The label on your horse’s feed bag provides valuable information to help you make feeding decisions for your horse.
Known as the feed tag, this label describes the nutritional composition of your horse’s feed and how it is intended to be used.
Whether you are looking for the right high-protein feed for your growing foal or a low-fat feed for your easy keeper, the feed tag can help you decide.
But unless you have a degree in equine nutrition and an affinity for mental math, it can be difficult to interpret all of the information presented on the feed tag.
Fortunately, feed manufacturers are required by law to include certain information on the tag in a standardized form. This makes it easy to compare feeds and select the most appropriate one for your horse.
In this article, we will help you understand all of the information presented on a standard feed tag and give you some important tips for selecting feed.
If you need help choosing a feed for your horse, you can browse our feed database which contains information on over 2,500 feeds. You can also submit your horse’s information online and our nutritionists can assist you for free.
The following is a sample feed tag showing the standard components. Each of these parts of the feed tag is explained in further delay below.
Product Name: The name should be appropriate based on what the product is designed to do. Product names cannot imply any health-benefit claims that cannot be proven.
Purpose Statement: In the United States, this statement describes the type of horse this product is designed for, such as a pregnant or senior horse. It also describes the intended use of the feed, such as for maintenance or weight gain.
In Canada, this statement describes the form of the feed (if it is in a form other than a mash), such as a pelleted or liquid feed.
Selenium Statement: Only required on Canadian feeds, this statement describes the selenium content of the feed in mg per kg.
Guaranteed Analysis: This section provides information on the concentration of basic nutrients in the feed.
Ingredient Statement: In the US, all ingredients are required to be listed on the feed tag in order of inclusion by weight.
In Canada, the feed label does not have to provide an ingredient list, but can instead direct the customer to contact the manufacturer to receive the ingredients list.
Directions for Use: This section should describe how much of the feed to provide a horse based on body weight and other considerations. It must contain enough detail so that the consumer can safely and effectively use the feed.
If the product is fortified with minerals and vitamins, manufacturers set the feeding rate to ensure that the horse receives the correct amount of nutrients to match body weight.
Manufacturer’s Info: This tells you the name of the company that manufactured the feed and where they are located. Contact information may or may not be provided.
Net Weight: The total weight of the feed product.
The Guaranteed Analysis
The guaranteed analysis (GA) contains information about the levels of certain macronutrients, vitamins and minerals found in your horse’s feed bag.
In the US, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) dictates the nutrients that must be listed on the GA for all fortified horse feeds.
While the GA contains some of the most useful information on the feed tag, it can be difficult to interpret. The numbers shown describe the concentrations of nutrients in the feed and not the actual amounts.
You will need to do some math to calculate the actual quantities for the individual nutrients in your horse’s diet.
Below is a description of all of the nutrient values that are required to be listed in the GA under US law.
These are the nutrients that your horse requires in large amounts, such as fat, carbohydrates, and protein. The following macronutrients will be listed on the GA.
- Minimum percent crude protein (CP)
- Minimum percent crude fat (fat)
- Maximum percent crude fiber (CF)
- Maximum percent acid detergent fibre (ADF)
- Maximum percent neutral detergent fibre (NDF)
These are minerals that are required in larger quantities in the equine diet. Macromineral requirements for horses are typically stated in terms of grams per day.
- Minimum percent of calcium (Ca)
- Maximum percent of calcium (Ca)
- Minimum percent of phosphorus (P)
Trace Minerals & Vitamins
Trace minerals (microminerals) are required in smaller quantities compared to macrominerals. Trace mineral requirements for horses are typically stated in milligrams per day.
Vitamins are organic substances that are required in the horse’s diet.
- Minimum copper (Cu) concentration in parts per million (ppm)
- Minimum selenium (Se) concentration in ppm
- Minimum zinc (Zn) concentration in ppm
- Minimum vitamin A in International Units (IU)
Nutrients that are present at insignificant levels are not required on the feed tag.
