Horses are expensive. Now that we have the obvious out of the way, let’s get down to business.  What are some of the ways you can save money on equine feed while still giving your horse the nutrition he or she needs?

Horses can consume over 3% of their bodyweight per day in feed and forage.  For a 500 kg horse (1100 lb), which we will be our reference throughout, that’s 15 kg (33 lbs)/day.  At 35 cents a kilogram for hay, forage alone would cost over $150 per month.  As they say, ‘there is no such thing as a free horse’.

For all the pedant’s out there, 2% of bodyweight is the number most used to estimate a horse’s intake and is a good average to work from. Still, intake is highly variable and dictated by many factors other than body weight.

There are no magic solutions for reducing the cost of purchased forage, realistically in most parts of North America, it is relatively inexpensive.  The Floridians will be howling at that comment! Pasture may represent the single biggest cost savings to horse owners managing them properly can save you a pile of money!

Techniques such as strip grazing (usually reserved for sheep and cattle), rotating paddocks and having a sacrifice paddock to rest pastures, can greatly enhance the productivity of pasture. If managed like a viable source of feed, it can improve the health and well-being of your horse and your pocketbook.

There are drawbacks to fresh grass, particularly for sedentary, overweight or metabolic horses.

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High Cost of Commercial Horse Feed

Generally, the next largest cost comes in a shiny bag from your local feed dealer – commercial horse feed.  The industry has exploded in the last 25 years – long gone are the days of the 100 lbs sacks of mill mix that cost a fraction of what today’s much smaller more refined options cost.

Commercial horse feeds seem like a convenient option for most horse owners, because they are specifically formulated for horses, therefore must contain everything their horse needs; right?  Well, sort of.  Most commercial feeds are formulated to be fed at 3 kg (6.6 lbs) to 5 kg (11 lbs) per day.

This means if feeding less than 3 kg, some of the mineral and vitamin levels in the diet will still be deficient.

In a diet evaluation study conducted in 2018, 200 equine diets were completely analyzed (Bruggink et al., 2018 unpublished).  In excess of 90% of those diets were found to be deficient in at least one major trace mineral or vitamin, with the vast majority of those horses being fed commercial grain mixes to supplement their forage program.

How much does having an imbalanced ration cost? There are few commercial horse feeds that cost less than $1/kg, so that is anywhere from $30 to $150 per month, depending on the feeding rate and you still don’t have a balanced ration in many cases.

What does your horse actually need?  They need to be allowed to forage, which means they need to be eating at least 12 hours per day. They also need energy, protein, fat, minerals and vitamins.

Hay or pasture contains all the above, but unfortunately, not all nutrients are found at adequate levels or in the correct balance.

Note there was no mention of the horse needing a commercial grain mix.  What they do need is a good mineral and vitamin to balance the forage, like our Omneity or AminoTrace+ formulas.

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If the forage does not provide adequate protein or calories, then any of the following can be added at a much lower cost than commercial horse feed.  Prices are estimates and will vary significantly.

Low-Cost Feeds to Supplement your Horse’s Diet

Feeds to increase the energy density of diet:

  • Soyhulls $0.35/kg
  • Beet Pulp $0.80/kg
  • Vegetable oil $1.50/L
  • Oats $0.35/kg
  • Wheat Shorts $0.30/kg
  • Flax $0.70/kg
  • Dried distillers grains $0.30/kg

 

Feeds to increase protein density of diet:

  • Soybean meal $0.75/kg
  • Whole Roasted Soybean $0.85/kg
  • Flax or linseed meal – $0.70/kg
  • Dried distillers’ grains – $0.30/kg
  • Canola meal $0.60/kg

 

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but just an example of a few options out there. These are all mass-produced commodity ingredients, hence the low cost.  They may not seem as exotic as – say – copra meal brought from distant lands or chia seeds, but we need to look past the marketing of products and understand the nutrients they are delivering.

No one is going to make a fancy marketing story for distillers’ grains, there is not enough economic gain to be had.  Gather up some waste coconut meal (copra meal) on a distant shore, ship it thousands of miles and suddenly it is a magical ingredient for your horse – or an overpriced by-product? Perception is reality.

From the shores of the largest freshwater source on earth, the leaves of maize blow in the open air, getting ready for harvest.  This crop will be carried a short distance to be processed into the finest quality Vodka: A-Maizing Vodka, quadruple distilled using only the finest Spring waters.

The remaining mash is carefully dried down to create a super food for your horse, complete with yeast and fermentation solubles to enhance digestion and palatability.

Providing your horse with COOL calories from soluble fibre and essential fatty acids. It also provides complete protein containing all essential amino acids, enzymes, and probiotics.

There is nothing false in the above statement, but it sure makes dried distillers’ grains sound a lot sexier than calling it a by-product of ethanol production.

Comparing Costs of Equine Diets

Let’s look at an example of a ‘traditional’ equine diet and compare that to a viable alternative.  First, a comment on forage quality.  Simply selecting higher quality hay can significantly lower the need for supplemental feeds.

Table 1. shows how matching the hay quality to your horse’s needs can significantly reduce the need for supplemental energy and protein sources.  The intakes are based on the maximum capacity of a 500 kg horse at given NDF levels.

 

How to Feed a Horse on a Budget | Mad Barn USA

 

Given the majority of hay qualities are sold at the same price – often appearance is a bigger dictating factor of price than actual nutritive quality – it may be economically advantageous to purchase higher quality hay, even for a maintenance horse, and simply limit the intake of the hay to match the horse’s nutritional needs.

This can be done through the use of hay nets and/or multiple small feedings per day of a set amount.  The key is to ensure the horse does not go without forage for more than 3 to 4 hours at a time.

Figure 1 – A diet constructed for a 500 kg horse at a moderate level of exercise (1 hour of exercise 3 to 5 times per week) using a typical commercial complete feed. Bar graphs that go above the red line show an excess of nutrients and those below show nutrient deficiencies.

Complete Horse Feed Diet Comparison | Mad Barn USA

The feeding rate is lower than recommended by the manufacturer because the hay provides most of the calories and all the protein needed.  This leaves some key trace minerals, like zinc and selenium below required levels.  It is costing over $1.00 per day to add this feed, yet the diet is still not balanced.

Compare that with the following figure:

Figure 2 a simple diet with dried distillers’ grains and a high-quality mineral and vitamin to balance the diet. This analysis adds Mad Barn’s Omneity ration balancer to the diet. The nutritional requirements of the horse are now being met and this diet costs $0.40/day less than the one utilizing a commercial complete feed.

 

Horse Feed Supplement Nutrition Analysis | Mad Barn USA

 

The diet examples are not just about cost.  Long-term low-grade deficiencies will negatively impact the health and performance of the horse.  Even in times of economic prosperity, it is worthwhile evaluating the feeding options for your horse.  You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you can reduce costs and improve the quality of the diet.

The example diets do not show a complete nutritional breakdown of the diet for simplicity.  Other deficiencies are also present in the commercial feed example.  Click here to evaluate your horse’s diet and determine whether any minerals or vitamins need to be adjusted.

You should always consult with a qualified nutritionist before implementing any feed program.  We would be happy to help. Contact us directly online and one of our Mad Barn equine nutritionists will be happy to give you a complimentary review of your horse’s diet.

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