Does Your Sweet Feed Measure Up’

Sweet feeds are the most palatable and popular options for feeding concentrates. But all sweet feeds are not created equal.

We undertook a search for the best sweet feed in the country and in the process ran into a few surprises regarding what manufacturers consider to be important in your horse’s feed. Our basic premise was that “best” means most nutritious — the best grains, tight quality control, consistent formulation and balanced vitamin and mineral package. Because sweet feeds can vary in their energy density (calories/pound), we requested information from manufacturers concerning their performance horse feeds — usually the “premier” feed in the line.

Our Ideal Feed
We hoped to find a sweet feed that was perfect for the performance horse. Such a feed would need a fairly high energy density/digestible energy level to minimize the total volume that needs to be fed. To achieve this it would need high-energy grains (e.g. barley, corn, high-grade oats) and somewhat more fat than the average level of 3%. We didn’t want too much fat though, as it could work against horses that must perform at maximal speed.

Fiber should not be too high. The horse should be filling his fiber needs from the hay portion of the diet, not from an expensive concentrate.

We wanted protein between 12 and 14%, slightly higher than the minimal recommended of 10%. We felt this was necessary as a buffer against hays that may fall below the 10% protein level and because of the different protein needs of horses at work.

The perfect mineral profile for a feed does not exist. To determine the ideal mineral levels you have to look at the entire diet — hay plus grain. The precise mineral levels in a hay will vary with the type and also vary within any given type of hay by geographical region and from year to year. A horse in moderate work consuming a straight alfalfa will already be getting more than twice the amount of calcium he needs if only half of his energy needs are being met by the alfalfa. He will need zinc, iodine, manganese and possibly selenium from his grain to meet even minimal recommended levels (see sidebar, “Is NRC Enough’”).

Ideally, the grain would have minimal calcium (none added above natural levels) and supply enough extra phosphorus and magnesium to correct the high calcium:phosphorus and the calcium:magnesium ratios in alfalfa-based diets. For horses receiving an average timothy hay, the picture is similar, although calcium levels are now where they should be instead of elevated. The need for more phosphorus, magnesium and trace minerals remains.

It is impossible for any one feed to meet the ideal major mineral profile for both grass hays and alfalfa simultaneously. The best you can hope for is one that will help correct the imbalances and won’t make them worse. We want a calcium:phosphorus ratio no greater than 1.2:1 (for greatest compatibility with a wide range of hays), calcium:magnesium ratio no greater than 2.5:1 to 3:1 ration with copper (preferably guaranteed), copper level 45 to 50 ppm, selenium preferably above 0.3 ppm and iodine 2 ppm — all correct for common deficiencies in hays and still provide some extra to meet likely increased demand for these key nutrients.

On the electrolyte front, potassium is present in abundant amount in all hays. Even a diet where only half of the calories are being supplied by hay will contain three to four times the required amount of potassium for a horse at maintenance and at least twice the requirement for a horse in moderate work. However, all natural diets are glaringly deficient in sodium and chloride. This should be provided by access to a free-choice salt block, not in the feed. Addition of modest amounts of salt by the feed manufacturer can be palatable, safe and help out with salt needs but is not an absolute requirement. Any sweet feed will contain a vitamin profile inherent to the different components of the feed.

Most manufacturers also fortify feeds to some extent with B vitamins, vitamins A and D, and possibly vitamins E and C. However, various factors put the vitamins at risk of degrading and becoming inactive. Natural levels of vitamins in feeds are only preserved if the grain is not processed.

Crimping, rolling, steam rolling etc. expose the interior of the grain and increase digestibility somewhat but in the process destroy some of the vitamins and/or greatly shorten their life. Other things that will result in decline in vitamin levels over time are moisture, adverse storage conditions, oxidation and interaction with inorganic mineral forms added.

There are specially stabilized forms of vitamins designed specifically for inclusion in feeds, but you will not be able to tell from the bag if they were used. Finally, supplementation of feeds, when done, is by and large only to bring the feed up to minimal NRC recommendations. All things considered, if you want additional vitamins you should do it with a separate supplement.