Canadian Feed Tag Regulations
The regulations for feed tags in Canada are slightly different. In addition to the nutrients listed above, Canadian feed tags also generally list:
- Macrominerals (as percentages)
- Vitamins (in IU/kg)
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Added microminerals (in mg/kg)
Nutrients on the Guaranteed Analysis
What do all of the nutrient values on the Guaranteed Analysis mean and how do you make feeding decisions for your horse based on the numbers presented?
Below, we explain the nutrients that must be present on the feed tag and how they impact the nutritional profile of your horse’s diet.
Crude Protein (CP)
Crude protein provides an estimate of the minimum amount of protein supplied by the feed. This value is referred to as crude because it measures total nitrogen content, not the actual protein content.
Your horse’s total diet should supply between 8-14% crude protein. Unless they are growing, lactating, or in hard work, good-quality hay will usually meet a horse’s protein requirements.
Protein is made of building blocks known as amino acids. There are 21 amino acids that make up the proteins in a horse’s body and ten of these are considered essential in the diet.
In some cases, your horse may be getting adequate protein in the diet but may not be getting enough of the essential amino acids. Deficiency in one or more of the so-called limiting amino acids could have negative effects.
If you are looking for a protein supplement for your horse, choose proteins with a balanced amino acid profile that include the three common limiting amino acids:
- Lysine: Soybean meal, canola meal and alfalfa meal
- Methionine: Alfalfa, flax, rice bran, sunflower seeds or beet pulp
- Threonine: found in most plant and animal protein ingredients
Animal proteins, such as those from milk, have a balanced amino acid profile. Individual amino acids can also be directly added to your horse’s diet.
Crude fat provides an estimate of the minimum amount of fat in a feed. Fats are calorie-dense and contain over two times the energy per gram found in carbohydrates and proteins. Equine diets typically contain less than 8% fat, but horses with high energy demands can be adapted to diets that contain up to 20% fat.
Feeds with a high level of crude fat are often designed as energy supplements for horses that require additional calories and that are sensitive to starches and sugars.
Fibres are carbohydrates that provide plants with structural support. Structural fibres in the plant’s cell walls can be broken into four categories:
- Soluble fibres
Soluble fibres are easily digestible by the horse, meaning they are broken down into sugars and absorbed from the gut.
Insoluble fibres vary in digestibility. Hemicellulose is approximately 50% digestible, while lignin is completely indigestible. 
Although structural fibres are not energy-dense, they play an important role in maintaining digestive tract health.
Several different estimates of fibre content can be provided on a guaranteed analysis:
- Crude Fibre
- Acid Detergent Fibre
- Neutral Detergent Fibre
Crude fibre indicates the maximum amount of indigestible fibres in your feed.
Crude fibre is the name given to fibres left behind after a chemical treatment that removes all the digestible plant material. Although they are not digestible by your horse, some of these fibres can be fermented by microbes in the horse’s hindgut.
As the crude fibre content in a feedstuff increases, the energy content decreases. Feeds with less than 10% fibre tend to be energy-dense and should be fed with care.
Acid Detergent Fibre (ADF)
ADF is a measure of the least digestible plant components, including cellulose and lignin. ADF and crude fibre are theoretically measurements of the same plant components, just estimated with different methods.
ADF tends to be higher than crude fibre because its measurement method captures more cellulose.
Neutral Detergent Fibre (NDF)
NDF is a rough estimate of the total insoluble fibre in a feed. It represents hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin.
The difference between NDF and ADF is the hemicellulose content of a feed. Hemicellulose is relatively fermentable in the horse’s hindgut.
Calcium and Phosphorus
Calcium and phosphorus are important minerals for bone growth and play important roles in metabolic function.
The ideal ratio of calcium to phosphorus in the diet ranges from 1.5:1 to 4:1, depending on the physiological status of the horse. For example, a ratio of 1.5:1 means that for every 1.5 grams of calcium, a horse should consume 1 gram of phosphorus.
