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, 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, but 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.
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).
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In a diet evaluation study conducted in 2018, 200 equine diets were completely analyzed (Bruggink et al., 2018 unpublished).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 it cost to have an imbalanced ration? There are few commercial horse feeds that cost less than $1/kg, so that is anywhere from $30 to $150 per month, depending on 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, so that 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.
If the forage does not provide adequate protein or calories, then any of the following can be added at a much lower cost than a commercial horse feed. Prices are estimates and will vary significantly.
Low-Cost Feeds to Supplement your Horse’s Diet
Feeds to increase 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
- 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 of the options that are out there. These are all commodity ingredients that are mass produced, 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 fresh water 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 fiber and essential fatty acids. It also provides complete protein containing all the essential amino acids and 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 a higher quality hay can significantly lower the need for supplemental feeds.
Table 1. shows how matching the hay quality to your horses 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.
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 a 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 shows 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, those below show nutrient deficiencies.
The feeding rate is lower than recommended by the manufacturer because the hay is providing most of the calories and all the protein needed. This leaves some key trace minerals, like copper, 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 Figure 2, where we simply add some dried distillers grains and a high quality mineral and vitamin to balance the diet. In this analysis, Mad Barn’s Omneity ration balancer is added 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.
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 cost 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 find out whether there are any minerals or vitamins that 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 complementary review of your horse’s diet.
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