The Winner
Equine Specialty Feeds/Trade One’s Triple Crown 14 Performance Horse Feed was our overall winner. Oats are #1 extra-heavy white oats, weighing 40 pounds/bushel or more, having 97.5% intact kernels, low moisture and foreign material. These are the same high-quality oats used in producing triple-cleaned “racehorse” oats, in short, the best oats you can buy. Both whole oats (with ends clipped off to enhance digestibility) and steam-flaked oats, steam-flaked corn, barley and wheat of equivalent quality to the oats are used.

Roasted soybeans help boost the fat and protein content, and shredded beet pulp provides more calories than high-quality alfalfa but, like hays, is digested in the large intestine, thus helping to avoid overloading of the small intestine. Triple Crown’s formulation is also kept constant. The same percentage of grains and other ingredients is used in every batch. This is an important consideration in avoiding digestive upset and one that most people do not often think about.

It also has an impressive array of digestive enhancers including enzymes, beneficial bacterial species, yeast culture and “ammonia scavengers.” The latter are compounds that neutralize ammonia in the intestinal tract to prevent absorption into the blood stream and release into the stall. The trace-mineral and vitamin package meets or exceeds the NRC. The feed’s calcium:phosphorus range (1.27 to 1.81) makes it appropriate to feed with any hay, but it is best with legume/grass or grass hays.

We especially liked two features of this feed: metabolic balancing and added magnesium. All performance horses fight a battle with acidity that can limit the availability of key electrolytes/minerals and causes fatigue. The components of the diet often compound this problem. A simple equation called DCAB (dietary cation and anion balance) determines whether a feed promotes alkalinity or acidity. “Milkshaking” is a racetrack practice of providing large doses of bicarbonate to a horse before a race. The bicarbonate buffers acidity in the body and often results in impressive improvements in performance. Even before milkshaking became popular, many trainers knew that adding a handful of bicarbonate to the feed every day would help a horse’s performance, especially in horses prone to tying-up. Triple Crown 14 is formulated, through the addition of DCAB, to promote a more alkaline picture in the blood, which helps to counterbalance the acidity that results with intense exercise.

Information from other species also suggests this balancing may make the magnesium in the feed more available. Note, however, that endurance horse requirements are quite different from other intense forms of exercise; in fact they are the opposite. Special adjustments via mineral supplementation should be used, especially before competition, if feeding Triple Crown 14 to endurance horses.

Triple Crown 14 has by far the best calcium:magnesium rati o (2.1) and provides the supplemental magnesium in a chelated form (magnesium proteinate), which makes it more easily and completely absorbed, not subject to competition from high calcium levels in the horse’s diet.

Better Than Most
The choice of a sweet-feed “winner” was difficult. If we were looking only at meeting NRC requirements, acceptable quality of ingredients and palatability it would have been a dead heat.

In fact, some things about the other feeds challenge our winner. Remember, performance was a key consideration in our decision. If your horse is not being heavily used, you may choose one of the other feeds without sacrificing anything in terms of general nutrition and health.

Legends 12, from the new line of feeds by Agway/Southern States, carries several of the advanced nutritional features we like in a high-performance feed, including the use of chelated minerals, trace-mineral supplementation at more generous levels than many of the other feeds and a long list of guaranteed nutrient levels. Legends 12 is one of few feeds to guarantee biotin level and also has the highest level of this important vitamin. It is an excellent choice for horses not performing over moderate levels and our Best Buy.

Buckeye’s Training Formula is a fixed-formula feed using only top-quality grains, chelated minerals and beet pulp for calories and fiber without starch overload. Its excellent calcium:phosphorus ratio makes it equally suitable for grass or legume hays and the calcium:magnesium is better than most. Lysine and methionine are added but levels not guaranteed. Fiber was a little higher than we would like to see but good for horses on a restricted hay diet and a good choice for endurance horses.

Track Master 2000 from Bluebonnet Feeds is a superb performance feed. Again, top-quality, extra heavy-weight grains are used, and the relative proportions of ingredients is kept the same. Fat is supplemented but not to excess. Protein of highest biological quality is used to supplement protein to the 14% level — including fish meal, dried whole egg and dried milk protein in addition to vegetable sources — for a wide range of amino acids. Lysine level is guaranteed; methionine and threonine levels are adequate.

