half that which they specified on the label. So when choosing feeds, ask your manufacturer if they run any sort of testing for protein and what their protocol is for ingredients and feeds that don’t make the grade. It will help to make sure you don’t get a dud batch of feed with less protein than you need.
Independent laboratory testing
The Australian horse feed industry is almost completely self regulated when it comes to label claims, so a company can write anything they like on their feed label with regards to the analysis of the feed and no-one ever checks to see if the feed in the bag complies with the label. With this lack of regulation it comes down totally to honesty from the company themselves to accurately declare the analysis of a feed on its label. While most companies do a good job of this, some don’t so it is a good idea to ask if the company regularly has its feeds tested by an independent laboratory to verify the contents of its horse feed. These results should also be made readily to you available on request if you wish to see them.
Further, horse feeds contain a high percentage of mineral ingredients including limestone, calcium phosphates and trace mineral premixes. These raw materials can be contaminated with heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury so it is also worth asking whether your feed manufacturer tests raw materials and their finished feeds for heavy metals. Their answer should be yes and they should have strict guidelines controlling their maximum allowed heavy metal levels in their feeds which should be well within safe limits for these toxic metals.
The wheat from the chaff
While there are many other considerations when selecting horse feeds including cost, level of customer service and how well a feed fits your purpose, using the four criteria discussed above will help to narrow down your choices from 60+ companies to just a handful. Once you have your shortlist you can then move onto the finer points for the final selection of feeds for your horses.