Oats are considered by many to be the perfect feed for horses, and with good reason. Their starch is probably the most easily digested of all the cereal grains, meaning less can make it back to the large intestines to cause problems, and they’re easier to chew than barley or wheat. The average 12% protein level is appropriate for horses, and the amino acid lysine levels are good as well. Add to this the fact that most horses love oats and you can readily see why oats are, and should be, the backbone of most grain rations.
Oats, and grains in general, complement hay. Grains have a calcium:phosphorus ratio the reverse of that found in hays, with more phosphorus than calcium being present. (Hays provide more calcium than phosphorus, and we want a 2:1 ratio of calcium:phosphorus.)
Oats also meet the minimal trace-element requirements defined by the National Research Council for horses, except for zinc and copper. Manganese, iodine and selenium levels are sitting just at the recommended level. However, most nutritionists today are using higher levels for trace minerals, so supplementation is advisable when feeding plain oats to working horses. This is especially true when you consider that the trace minerals in question are the same nutrients likely to be deficient in many hays. When using grass hays, additional calcium will be needed as well, in the range of 1 to 3 grams per day.
The company TDI Inc. is test marketing a fortified oat that takes the guesswork out of supplementing the horse on a hay and oats diet (see table, page 20). It corrects for trace-mineral deficiencies and also provides that little bit of extra calcium you need. Phosphorus is also supplemented, to bring the ratio up to just over 1:1 — safe to feed with all hays (remember, hays provide more calcium than phosphorus). The TDI line of supplements is also specifically targeted to an oats-based diet. (TDI nutrition hot line 800/457-7577.)
All oats are definitely not created equally. To begin with, by U. S. Department of Agriculture regulations, a bag can be labeled “oats” even if it contains only 50% cultivated oats. If no official grade appears on the bag, we would avoid them.
Special grades of importance include the classification as “heavy” (test weight of 38 to 40 pounds per bushel) and “extra heavy” (over 40 pounds per bushel). The quality and freshness is sometimes also assessed in terms of their fatty-acid content, since this component is the first to deteriorate with improper storage.
The kernel (“groat”) of the oat contains the bulk of the carbohydrate, protein and fat content and therefore also the calories. The lighter the oat, the more you will have to feed to maintain the horse’s weight. Quality sweet feeds will use grade 1 to 2 oats, while premium sweet feeds and plain oats will be grade 1 heavy or extra heavy oats. “Sound oats” are oats that have kernels and hulls intact.
Smut Is In Your Oats
No, these are not X-rated oats. The smut we are referring to here is but one of the many exotic or unappealing things that may be lurking in your oats. Smut is caused by a parasitic fungus that attacks cereal grasses.
What about eincorn, emmer or triticale’ These are three of the many non-oat grains that may be found in a bag labeled “oats.” And it probably won’t surprise you that tolerated foreign materials allowed in “sample” graded oats may also include specific minute amounts of stones, seeds, burrs and other substances.
“Sample” oats are what may make their way into a bag of pelleted or sweet feed. The manufacturer can still call them “oats” on the label.
The official USDA definition of oats is: Grain that consists of 50 percent or more of oats (Avena sativa L. and A. byzantina C. Koch) and may contain, singly or in combination, not more than 25 percent of wild oats and other grains for which standards have been established under the United States Grain Standards Act.
If you are sharp, you probably already noted that even the official definition of oats leaves room for 25% “other” added to the 50% cultivated oats and miscellaneous grains. If you buy oats that have been officially graded, you are guaranteed to have a minimum of 80% actual cultivated oats with only 2 to 5% “foreign material,” remainder wild oats or other grains.
This probably makes you want to run for “processed oats” in the hopes that this will eliminate smut. Wrong. Rolling, crimping and flaking, with or without steaming, simply improve the digestibility of oats. And, if the horse can chew normally, this processing adds little to the overall digestibility of oats plus has the negative effects of exposing the fats and vitamins of the kernel to air, greatly increasing the rate at which they will degenerate.
Clipping, which removes the fibrous stems from the ends of the oat, allows the grain to pack more densely, reduces the fiber content (thus increasing the percentage of digestible nutrients) and improves the ease of digestibility without damaging the kernels in the process.
Cleaning, which removes dust and other foreign materials from the oats, involves passing the oats through a series of screens to separate out dust, hulls, broken and extremely small kernels. When you buy cleaned oats you know you are paying for just oats, not a variety of other material that might make its way into the bag. Cleaning also improves palatability and avoids irritation of the respiratory tract, possibly even exposure to fine dusts that could trigger allergies.
In reality, oats remain an excellent choice of concentrate for horses, compatible with any type of hay, highly digestible and have appropriate protein levels. The secret is to choose the highest quality oats you can find in your area. Grade 1 heavy or extra-heavy oats will cost a little more than other grades but will save you money in the long run because you need to feed less of them.
Dust, dirt and excessive numbers of empty hulls hurt both your pocketbook and the horse. Get oats that have been screened and well-cleaned for the best nutritional value. Usually these are called “racehorse oats,” “triple-cleaned oats” or something to that effect.