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Complete Feeds for HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 8, 2016

Advances in equine nutrition have increased the quality and quantity of products available to horse owners. This is unquestionably the case with nutritional supplements, but it is also true of bagged feeds. Nearly all horse owners are familiar with traditional textured and pelleted feeds, both of which contain concentrated sources of energy. The best of these feeds are fortified with the protein, vitamins, and minerals required for the horses they’re intended for, and these feeds are designed to be fed with a source of forage, such as pasture, hay, hay pellets, or hay cubes.

A “complete feed” is different than a traditional fortified feed. “A complete feed contains both the concentrate and forage portions of the diet in a single bag, supplying all that the horse needs for optimal nutrition with the exception of water,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER). Complete feeds are typically pelleted but may also be extruded or semi-textured.

The forage fraction of a complete feed is usually supplied by high-fiber by-products like beet pulp, soybean hulls, oat hulls, almond hulls, rice hulls, citrus pulp, apple pomace, wheat bran, or coconut meal. A complete feed should have a crude fiber content of 25% or higher, according to Crandell. If less is listed, then it is best to offer some type of forage with the complete feed to help meet the fiber requirements of the horse.

Complete feeds can have varying levels of starch, though they are often considered low-starch because of their high-fiber components. “Many complete feeds are not, however, sufficiently low enough in starch to be appropriate for horses with certain metabolic conditions,” said Crandell.  “A review of the ingredient list will help determine if a complete feed is low starch. A feed tag that lists cereal grains, such as corn or oats, in the first two or three ingredients is likely not a low-starch feed.”

Complete feeds are appropriate in a variety of situations, including anytime forage availability is limited. Complete feeds are particularly useful for horses that no longer have the ability to chew long-stem forages. The fiber in complete feeds is easy to digest because of its small particle size.

Because a complete feed supplies both concentrate and forage, it will have a very high feeding rate, such as 1.5-2% of body weight. A 1,200-lb (545-kg) horse, for example, might be fed 18-24 lb (8-11 kg) per day of complete feed.

“The target range of intake is high, so the fortification, such as vitamins and minerals, will be present in a lower concentration than in traditional feeds or ration balancers,” Crandell explained. “If fed below recommended rates, the horse will not consume the quantity of vitamins and minerals that the feed was designed to deliver. Since so many complete feeds are used as low-starch feeds and fed at lower feeding rates, many manufacturers have begun to fortify the feed for lower intakes.”

One drawback of complete feeds is inadequate “chew time.” When feed is pelleted or extruded, the particle sizes are minute and require comparatively less chewing, so the horse may seek to fulfill its natural appetite for fiber by chewing on other things, most likely wooden fences or barn fixtures, Crandell said. Meals of complete feed can be finished much more quickly than ones with long-stem forage, so the horse will have a lot of time to engage in undesirable chewing behavior.

Cause for Confusion

According to Crandell, there is some confusion in the use of the term “complete feed” within the industry. Many people believe that a complete feed is the same as a fortified feed or concentrate, and this is bolstered by the ambiguity of the term in other countries.

Certain feed manufacturers use the term haphazardly, probably to give the impression that a given feed will supply all nutrients necessary to complement the forage in the diet. Many products in the marketplace are touted as complete feeds, yet have very low levels of fiber, less than 15%. Further, these feeds are often fortified like a traditional concentrate. If fed at 1.5% of body weight, consumption of certain minerals and minerals would far outpace requirements.

Would a complete feed be appropriate for your horse? Is there something keeping you from trying one? Consult an equine nutritionist today!