Typically, the calcium content in a feed product will be higher than the phosphorus content. However, some forages may require more phosphorus to balance the diet.
Copper, Zinc and Selenium
These micro-minerals are required in very small amounts, but their presence is crucial for your horse’s health.
Information Not on the Guaranteed Analysis
Energy & Calories
The calorie content in your horse’s feed is quantified by the amount of digestible energy (DE) that it contains, as measured in megacalories (Mcal/kg) – a thousand kilocalories per kilogram.
Low energy feeds will provide 2.0 – 2.5 Mcal/kg, while higher energy feeds will provide greater than 3.0 Mcal/kg.
Currently, manufacturers do not have to provide this information on the tag. However, you can use the rest of the information in the guaranteed analysis to determine whether a product is high or low energy.
First, refer to the purpose statement at the top of the label to tell you what kind of horse this product is designed for. Feeds intended for performance horses, hard keepers and growing horses tend to be more calorie-dense, while feeds for horses at maintenance or metabolic horses are less calorie-dense.
Next, check the guaranteed analysis to determine the fat and fibre content. High fat feeds with greater than 6-8% crude fat tend to be high in digestible energy.
High fibre feeds tend to be lower in energy, but not all fibre is equal in calorie content. Some fibre sources, such as beet pulp, are highly digestible and are great energy sources.
Lastly, take a look at the first few ingredients in the ingredient list.
Estimates of digestible energy content of ingredients
The following is a rough estimate of the energy content for common ingredients:
- Roughage ingredients usually have a DE of 2.2-2.5 Mcal/kg
- Beet pulp or other sources of digestible fibre have a DE of around 2.6-3.0 Mcal/kg
- Grains have a higher energy content, usually above 3.3 Mcal/kg. This energy comes from starch and should not be over-fed
- Fats and oils are the most calorie-dense and have a DE of 9 Mcal/kg
If you are looking for a feed with a specific energy density to match your horse’s needs, contact the manufacturer. They should be able to provide you with the DE of their feed.
Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC)
Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) typically refers to the sum of ethanol-soluble sugar and starch. Horses with metabolic issues such as equine metabolic syndrome or those that are prone to laminitis should consume low NSC diets.
However, it is not mandated that feed tags list the NSC content, nor the starch or sugar content.
Dry Matter & Moisture Content
Nutritionists formulate your horse’s diet on a dry matter intake basis. This means we look at all the nutrients being provided to your horse without considering the water that is present in all feedstuffs.
Dry matter is a measure of everything contained in your feed except the water or moisture content. For example, most grain-based products will contain roughly 10% water, meaning they consist of 90% dry matter.
The nutrient information in the guaranteed analysis is not presented on a dry matter basis, but on an as-fed basis which includes water content.
A nutritionist can help you check your calculations to make sure you know the inclusion rates for different nutrients in your horse’s feeding program.
Tips for Selecting a Feed
Here are some things to keep in mind when selecting a feed based on information provided by the guaranteed analysis:
1. Use a forage-focused diet plan
The foundation of your horse’s diet should be good-quality forage. While supplementation of trace minerals and vitamins is important, commercial feeds should only be added to the diet if they are needed.
2. Not all nutrients are equally digestible
A feed might provide a certain amount of a nutrient, but the amount that is available for your horse to digest and absorb will vary depending on the quality of the ingredients used. For example, organic trace minerals are more readily absorbed than inorganic minerals.
3. More is not always better
If certain nutrients are provided in excess, they can be toxic to your horse. For example, feeding excess protein can be harmful to your horse and put undue strain on the kidneys.
4. Nutrient values are not absolute
Nutrients are listed within acceptable ranges of variance. For example, actual levels of crude fibre can vary up to 20% from the stated maximum on the feed tag.