The fatty acid profile is also set, including the essential fatty acid linoleic acid. The high level of phosphorus in this feed makes it flexible with any hay from grass to straight alfalfa. Bluebonnet also gives extensive directions for mixing this feed with Bluebonnet supplements and oats to achieve different levels of protein, while maintaining the correct nutrient balance, which we applaud. Use of chelated minerals and a full complement of supplemental vitamins complete the picture.

Track Master 2000 can also boast what is undeniably the longest list of guaranteed nutrient levels of any feed. If it weren’t for the metabolic buffering and higher magnesium content of Triple Crown, Track Master would have had the edge on quality ingredients and attention to detail (e.g. fatty acid profile).

Spiller’s Seminole High Performance Mix is another fixed formula feed with an interesting twist to the ingredients list, steam-flaked peas — a popular ingredient in European feeds. In three out of four taste tests (lined up a small amount of each feed side by side in a feed trough), our test horses went for this feed first. (The horses then cleaned up all the others too!)

Starch levels are controlled without sacrificing protein or calories by use of beet pulp and alfalfa meal. Again, a relatively low ratio of calcium:phosphorus makes it suitable for any hay. We also liked the broad range of digestive enhancers (probiotics, enzymes, yeast culture) used in it.

TDI-14 is another fixed formula feed using heavy oats and low-moisture corn. Soybean meal is the primary supplementary protein with some contribution from wheat middlings. It is suitable for use with any type hay. Although they claim you need “no added supplements” and by NRC guidelines this is correct, we would prefer to see a higher selenium and magnesium level for performance horses. Otherwise, trace mineral levels are quite good and vitamin E more generous than most. Fat-soluble vitamins are supplemented, but it contains only thiamine and riboflavin of the Bs and levels are not guaranteed.

Woodford Performance 13, Hallway 13, Olympic Gold 12 and PaceMaker 130 are all produced by KER Team Member mills but show considerable variation in guaranteed nutrients and typical levels of nutrients. Only Hallway 13 reported it was a fixed formulation. Hallway Race 13 and Olympic Gold 12 use 20% chelated zinc, manganese and copper in their supplemental trace minerals; the other two use only inorganic forms. The number of guaranteed nutrients goes from the minimal requirement of three for Pace-Maker 130 and Olympic Gold 12 to nine for Woodford Performance 13, 11 for Hallway Race 13.

The typical analysis (a complete vitamin/mineral profile run on a batch of feed, not guaranteed for each batch) for each of these feeds shows a wide variation in vitamin levels even though all fortify to some degree, reflecting the levels inherent in the different types of ingredients used in the feed.

On the trace-mineral front, all contain sufficient levels to meet current recommendations with additional supplementation in key areas to bring levels high enough to compensate for common deficiencies in the horse’s hay.

In short, these feeds provide a sound base for the horse’s diet. However, they may require the addition of vitamin and/or trace mineral supplementation for horses with specific problems (most notably muscle or hoof quality) and to provide insurance against probable increased need for key nutrients (antioxidant vitamins and trace minerals, vitamins involved in carbohydrate metabolism) in performance horses, especially those horses in heavy work.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “What’s Moderate Work'”
Click here to view “The “Feed Tag” Guaranteed Analysis Or What’s Really In It'”
Click here to view “KER On The Feed Label.”
Click here to view “Is NRC Enough'”
Click here to view “How Reliable Are Numbers'”
Click here to view “Economy Versus Quality.”
Click here to view “Is Your Feed Missing'”

Contact Your Local Feed Store Or:

Buckeye Nutrition
PO Box 505
Dalton, OH 44618

Culpeper Farmers’ Co-Op
Box 2002
Culpeper, VA 22701

Agway Retail Services
PO Box 4746
Syracuse, NY 13221

Kentucky Equine Research
3910 Delaney Ferry Road
Versailles, KY 40383

Trade One/Triple Crown
319 Barry Ave South #303
Wayzata, MN 55391

Spiller’s Seminole
5740 W Hwy. 40
Ocala, FL 34482

Southern States Cooperative
PO Box 26234
Richmond, VA 23260

Farmers Feed Mill Inc.
251 West Loudon Ave.
Lexington, KY 40508

Banks Mill Feeds
1270 Banks Mill Road
Aiken, SC 29803

PO Box 2006
Ardmore, OK 73402

Woodford Feeds
498 Lexington Road
Versailles, KY 40383

TDI Inc.
774 Peachblow Rd.
Lewis Center, OH 43035

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