Equine Tag-ology: What a feed tag says (and does not say)
Have you ever looked at a feed tag or bag and wondered what all the information meant — and whether it was even necessary?
By law, commercial feeds must have certain information listed on the tag or bag. A typical feed tag will list product name, a guaranteed analysis, ingredient list, the name and address of the manufacturer or distributor, feeding directions and net weight.
The ways in which information is listed can vary either because of individual state laws or manufacturer preference. For instance, ingredients may be listed individually or by using collective terms. While some manufacturers list ingredients by order of inclusion rate, from greatest to least, this is not a requirement. Additionally, individual state laws govern whether certain nutrients can be included in the guaranteed analysis.
A general understanding of the information contained on feed tags can help when choosing a feed.
What exactly is a guaranteed analysis?
Two feeds may have the same or similar guaranteed analyses, but the actual feeds may be very different. The guaranteed analysis simply tells the guaranteed concentration of nutrients (protein, fat, fiber, minerals, etc.) in the feed. When a sample of the feed is tested, the level of nutrients must not be less than the minimum guarantee or more than the maximum guarantee. The guaranteed analysis does NOT, however, reveal anything specific about those ingredients, either their quantity or quality. Thus, two feeds may have the same guaranteed analysis but contain different ingredients.
Even when a nutrient is included in the guaranteed analysis, that nutrient may not necessarily be nutritionally significant or beneficial to the horse. A common example is biotin, a B-vitamin known to help improve hoof quality. Research has shown that 20 milligrams of biotin are needed per day to benefit the hoof of an average-sized riding horse (i.e., ~1200 pounds). Some feeds list biotin in the guaranteed analysis at a concentration of or around 0.40 milligrams per pound. At this concentration, the horse would have to consume 50 pounds of this feed per day, every day, to obtain the requisite 20 milligrams of biotin. This feeding rate is unrealistic — but some feeds may contain the same or similar concentrations of biotin and not list it in the guaranteed analysis. Thus, consumer beware: make sure listed nutrients are sufficiently concentrated enough to actually benefit the horse.
Ingredients: Are you getting what you pay for?
Ingredients may be listed individually by specific name (e.g., oats, corn, barley) or by collective terms for the grouping of the ingredient (e.g., grain products). Collective terms may be used when trying to keep a formula or portion of the formula confidential due to the uniqueness of the product or ingredients. Other reasons for using collective terms include shortening the ingredient list or when least cost formulating. Least cost formulating — which occurs with both collective and individual ingredient lists — happens when the ingredients in the feed change with fluctuating ingredient costs. Oftentimes, having less interest in the quality of the ingredients goes hand-in-hand with the philosophy of least cost formulating.
Regulations do not permit information regarding the grade — that is, the quality — of the ingredients to be placed on the tag, which is important to consider when selecting feeds. For instance, two feeds may have the same ingredient list, but one may use a much higher grade of grain. A higher-quality grain means less contamination and, often, increased nutrient availability.
Besides individual grain quality, some grains are simply better for horses than others. For instance, oats are typically the grain of choice for horse feeds because they are relatively high in fiber and are not as prone to harmful molds and mycotoxins as other grains, such as corn. The fiber content of oats is helpful in reducing the risk of digestive upset and founder. Additionally, oat starch is more efficiently utilized by the horse when compared to other grains typically fed to horses.
Interpreting feed tags can be quite difficult; what is listed on the tag reveals very little about what is inside the bag, ingredient- or quality-wise. Asking questions and researching grain quality and ingredients are the best tools for finding and feeding a superior-quality feed.
When selecting feeds for horses, some important questions to ask include:
- Does the horse need the nutrients listed?
- Are the nutrients concentrated at a level beneficial to the horse?
- Is the formula fixed, or does it fluctuate with ingredient prices?
- Are the grains utilized the best available for horses? What quality of grain is being used?
- What is my cost per head per day for feeding? Could I reduce the cost per day and also have a healthier horse by feeding a higher-quality feed?