5. Not all nutrient values are listed
The guaranteed analysis only lists levels for certain nutrients. The manufacturer may add nutrients that are not listed in the GA, but they will be listed in the ingredient panel.
Common Unit Conversions
When you are reading a feed tag, you will see nutrient values presented in a standardized format that allows you to compare between different feeds.
If you know that one feed provides 12% protein and another provides 16% protein, you can quickly determine which provides higher protein content and is better for a growing foal or broodmare.
But the feed tag does not directly tell you how much of each actual nutrient is supplied and how those numbers compare to established nutrient requirements for your horse.
For example, a 500 kg (1100 lb) mature horse in heavy work will require 860 – 1000g of protein in their diet per day.
In order to determine how much actual protein a feed is adding to your horse’s diet, you will need to do some simple calculations to convert the nutrient concentration to a value based on the feeding rate.
Percentage (%) Conversion
Protein, fat, fibre, and certain minerals will be listed in the GA on a percentage basis. This tells you how much of a nutrient there is out of a total of 100.
For example, if you feed your horse a complete feed that is 14% crude protein, a 100-gram serving will provide 14 grams of protein.
To calculate how much of a nutrient your horse is receiving from a specific feed, we also need to know the amount you are feeding.
First, convert the percentage to a decimal by dividing the percentage value by 100. Then, multiply this number by the feeding rate.
In the following example, we will calculate the amount of crude protein provided in a 3.75 kg (8.25 lb) serving of a 14% protein feed.
Feeding rate: 3.75 kg
Crude protein: 14%
Feeding rate x crude protein % = amount of protein
14% / 100 = 0.14
0.14 x 3.75 kg = 0.53 kg
At the recommended feeding rate, this feed will provide your horse with 530 grams (0.53 kg) of protein, on an as-fed basis.
Dry Matter Basis
Let’s not forget about moisture! Different feeds will have different amounts of water. For a complete feed, about 10% of the feed is water, whereas a concentrated vitamin/mineral supplement may have just 1% water content. In other words, these are 90% and 99% dry matter, respectively.
If you are comparing the nutrient levels across several feeds, it is best to do so on a dry matter basis to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Using dry matter values is also best for formulating rations as all nutrient requirements and feed intake estimations are on a dry matter basis.
For example, the complete feed with 14% crude protein on an as-fed basis will be 15.5% crude protein on a dry matter basis (14 / 0.9 = 15.5).
In comparison, a concentrated supplement with 14% crude protein on an as-fed basis will be 14.1% crude protein on a dry matter basis (14 / 0.99 = 14.1).
Your nutritionist can help with these calculations to most accurately compare nutrient levels across different feed options.
Parts per million (ppm) Conversion
Just like percent means "out of 100," parts per million means "out of 1 million."
ppm is used to measure the concentration of minerals needed in very small amounts in the equine diet, such as copper, zinc, manganese, and selenium.
1 ppm is equal to 1 mg/kg, which helps you see how much of a given nutrient is in a 1 kg serving size of a feed. The calculations in the following section can be used to determine mg/kg.
The concentration of vitamins and minerals in a formulation can also tell you whether that product is a complete feed or a concentrated ration balancer or supplement.
For example, a complete feed might contain copper at a rate of 35 ppm whereas a mineral and vitamin premix like Mad Barn's Omneity contains 1,000 ppm.
This may sound like a lot of copper, but the feeding rate for a mineral premix is much lower than for a complete feed.
MG/KG or MG/LB Conversion
This unit indicates how many milligrams of a nutrient are within 1 kilogram of feed.
The following is an example of how to calculate the amount of selenium your horse is receiving from a feed that provides 0.4 ppm or mg/kg with 90% dry matter content.
Feeding rate: 3.75 kg
Selenium content: 0.4 mg/kg
3.75 kg x 0.4 = 1.5 mg on an as-fed basis
1.5 / 0.90 = 1.66 mg on a dry matter basis
International Unit (IU) Conversion
International Units are standardized values that are used to indicate internationally accepted amounts of a given nutrient.
