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Sprouts for HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · September 8, 2011

No, we’re not talking about feeding your horses delicate little salads of alfalfa and snow pea sprouts here, but rather growing a regular green feed for your horses and feeding it once the grains have begun to sprout into new plants.

The seed, which is basically the grain or bean that you would normally feed to the horse in the dormant seed stage, sprouts and begins to grow. It becomes more nutritious but less energy dense as complex starches are broken down to the simple sugars required for growth. It is at this stage that the sprout is fed to the horse.

To feed your horse sprouted grains every day requires a bit of time, effort, and forethought, especially if feeding a large number of horses. Also, if the sprouts are not processed correctly, there are risks of bacterial and fungal contamination that could be toxic to the horse. Equipment varies in complexity and expense, but basically involves a moist, warm, aerated environment in which the sprouts will readily grow.

Why feed it?

So why go to the trouble of sprouting grains before you feed them? What advantage does sprouting confer to the horse, making it worth the effort of sprouting rather than feeding whole grains? As the seed germinates, the stored proteins and complex starches that are bound in the seed are used as energy sources for growth, resulting in a reduction in complex starches and an increase in simple sugars, as well as a huge increase in enzymes and vitamins. Because the sprout has broken through the hard outer seed coating or husk, the contents are more accessible to the horse, much like the action of crushing and heating grains. Just about any kind of grain can be sprouted, including oats, corn, barley, lupins, tick beans, and wheat, but barley is the most common sprout.

With the beginning of growth, the starches and proteins of the grain are broken down in a process that is similar to the digestion of normal grains occurring inside the horse, and the moisture content increases dramatically (from 10% to 90%), thus increasing the volume and weight of each grain. Although sprouts contain fewer megajoules (or calories) per kilo, the energy is in a more digestible form for the horse than the grain from which it came.

In particular, grains have a huge increase in vitamin C as they begin to sprout, and were sometimes used by sailors as a defence against scurvy on long sea journeys. It is suggested that the vitamin C content of oats can increase by up to 600% on sprouting. For horses, vitamin C is not an essential nutrient, as horses can make their own vitamin C quite efficiently. However, it is thought that horses in heavy training or those that are stressed by disease or infection may have increased requirements for vitamin C. Sprouts may be a good way to provide organic vitamin C in times of stress and for horses in heavy training such as gallopers, trotters, eventers, and endurance horses, although the efficacy of absorption and the actual requirement requires more research.

Sprouts are also thought to contain significant levels of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and digestible fibre, but detailed analyses and specifications as well as actual digestibility trials have not been carried out for grains fed to horses. In reality, although vitamin levels may rise, the mineral content of the sprout is probably similar to that of the grain and is likely dependent on the conditions in which the seed plant was grown. Sprouted grains are also likely to be variable in their actual nutrient profiles depending on the environment in which they were grown, the quality of the grain from which they came, and the age at which they are fed.

Another major plus side of feeding sprouted grains is their value as a green feed source. For horses kept primarily indoors and those on a high proportion of grain, the inclusion of succulents and fresh green fodder provides an excellent alternative to dry hay and grains, improving the mental value of the feed as well as assisting appetite and palatability.

How do you feed it?

Here’s the tricky bit! Most grains take a few days to sprout, but the good news is that once they are sprouted, if you have access to a large refrigerator, they will keep for up to a week. You can buy commercial sprouters, but on the whole, the work involved is about the same as with the protocol below, which is just as effective. For most grains, this protocol will work, but people vary the technique to suit their facilities and experience of what works best for each grain type.

  1. Weigh out one day’s worth of grains, the same as you would normally feed, or slightly less. Remember, you can feed just a portion of the sprouted grains if you don’t want to go to the trouble of sprouting the whole ration. You need to have whole viable grains with no additives. Crushed or processed grains won’t work.
  2. In a scrubbed, clean large bucket/ jar/ container, rinse the grains thoroughly and drain, then add about twice the amount of tepid (not cold or hot) water and leave to soak overnight (6-12 hours).
  3. In the morning, drain the grains and rinse thoroughly about three or four times until all the “froth” has cleared. You can use a colander or cheesecloth over the top of the container, secured with rubber bands to drain.
  4. If using jars, simply cover the top with cheesecloth and secure. Then turn upside down and drain in a warm, shady environment out of direct sunlight. If using a bucket, just drain thoroughly, leaving no water in the bottom, and turn back upright.
  5. Thoroughly rinse the grains and redrain at least twice per day. In warmer environments, the grains may need to be rinsed more frequently. It also helps to shake up the contents of jars occasionally to aerate the grains. When the sprouts get to about 1 to 2 cm (⅜ to ¾ inches) long, they can be fed. This can take between one and six days depending on the grain. Barley is usually sprouted for six days and the sprout mat will be 12 cm (five inches) high at this age.
  6. If you don’t have access to a refrigerator, remember to set up new batches each day to have a constant fresh supply.
  7. You can place the sprouts outside, spread on a large cloth or container in the sun, for a few hours before feeding if you like to make them green and even tastier for your horse.

For oats, the recommended procedure is slightly different, but the method above will also work. Instead of soaking overnight, oats only need about an hour in the soak water, and should then be poured into a shallow container lined with a thick layer of newspaper or paper towel that has been thoroughly dampened. Spray the oats with water every day and feed in three to four days. Because oats are so well digested by horses, it is worth considering whether the effort of sprouting is justified by the extra gain in digestibility for this grain.

Sprouts can be fed the same as usual grains, and most horses will absolutely love the fresh succulent addition to their diet. If large quantities are fed, it may take horses a few days to acclimatise to the form and taste of the feed. Remember that like green pasture, sprouts will be 80 to 90% moisture, so you need to feed a large weight of sprouted grains to replace grain or hay in the diet of your horse.

Safety precautions

Because the warm, damp environment for growing sprouts is also an ideal breeding ground for moulds and bacteria, caution must always be taken in the feeding of sprouts. In human nutrition, a health warning has previously been issued about E. coli and Salmonella contamination of sprouts that are not processed, grown, and stored in clean conditions. To avoid problems, be rigorous about the cleanliness of all of your sprouting equipment. Rinse sprouts thoroughly twice each day. Store sprouts only if you have access to a refrigerator; otherwise, discard excess. Remove any grains that you spot that are not sprouting with all the others, and any that appear discoloured or damaged in any way. This way, you are unlikely to have any problems with contamination.

Sprouts can easily mould and the fungi involved can produce mycotoxins that can be detrimental to horse health. For this reason, grains destined for sprouting should be free of visible mould and sprouting systems must be kept very clean. Never feed sprout mats with visible mould on them. In conditions of high heat and humidity, you need to control the temperature and humidity in the sprouting system or it may be best to suspend production, as risk of mould increases dramatically at these times.

Like grain, sprouts have a low calcium and high phosphorus content. This means if you are feeding large quantities, additional calcium sources need to be included in the diet to balance the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.

Where do you get it? Buy the grains from your local feed store, and the rest is do it yourself! Commercial grain sprouting equipment is also available from several suppliers.