What's in the Bag? Feed Tags can tell a Lot
Bill Vandergrift, PhD
Read any good feed tags lately? Tags are not all the same. Even
similar feeds from different firms can have very different tags.
Here are some tips to clue you in on what you are reading.
More extensive nutrient listings and specific ingredient listings
generally indicate the feed is "a fixed formula," meaning the
product will be consistent from month-to-month.
Extensive nutrient guarantees and specific ingredient listings do
not tell you the quality of the ingredients. Is the company using
28-pound-per-bushel oats or 44-pound-per-bushel weight oats?
This may be determined by looking, but that is not always possible
prior to purchase.
You also need to look at the energy, fat and protein levels.
One important piece of information not found on the feed label is
the digestible energy content. There is no satisfactory method
for determining digestible energy levels in the lab. Total energy
content can be measured, but how much of it is digestible?
A piece of wood contains a lot of total energy, but I'm not about
to feed it to my horse.
How do you know what the digestible energy content of a feed
product is? The best you can do is look at general levels by
evaluating the fat and fiber content of the feed.
The higher the fat guarantee and the lower the fiber guarantee,
the higher the digestible energy content. Lower fiber-containing
feeds tend to be more digestible. Fat contains more energy per
pound than any other dietary component. Therefore, as fat
increases and fiber decreases, digestible energy levels increase.
It is useless to compare published energy levels of feeds
provided by different feed companies. Different companies use
different energy values for the same ingredients, and sometimes
use different units to express energy values.
It is more accurate (although that means ballpark accuracy, at
best) to simply look at fat and fiber guarantees.
The form can also affect digestible energy content. For example,
steam-flaked corn provides more digestible energy than whole corn
or coarsely cracked corn, but the differences are not as great as
a six percent-fat feed compared to a four percent-fat feed.
Once you've decided on the appropriate protein level for your
horses, you should also consider the quality of the protein.
Poultry manure contains approximately 25 percent protein. I am
not, however, about to feed poultry manure to my horses, let
alone weanlings, because the quality of that protein is not high
enough to support adequate growth and development in growing
Amino acid levels are a good indication of the digestibility and
overall quality of protein. This is why I recommend using feeds
that guarantee lysine levels. A 12-percent protein feed with a
guaranteed lysine level of 0.6 percent will give you better
results than a 14 percent protein feed with a lysine level of 0.4
percent. It is the amino acid content of the feed, not the total
protein level of the feed, that will determine how well your
horses use the protein they ingest.
When specific ingredient listings are used, you can evaluate the
actual protein sources. Soybean meal offers the best quality from
plant protein sources. Milk protein sources, such as whey or
dried skim milk, are good protein sources, but are normally used
only in feeds for young horses. Many feeds contain added amino
acids such as lysine and methionine. A feed product that uses
soybean meal with added lysine will provide a high-quality
protein source to your horses.
Not all mineral sources are equal in digestibility. If you are
comparing two feeds that have equal guaranteed copper and zinc
levels, but one feed label lists copper carbonate and zinc oxide
while the other feed label lists copper sulfate and zinc sulfate,
which one would you rather have?
I would select the feed with copper sulfate and zinc sulfate
since mineral sulfates tend to be more digestible than mineral
carbonate or oxide forms.
Organic mineral sources are even better than mineral sulfate
forms, but they tend to be more expensive. You will see them in
the ingredient listing section of the label as "proteinates" or
"chelates" (that is, copper proteinate or zinc proteinate).
There is more false advertising in relation to vitamin levels
than any other nutrient. Vitamins are expensive and may therefore
be excluded from the formula or added in such small amounts that
they might as well not been added at all.
Even though a vitamin or mineral level may be guaranteed,
evaluate the actual level to ensure that it is sufficient to
provide a benefit.
B-complex vitamins will have a greater benefit to horses that are
under increased stress, such as performance horses and growing
horses. Check the ingredient listing for the presence of thiamin,
riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, choline, folic acid,
pyridoxine, biotin and B-12. Many feed products with excellent
reputations are missing one or more of these important vitamins.
Feed tag basics
Feed manufacturers are required to provide basic information on
The name of the feed can be almost anything, as long as it does
not state or imply any drug or medicinal claims not allowed by
USDA. A simple statement identifying the type of feed (textured,
pelleted, extruded, complete and so on) should be on the tag.
The "purpose statement" should identify the type of horse for
which the feed is designed. Is this feed appropriate for
weanlings, lactating mares, senior horses or is it a
general-purpose product? Is it a complete feed product, a diet
balancer or a fortified grain mix?
The number of nutrients a company guarantees on a feed label can
give the consumer information about the company and the product.
The only nutrients required to be guaranteed on horse feed labels
are minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat, maximum crude
fiber, minimum and maximum calcium, minimum phosphorus, and
minimum zinc, copper, selenium and vitamin A.
A company can, however, elect to guarantee as many nutrients as
it wants. State regulatory agencies will only test specific
nutrient levels that are guaranteed on the label.
There are two basic methods for listing ingredients on feed
labels, generic and specific.
Generic listings include ingredient categories, such as grain
products, plant protein products, forage products, grain
by-products and so forth. Specific listings must list the actual
ingredient, such as oats or barley, soybean meal or cottonseed
Some states require that feed companies use specific listings on
their labels. A feed company that uses generic listings, where
allowed, usually does so it can enable it to least-cost formulate
the product. Generic listings allow a much broader ability to
substitute ingredients into and out of a particular product. For
example, barley could be substituted for oats, or cottonseed meal
could be substituted for soybean meal.
Feeding directions can be simple or detailed. They should provide
enough information to achieve desired results.
Good feeding directions should also provide alternatives. For
example, most grain mixes must be fed at a rate of six to seven
pounds per day to satisfy mineral and vitamin requirements of
adult working horses. If your horse is only receiving three to
four pounds per day, directions should explain how you can meet
mineral and vitamin requirements.