IU's are used to measure quantities of fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E and they estimate a particular vitamin's effectiveness in the body.
Feed labels list these vitamins as IU/lb or IU/kg, which quantifies the effectiveness of that vitamin in one pound or one kilogram of feed.
Vitamin E content: 220/IU kg
3.75 kg x 220 IU/kg = 825 IU on an as-fed basis
825 IU / 0.90 = 917 IU on a dry matter basis
KIU is also commonly used, with the K representing 1000 IU. For example, an ingredient provided at 145 KIU/kg will equal 145,000 IU/kg.
Feeding rate: 3.75 kg
Vitamin A content: 7.8 KIU/kg
3.75 kg x 7.8 KIU/kg = 29 KIU on an as-fed basis
29 KIU / 0.90 = 32 KIU on a dry matter basis
32 KIU x 1000 = 32,000 IU on a dry matter basis
Confused by any of these conversions? We can help! Submit your horse's diet for analysis for free online and our nutritionists can help you determine whether your horse's diet is meeting their nutrient requirements.
The ingredients on a feed tag are listed in order by weight with the highest inclusion ingredients listed first.
This is a list and not a recipe, which means that exact amounts of each ingredient in the formulation are not provided.
Furthermore, the presence of an ingredient on this list does not mean that it is included at a physiologically meaningful level for your horse. Sometimes, nutrients are added in trace amounts that will not meet your horse’s requirements for that nutrient or provide a health benefit.
For example, a feed manufacturer may advertise that their product contains probiotics to support gut health, but then only include a small serving of probiotics that is unlikely to have a significant effect.
Feed manufacturers have also been known to advertise products as containing organic trace minerals, which are superior to inorganic trace minerals.
However, examining the ingredient list sometimes shows that the product contains both organic and inorganic minerals. The feed may only provide a small percentage of minerals in an organic form, with the majority supplied in a cheaper inorganic form. This does not need to be disclosed on the Guaranteed Analysis.
A qualified equine nutritionist can help you identify this marketing tactic known as "window dressing."
Least Cost Formulation Feeds
From the ingredient list, you can also determine whether a feed is a fixed-formula or a least-cost formula product.
A fixed formula product means that the feed is manufactured with the same amounts of each specific ingredient each time it is made.
A least-cost formula means that the manufacturer can alter the amounts of each ingredient in the product, as long as the formulation still meets the guaranteed analysis.
This allows feed manufacturers to adjust the inclusion of the ingredients in the formula based on fluctuating market prices.
Ingredient lists on your feed tag that mention non-specific ingredients - such as grain products or plant protein products - are almost always least-cost formulas. These non-specific ingredient groups are called collective ingredients.
Within each collective ingredient, the manufacturer can change the inclusion rate for specific ingredients to maintain a consistent price for the overall product formulation.
For example, if the feed tag lists processed grain as an ingredient, this product will always contain a set amount of processed grains.
But within the category of processed grains, the manufacturer can change each grain's inclusion level. If the price of corn rises, then the manufacturer will use less corn and more wheat and barley.
Least-cost formulation feeds are not inherently bad for your horse. Since the manufacturer can respond to pricing fluctuations, your product may be cheaper than a fixed-formula product.
However, if your horse has allergies to any ingredients or is sensitive to dietary changes, you may want to purchase a fixed formula product to ensure consistency.
Collective Ingredient Terms
Some common ingredients that fall into each collective ingredient term are as follows:
Cereal grains may also be listed under the names group grain products or processed grains.
These ingredients are high in energy but also high in starch. Avoid feeds that contain grain if you have an insulin resistant or metabolic horse.
Plant Proteins Products
- Cottonseed meal
- Soybean meal
- Alfalfa meals
- Linseed meal
Plants are a common source of protein in the equine diet. However, not all plant proteins have a balanced amino acid profile.
