The Use of Copra in Horse FeedsBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 16, 2011

By-products of the oil industry are commonly used in animal feeds and are often nutritious additions to a diet. Copra is a by-product of coconut oil production from the dried white flesh of the coconut (not the dark husk or hull). Because of processing, copra is often brownish in color, not the bright white of store-bought coconut.

With the increased consumption of coconut oil among humans, there is an abundance of copra available for use in animal feeds. Copra is rarely a main ingredient in horse feed, and it is primarily fed as a supplement in regions where coconuts are grown and processed or where the product is easily available. Recently, feeds containing copra have been appearing in the United States horse-feed market. Some of these are little more than pelleted copra with no fortification while others are well-balanced concentrates with copra as a minor ingredient.

Copra has a relatively high protein content, but it is not of the same quality found in more common protein sources like soybean meal. What copra lacks in quality it makes up for in quantity, to a certain extent. Up to 40% of the protein is bound in the fibrous fraction of the copra, thus reducing bioavailability. Copra does not contain a balanced complement of essential amino acids, as it is relatively poor in lysine, the amino acid essential for growth and for support of the immune system. If copra is used as major component of the diet for young, growing horses, additional lysine, threonine, and methionine supplementation should be a consideration.

Horse owners who add copra meal or coconut oil to their horse's diets are generally doing so to increase fat consumption, thereby boosting caloric density of the ration. Copra helps horse owners add condition to their horses, and it helps develop a shiny coat. With a fat content of around 8%, the risk of rancidity would be high except the type of fat found in copra (short- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids) is less susceptible than polyunsaturated fats. However, it is not recommended to feed copra after prolonged storage because of rancidity issues. If the product is off-putting in any way, horses will not eat it as their sensitivity to rancid fat is very high and refusal is almost certain.

Recently, there has been particular interest in copra as a feed ingredient because of its low nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC) content, making it suitable for horses with metabolic issues that have trouble handling starch and sugar, like those with insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), or polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM). Used with discretion, copra can add calories without having an effect on the glycemic response of the horse. While it may appear that copra could be considered the perfect low-glycemic feed, copra has a drawback.  The high fat content adds significantly to the energy content, and horses on copra tend to gain weight.

In addition to low NSC, the product is high in fiber. The fiber fractions of neutral detergent fiber (NDF) and acid detergent fiber (ADF) seem high for a feedstuff considered a concentrate. The nutritional composition reveals that the fiber fractions are like those of temperate pasture grasses.  The percentage of digestible fiber (hemicellulose) is comparable to fresh early vegetative orchardgrass at approximately 25%. Therefore, the energy from the fiber fraction of copra would be similar to that of grass but the higher fat content will make the total product more calorie-dense. Estimations for actual digestible energy content of copra put it in the same energy range as beet pulp or soy hulls.  

A fat and fiber diet works well for horses that are metabolically challenged or not involved in a demanding occupation, but many performance horses may need more NSC in the diet in order to maintain enough energy to perform. Adding starch to the diet in the form of a concentrate (such as a sweet feed) or straight cereal grains to raise energy levels would help this problem.  In a concentrate that is only part copra, many of these issues are balanced out.

Because copra is typically a powder, it is difficult to get horses to consume large amounts of it. Pelleting the copra will increase intake of the product.  As an addition to a diet, the powder works well when mixed into a sweet feed or beet pulp mash.  

Copra has been blamed for impaction colic and other gastrointestinal distress, but this has mostly been attributed to intake of copra without adequate water. When fed as a meal, it is best to soak copra prior to being fed or at least serve it mixed with water (three parts water to one part copra).The commercial feeds that are mostly or entirely copra can be fed dry but water availability is crucial. Palatability is generally very good, but consumption is notably better when fed wet.

If you find a product that contains copra meal as its base, you might be confronted with a few issues depending upon the specific fortification added to the feed. If unfortified, two concerns are notable.

First, copra tends to be high in phosphorus and low in calcium, and this imbalance can be a problem when fed in large amounts.  The calcium-to-phosphorus ratio can be as low as 0.25:1, and the nutritionists at Kentucky Equine Research (KER) normally recommend a 1:1 to 5:1 ratio for adult horses. If you were to feed grass hay that has at least 0.45% calcium or good-quality alfalfa hay at 1.5% of the horse’s body weight with less than five pounds of the copra-based feed, the imbalance could be corrected. The calcium-to-phosphorus ratio is an especially important aspect in the diets of growing horses.

Second, the feed may have a zinc-to-copper ratio imbalance that hay cannot remedy. Some copra meal can be rich in copper but average in zinc. A zinc-to-copper ratio between 3:1 and 5:1 is ideal, but some copra can have a ratio as low as 2:1. Like the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio, the appropriate zinc-to-copper ratio is vital for proper development of young horses.  Adding a vitamin and mineral supplement may help with this mineral imbalance, especially one reasonably high in zinc.

Should you decide to use a feed with a copra meal base, have an equine nutritionist double-check the vitamin and mineral intakes for the total diet to ensure that your horse is consuming sufficient levels of these nutrients. Proper fortification of vitamins and minerals helps ensure health and well-being.