Whether your horse is an elite athlete, a pasture pet, or a trail horse, choosing the right feed for him is critical to his health. And one of the first places people look to determine the right grain is the feed tag.
What do feed tags tell you? Not as much as you may think. Basically, there is some information that can be determined by reading the feed tags, and there is some that cannot. Governed by the FDA and the Association of American Feed Control Officials, feed tags must include a product name and weight, ingredients, a statement identifying the type of horse intended to be fed, a guaranteed analysis of certain nutrients, and feeding directions. Some nutrients can be checked routinely and will always appear on the tag. These include crude protein, minimum; crude fat, minimum; crude fiber, maximum; calcium, minimum and maximum; phosphorus, minimum; copper, minimum; selenium, minimum; zinc, minimum; and vitamin A, minimum.
Analysis simply provides us with the nutrient levels of feed. Bioavailability and quality of the nutrient sources unfortunately are not accounted for. For example, ingredients that may be fine protein sources for other species often don’t have the correct amino acid balance to provide quality protein for horses. This would be particularly important for young, or high performance, horses. Cheap ingredients may be used by manufacturers trying to meet protein levels on tag guarantees without regard for the amino acid quality of that protein. In that case the feed would not provide optimum nutrition for horses.
State regulatory agencies at manufacturing facilities take random test samples to make sure products meet tag guarantees, insuring consumers that the feed they purchase contains the stated amounts of those nutrients. While some nutrients needed by horses are not required on the tag (perhaps due to the cost of testing or lack of reliability in testing for these additional nutrients), it doesn’t mean they are not in the feed.
One big caveat when reading feed tags is to not look for the tag with the “most” of everything listed. If one tag lists, say a larger amount of Vitamin D3 than another, the larger amount is not necessarily better. A feed could have too much of one vitamin, causing health problems in horses when fed over extended periods. More is not always better.
When checking the ingredient list on a tag, the listing may include either specific ingredients such as oats or corn, or generic ones such as grain or grain by-products. The list does not include all the nutrients in the product, or the quality of them: it is simply a list of ingredients used to make that product. Horses have protein, vitamin, mineral and caloric requirements, not oat or corn requirements. The ingredients are simply a means to supply those nutrients.
A feed tag will not help you choose the best product for your horse; all it does is help you to choose an appropriate product for your specific usage. The tag can help you eliminate products that don’t suit your need and choose those that are closest to it.
There are many things to consider outside of your feed label as well. The horses that died from contaminated feed in Clovis, California were victims of monensin poisoning, a feed additive which increases feed efficiency in cattle but is deadly to horses. These deaths could have been prevented had the manufacturer produced the feed using ionophore-free manufacturing. “Free” means ionophores (ingredients that are beneficial in cattle feeds but deadly to horses) are not used in any feed manufactured in that system.
Plants that manufacture cattle feed containing ionophores may instead use a “safe” designation, meaning that the system is “flushed” after the cattle feed is produced before making horse feed. However, there is always the possibility of contamination. Ask your feed company, is their system ionophore free? Your horse’s life may depend on it.
Does your feed manufacturer have an established protocol for reviewing suppliers for specific ingredients? Suppliers should have specific nutrient standards that they use for each ingredient, and only suppliers following that protocol should be used. Suppliers also must meet quality standards that may require testing for contaminants during processing and prior to shipping to a horse feed manufacturing plant.
Ingredients also need to be tested for the toxins fumonisin and aflatoxin. Most often found in corn, they can be found in other ingredients as well.
Feed mills are made up of thousands of moving metal parts. Because of this, all bags of horse feed needs to go through a metal detector sensitive enough to pick up small pieces of metal. Bags containing metal should automatically be removed from the line.
Ask your feed company if their feed is formulated by a PhD equine nutritionist. It should be. Feed for horses needs to be designed by a specialist in horses, not other species. As well, it should be formulated by someone who stays up to date on the latest scientific, nutritional facts.
Now that you know the specifics of reading a feed label and what protocols your feed company should follow, you can choose a product designed to meet your horse’s nutritional needs and manufactured by a reputable company that you trust to provide the safest, most consistent nutrition.