Processed Grain By-Products
- Brewer’s grains
- Dried distillers grains
- Corn gluten feeds
- Wheat middlings
- Wheat shorts
- Rice bran
- Wheat bran
Grain by-products usually have lower starch and sugar content because these carbohydrates are removed in a fermentation process. The product that is left behind is higher in fibre, protein, and fat than the original grain.
- Alfalfa meal
- Grass hay
- Lespedeza meal
These are often used in complete feeds or forage replacers to ensure adequate amounts of fibre are present in the diet.
- Apple products
- Barely hulls
- Beet pulp
- Oat hulls
- Soybean hulls
- Rice hulls
- Cottonseed hulls
These ingredients are a source of fibre to maintain a healthy digestive tract. The digestibility of the fibre depends on its source.
- Cane molasses
- Beet molasses
These are high-sugar ingredients. Avoid them if you have an IR or EMS horse.
Animal Protein Products
- Skimmed milk
- Dried whey
- Fish meal
- Meat meal
- Bone meal
- Feather meal
- Hydrolyzed poultry feathers
- Poultry by-product meal
The use of animal protein products in horse feeds is highly regulated and they are less commonly used than plant proteins.
The feeding directions provide you with the amount of feed that should be given to your horse every day based on their body weight and status.
To ensure your horse receives the correct amount of feed, you will need an estimate of your horse's body weight and body condition.
Our nutritionists can assist you in determining your horse's body condition if you submit pictures online.
Unless the manufacturer provides you with a specific measuring tool such as a scoop, you should measure your horse's feed with a weigh scale to ensure accuracy.
The Importance of Feeding Rate
If you are not feeding a product according to the directions on the feed tag, you may be undersupplying your horse with important nutrients and creating deficiencies in the diet.
For example, consider a horse that is receiving 6 lb per day of a complete feed, as per the tag's instructions. The horse owner notices that the horse is gaining weight and decreases the feeding rate to 4 lb per day so as to reduce the caloric content of diet.
However, if this feed was the main source of vitamins and trace minerals for the horse, this change could result in a 30% deficiency in micronutrients in the horse's diet.
In this case, the horse owner will want to supplement their horse's feeding plan with a concentrated vitamin and mineral premix to ensure that nutrient requirements are still being met without adding unwanted calories to the diet.
Feeding rates should also be referred to when comparing the nutritional values of different feeds.
If you are comparing supplements for a growing horse, a feed with 5% calcium may look more attractive than another feed with 3% calcium.
However, if the first feed has a serving size of 400 grams while the second feed recommends 800 grams, the second feed will provide more calcium per serving.
Feed Cost Calculations
Knowing the feeding rate of a product, the total cost and the net weight will also allow you to determine the cost per day to feed a given product.
First, divide the total cost of the feed by the net weight of the product to determine the cost per lb or kg. For example, if you paid $36 for a 25 lb bag of feed, the following calculation will tell you the cost per pound:
$36 / 25 lbs = $1.44 per lb
Next, multiply that number by the amount you feed on a daily basis to determine the cost per day. In this case, assume that you feed 2.5 lb per day:
$1.44 per lb x 2.5 lbs per day = $3.60 per day
The total cost per day for this feed is $3.60. Always look at the total price in combination with the expected feed rate when comparing the cost of two feeds.
We can also divide the net weight of the product (25 lb) by the daily feeding rate (2.5 lb) to determine that one bag of this feed will last 10 days:
25 lb / 2.5 lb per day = 10 days
Need help with any of these calculations? Check out the Mad Barn Feed Database which has several conversion tools built in.
For a detailed analysis of your horse's current diet, including levels of individual nutrients, contact our nutritionists for a free diet evaluation.
We use the latest scientific consensus of nutrient requirements of horses to compare the levels in your diet to your individual horse's requirements. Where necessary, we can suggest different feeds or adjustments to feeding rates to meet their needs.