“Should I feed my horse MasterPerform Complete or Go Glow Equine?” my client asks me. Honestly, I have no idea. I typically respond, “Let me see the label,” and then I start to sweat. Because feed labels are probably one of the most complicated, hard-to-understand, tiniest pieces of paper on the planet!
I’m here to help you understand the basics behind deciphering feed labels. I’ll tell you what’s required to appear on a label by law, what those listings mean, and how to make the basic calculations to determine what’s really in the bag. With this information, you’ll be able to decide which feed is most likely to meet your horse’s needs.
Anatomy of a Feed Tag
Feed tags are considered legal documents and are regulated by both federal and state laws. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) determines guidelines for proper labeling. Here’s a guide to the six things that must be listed on every bag of feed: product name/basics, purpose statement, guaranteed analysis, ingredients list, feeding directions, and precautions.
We’ll start by examining the name, basics, and purpose statement; the rest will follow after that.
Product Name and Basics: Every feed label must include both the brand and product names of the feed, as well as the name and address of the manufacturer and weight of the bag. This basic information allows you to identify the feed and provides details to seek more information or help regarding feed quality or other issues.
Purpose Statement: Each feed must state what type of horse the product has been formulated for, such as mature non-working horses, pregnant or lactating mares, or growing foals. Common sense says it’s wise to pay attention to this statement—and avoid purchasing a feed designed for pregnant mares for your senior equine.
Here’s where things get complicated. The guaranteed analysis provides specific amounts of basic nutrients included in the feed, such as protein, fat, fiber, and specific vitamins and minerals. These listings provide no information about the quality or source of nutrients—meaning it’s a big mistake to depend entirely on guaranteed analysis when making feeding decisions. You’ll need to pay close attention to the ingredient list as well (see page 54). It’s important to understand what the numbers listed under “guaranteed analysis” mean and how to make sense of them. The information below gives you an overview; refer to the sidebar on page 52 for details about making calculations to seriously analyze your horse’s ration.
Crude Protein (min): The percent of crude protein is a measure of the minimum total amount of protein in the feed without accounting for quality or digestibility. Protein comes from a variety of sources and can be made up of a number of different amino acids—the nitrogen-containing compounds that are considered the building blocks of protein. Certain amino acids (including lysine, methionine, and threonine) are essential to meet your horse’s nutritional needs. Alfalfa, milk proteins, and soybean meal are typically high in lysine and provide quality protein. Lysine may be listed separately on some feel labels, but the crude protein value doesn’t provide any of this information on its own.
Your horse’s total ration should consist of 10- to 14-percent protein, depending on his age and work demands (a broodmare, hardworking horse, or growing youngster needs more than a retired pasture pet). This translates to approximately 1.5 to 3.0 pounds of quality protein per day, which can come from pasture, hay, and the feed you choose. If you feed a high-protein hay (like alfalfa), you can choose a feed with lower crude protein than if you’re trying to make up for protein-deficient forage. Most feeds range between 8- and 16-percent crude protein.
Crude Fat (min): This is a measure of the minimum percentage of total fat in the feed. As a rule of thumb, higher-fat feeds will be lower in starch and sugar. Fat also provides a large amount of energy, meaning high-fat feeds are typically higher in calories. High-fat feeds are popular and can be beneficial for athletic horses, hard keepers, or those with certain medical issues such as polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM, a muscle disorder). Typical feeds contain between 3- and 15-percent fat, although some specifically designed to be high-fat supplements may be even higher.
Crude Fiber (max): The percent of crude fiber is a measure of the maximum percentage of fiber in the feed. Fiber is the structural portion of the plant that’s indigestible and helps the intestines function normally, but high-fiber feeds are typically lower in digestible energy. If the majority of your horse’s ration consists of hay or pasture, he’s probably getting plenty of fiber from those sources, so high fiber content in your concentrate isn’t necessary. However, if your horse depends on a “complete feed” concentrate for his entire ration, or you are trying to make up for poor hay availability, a higher fiber content could be beneficial. Fiber contents of feeds vary widely from as little as 7-percent to 25-percent or more.
