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When to Use Commercial Feeds

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While numerous studies have shown that forage-based diets can meet the energy and protein requirements of horses with heightened requirements (ie work, growth, etc), this is dependent on forage consumption (quality and suitability). Lower-quality (ie mature-cut, stemmy) hay may not be able to meet their energy & protein requirements, while horses with poor dentition may not be able to efficiently chew and handle long-stem forage (posing a risk of choke).

In addition, pasture or hay alone cannot meet vitamin & mineral requirements due to the low concentrations within soil, & certain minerals might be severely lacking depending on geographical location. Hay analysis is useful in identifying what level of vitamin & mineral supplementation is required. If hay cannot be used to meet energy and protein requirements, due to hay quality or health issues, using a commercial feed is one option to meet your horse’s remaining requirements.

Types of Commercial Feeds

There are several types of commercial feeds, with 3 main categories: complete feeds, processed feeds (commonly marketed as performance feeds due to higher energy content), and vitamin/mineral premixes & ration balancers.

Complete feeds contain high fiber, and are commonly formulated with alfalfa meal or other soluble fiber sources, so can replace the hay ration as needed. These feeds are complete and balanced at the recommended feeding rates, and are useful for horses who cannot handle long-stem fiber safely or efficiently (ie, due to dentition), or when requirements cannot be met by the hay being fed/by what hay is available.

Processed feeds can come in a variety of formulations (pelleted, textured or extruded), and contain processed and mixed ingredients or grains (textured) to provide more digestible energy and protein to the diet. These feeds are also commonly fortified with vitamin/minerals, and can meet requirements if fed at the recommended feeding rates.

Note that complete feeds & processed feeds typically have higher feeding rates, so it is important to ensure these feeding rates are followed to ensure adequate nutrient consumption. If fed below the recommended feeding rates, vitamin/mineral deficiencies may result. As these feeds contain digestible energy sources, they may not be a good match for easy-keeping horses. If feeding a commercial feed, it is important to match its formulation to the requirements not covered by your horse’s hay - if your horse can meet their energy and protein requirements on their hay, then a commercial feed that supplies high energy and protein is not required.

Vitamin/mineral premixes & ration balancers are incredibly useful to top off requirements without oversupplying energy. A premix is useful when on a forage-based diet, as hay often cannot meet vit/min requirements due to soil mineral deficiencies and storage vitamin losses, while a ration balancer is a useful option if a low protein hay is fed, as ration balancers contain protein and concentrated vitamin/minerals. Both premixes and ration balancers are useful additions when a low feeding rate of a commercial diet leaves nutritional gaps.

When to Feed a Commercial Feed

Commercial feeds are useful strategies to meet the requirements that may not be met with hay (due to hay quality or health concerns). Horses will generally consume ~2.0% of their DW in hay, but depending on the quality of the hay, horses may not be able to eat enough hay required to consume the elevated amount of energy and protein needed.

While other feedstuffs (oils, alternative fibers, and fats) can be used to top up these requirements, such feedstuffs may contain vitamin/mineral imbalances themselves - these imbalances must be accounted for with vitamin/mineral supplementation.

Using a balanced commercial feed means that feed will contain a balanced vit/min profile while adding energy/protein to the diet, and thus may be more practical in some situations - this is why large boarding barns often use commercial feeds.

Due to the different types of commercial feeds available, selection is also important to ensure suitability for the horse and their nutritional requirements. It is important to consider energy and protein sources in the feed - high NSC content may contribute to excitable behaviour, and may increase risk of GI upset should starch bypass foregut digestion and cause hindgut acidosis. Advances in equine nutrition suggest that high starch feeds are not required to fuel the performance horse. Protein sources should be high quality, providing digestible & high proportions of amino acids to meet requirements. Organic trace minerals have better bioavailability and are useful additions in formulations.

Using a balanced commercial feed at the recommended feeding rate means that feed will contain a balanced vit/min profile while adding energy/protein to the diet, and thus may be more practical in some situations (at the correct feeding rate).


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