What’s in the Bag?


Horse & Rider - - Contents - BY BARB CRABBE, DVM

Con­fused at the feed store? Learn how to de­ci­pher feed la­bels to make those im­por­tant nu­tri­tion de­ci­sions.


“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. →


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.

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.


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.


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.” 

What’s in the bucket? Un­der­stand­ing the in­for­ma­tion on a feed tag helps en­sure that your horse gets all the nu­tri­ents he needs and gives you peace of mind.

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