Calcium (min and max): Calcium, a macro-mineral essential for bone metabolism and especially important in athletes and growing horses, is expressed as a guaranteed minimum and maximum percent of total feed. It works in conjunction with phosphorus, so the ratio of these two minerals to one another is most important. Ideally, your horse’s total ratio will be about 2 to 1 calcium to phosphorus. Calcium should always exceed phosphorus. Higher amounts of calcium are acceptable for normal, healthy horses and can help prevent gastric ulcers.
An average, 1,000-pound horse’s daily requirement for calcium is approximately 20 grams per day. This increases with hard work and can more than double for a lactating mare. Most feeds contain between 0.7- and 1.5-percent calcium, although a feed designed to support gastric function (and help prevent ulcers) can be as high as 5-percent. Alfalfa hay is high in calcium, making calcium levels in the feed less important. If, however, you feed a low-calcium hay, you might be wise to do the math—especially if your horse is a hard-working athlete or a growing foal.
[READ: BUY THE RIGHT HAY FOR YOUR HORSE]
Phosphorus (min): Like calcium, phosphorus is important for bone metabolism. The phosphorus value on the feed label tells you the minimum percent of phosphorus in the feed. Too much phosphorus competes with calcium, so it’s especially important that the percent phosphorus be less than the percent calcium. Cereal grains and wheat bran can be high in phosphorus. Your average 1,100-pound horse’s daily requirement for phosphorus is approximately 14 grams per day and, just like calcium, increases with exercise or growth. Most feeds range between 0.4- and 0.6-percent phosphorus.
Copper (min): Copper, a trace mineral with many functions (including maintenance of connective tissues and a role in developmental orthopedic disease) has its level listed as the minimum parts per million (ppm) in the bag of feed. Your average 1,100 pound-horse should get between 100 and 120 mg of copper in his daily ration, or more with hard work as copper can be lost in sweat. Most feeds contain between 35 and 80 ppm.
Selenium (min): Selenium is a trace mineral listed as parts per million in feed. It plays an important role in muscle function and is necessary for proper vitamin E metabolism. Selenium is one of the more complicated nutrients to consider when formulating your horse’s ration, because forages from certain areas of the country are selenium-deficient, meaning that if you live in one of these areas, your horse won’t get enough from hay or pasture and supplementation is critical. There’s a fairly narrow margin between not enough and too much, so selenium toxicity is possible. Your horse should get approximately 3 mg selenium per day, but you’d be wise to consult with your veterinarian about whether selenium-deficient soils are a problem in your area to determine how much to supplement. Most feeds contain between 0.3 and 0.6 ppm selenium.
Zinc (min): Zinc, an essential part of many enzymes that contribute to basic functioning of your horse’s body, is also a trace mineral listed as the minimum parts per million in the feed. It’s present in fairly high quantities in hay, pasture, and cereal grains, so chances are your horse gets enough zinc without supplementation. Zinc does interfere with copper, meaning too much zinc may be more of a problem than too little, and can lead to copper deficiency. The ratio of zinc to copper in your horse’s total ration should be no more than 3:1, and he needs a total of approximately 500 mg of zinc per day. Most feeds contain between 140 and 280 ppm zinc.
Vitamin A (min): Essential vitamin A is listed in IU/lb on the feed label. (When making calculations, ensure that it isn’t IU/kg or you must make that conversion.) It plays many roles in your horse’s body, including supporting his immune system and his vision. If your horse grazes, chances are he gets plenty of vitamin A from pasture. He’ll also get it from good quality hay, although levels drop when hay is stored. Your horse requires 15,000 IU/day of vitamin A, and most feeds contain up to 4,000 IU per pound of feed.
“How much of X is my horse getting in his daily ration?” To answer that question correctly, you must decipher measures like percent and parts per million—and that requires math! Here’s a guide to the most common calculations you’ll face when reading a feed tag: percent, parts per million, international units per pound, and milligrams per pound.
Commonly used for: Protein; fat; fiber; and macro minerals including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium.
What it means: The amount in proportion to 100 (for example 1 cent is 1 percent of a dollar). Your horse’s requirements are expressed either as a percent of the total diet or in a specific amount per day.
Do the math: To calculate how much a percent really is, move the decimal two places to the left and multiply by the total amount of feed. For example, if you feed your horse 5 pounds of a feed with 12-percent protein in a 50-pound bag, here’s how to calculate what you’re feeding.
• 0.12 x 50 lbs = 6 lbs of protein in the bag
• 6 lbs protein = 0.12 lbs of protein per 1 lb of feed 50 lbs feed
• 0.12 lbs x 5 = 0.6 lbs of protein fed
Parts Per Million (PPM)
Commonly used for: Trace minerals including copper, zinc, manganese, and selenium.
What it means: The number milligrams of per kilogram of feed. (1 kilogram equals 2.2 pounds). Your horse’s requirements are typically expressed as milligrams per day.
Do the math: If you feed your horse 5 pounds of a feed containing 0.6 ppm selenium, here’s how to do the calculation.
• 0.6 ppm = 0.6 mg selenium/kg feed = 0.273 mg/lb feed 2.2 mg/ kg
• 0.273 mg/lb x 5 lb = 1.365 mg selenium
International Unit (IU)
Commonly used for: Vitamins A, D, and E.
What it means: An international unit is arbitrary measure indicating the biological activity of a substance. Your horse’s requirements are expressed as total number of international units per day.
Do the math: IU/lb is most commonly listed on the label, and the calculation is relatively simple. If you feed your horse 5 pounds of feed containing 5,000 IU/lb of vitamin A, you are feeding the following.
• 5 lbs x 5000 IU/lb = 25,000 IU of vitamin A per day
(Note: If IU/kg is used, convert kilograms to pounds. 1 pound = 2.2kg. By multiplying the IU/kg by 2.2, you can determine the IU/lb.)
Milligrams Per Pound (mg/lb)
Commonly used for: Biotin and vitamin C.
What it means: Milligrams per pound is the most straightforward of the measures you’ll encounter. It means just what it says: the number of milligrams of substance per pound of feed. Your horse’s requirements are expressed as total number of milligrams per day.
Do the math: If you feed your horse 5 pounds of feed containing 0.5mg/lb of biotin, you are feeding the following.
• 5 lbs x 0.5mg/lb = 2.5 mg of biotin per day
While the guaranteed analysis tells you what basic nutrients are in the bag, the ingredient list tells you where those nutrients come from—it’s your best window into determining quality. Ingredients are commonly listed in descending order of inclusion; the first thing on the list is present in the largest amount.
There are two different ways that ingredients are likely to be listed: either as individual terms or as collective terms. If ingredients are listed as individual terms (e.g., corn, oats, barley), you’ll know exactly what’s in the feed. If, however, they’re listed as collective terms (e.g., grain products, which could refer to corn, oats, barley or a number of other things), you won’t know details. The practice of listing collective terms is accepted by the AAFCO and isn’t always a bad thing. It allows manufacturers to adjust specific ingredients depending on what’s available without changing the feed tag, which can make it easier to control costs and make small adjustments in the feed. Unfortunately, it makes it more difficult to analyze what’s in the bag.
A look at an ingredients list with individual terms can answer questions about quality and digestibility of certain nutrients. For example, because soybean meal, milk proteins, and alfalfa are all good sources of protein that are high in lysine, seeing these ingredients at the top of the list gives you a good idea that the crude protein percentage of the feed consists primarily of the type of protein your horse really needs. Similarly, details like “selenium yeast” instead of “sodium selenite” tells you that the ppm selenium contained in the feed comes from the more digestible, organic form of this mineral. The more you learn about different sources and forms of different nutrients, the more details you can decipher from the ingredients portion of the feed label.
Feeding Directions, Precautions
Want to know how much of the feed is recommended daily? Check the directions and precautions. If you expect your horse to get all of his essential nutrients from what’s in the bag, it’s essential that you feed the amount that’s recommended based on his situation. You’ll also see feeds formulated specifically for horses on different types of hay. For example, if your horse eats alfalfa, the feed you choose may have a lower protein level and less calcium than if your horse is on an all-grass diet. Be aware that the nutritionists who formulate these feeds are making all of the complicated calculations for you, so it’s best to pay attention and follow the feeding recommendations on the bag.
Finally, feed companies are required to list any cautions or warnings you should be aware of. For most equine feed this consists of “feed as directed,” or “store in a dry, well-ventilated area.” ↔