Saturday, August 30, 2008

Why Weigh Feed?

I was browsing through some messages on the Equine Cushings and IR group when I came across this - 
Can someone also put the emergency diet in laymens terms (cups/flakes). I don't have a weight scale and not sure what things weigh. 

The Emergency Diet - for those unfamiliar with it - is a short term low sugar-low starch maintenance ration for horses experiencing laminitis or suspected of being insulin resistant. It was developed by Eleanor Kellon, VMD and is meant to be a temporary diet to safely help your horse through the critical acute period while you, the owner, catch your breath and start getting a correct diagnosis.

So why is it important to weigh your horse's hay, feed and supplements? 

The entire concept of determining equine nutritional needs, then meeting their requirements with forage is based on weight. Weight of the horse and weight of the forage and feed.

A 1,000 lb horse at maintenance (just hanging around the corral looking pretty) needs a minimum of 15 mega calories (Mcal, or 15,000 Calories) every day. A 250 pound mini needs only 3.8 Mcal, a working ranch horse might use up 24 or more Mcal a day when he's working.

A general rule of thumb is to provide a horse with 1.5 to 2% of it's body weight in forage (hay or hay plus pasture). That would be around 15 lbs of hay for the pasture ornament, 3-3/4 lbs for the mini, and at least 20 lbs a day for the ranch horse. 

Working with horses since before he could walk, the cowboy knows his horse is going to get skinny on 20 lbs of hay. While he might not be consciously doing the math, he knows his horse will need to be knee deep in grass hay and will probably benefit from something "extra" - more calories, higher protein, more carbs - so will also give him a bit of alfalfa and a measure of oats. Is he using a scale? No - but when your livelihood (and possibly your life) depend on the health of your partner, you've likely developed a keen eye and feel for how much is enough, too much or too little.

A lot of us don't have the life-long horseman/horsewoman's eye.

Let's take my weekend warrior who's a bit on the chubby side. I "know" an average bale of Bermuda hay in Arizona weighs around 100 lbs, +/- 5-10 lbs or so, and that if I split a bale over two days for three horses, they're getting around 16 lbs of hay a day.   That will work - as long as the hay is pretty "average", around 0.8 to 0.9 Mcal per lb. But, when I look at my "herd" of three, I see I'm actually feeding around 2550 lbs of horse (1000 lb mare, 900 lb gelding, 650 lb pony gelding) and they, collectively, only need around 38 Mcal/day.

And this last load of hay is really nice - almost 110 lbs per bale and the horses really like it.  My horses are fat and sassy - uh oh, did I say fat?  I weigh my "flakes" of hay - each one is closer to 9 lbs than the 5 or 6 lbs I have in my mind. So I cut back one flake per day (I've been putting out six). 

 I could probably have figured this out without a scale - but it made it easier. Like most horse owners, I tend to think along the lines of "Am I feeding them enough?" rather than "Am I giving them too much?" And, without a scale, I typically under-estimate the weight of the hay I am feeding (and this has been my experience with almost all the folks I have worked with).

Let's look at the mini. Our kind of average grass hay has around 8.5 Mcal/lb. The mini needs around 3.8 Mcal - if he's fairly active in a good size paddock. That works out to 4-1/2 lbs of hay a day - and nothing else (no concentrates, no grain, no treats). What if your "flake" weighs 5 lbs and you give him a whole flake every day? 

Over a week, that's an extra 3 Mcal, almost a whole day's ration. Over a year, that's an extra 155 Mcal - or enough to maintain your mini for over a month! You could have enjoyed your mini for 13 months for the same cost as 12 months, and he would be healthier!

One last example - as this is where we see a lot of folks get into trouble.

Your vet tells you to put your cresty necked 1100 lb horse on a diet. You, or your vet, interpret this as feeding less - a lot less - to lose weight. That's how people do it, right? So you cut back to two "flakes" of hay/day, plus a little senior feed to provide some vitamins and minerals.

What's wrong with this picture?

Your two 5-1/2 lb flakes provide 11 lbs of forage, or only 1% of your horse's body weight. This is not sufficient gut fill to avoid problems such as colic or maintaining immune function - your horse needs a minimum of 1.5% BW in forage to lose weight safely - or 16-1/2 lbs of forage (hay) a day. To see the disastrous results of using a "starvation" diet to get a horse to lose weight, read Perla's Story.

The hay needs to be low sugar-low starch - preferably less than 10%, with a DE of 0.9 or less (alfalfa, many small grain hays and some grass hays will exceed this - have your hay analyzed to find out the DE). 

Your horse does not need any "concentrate" feed at all (grain, "senior" feed, "complete" feed, etc.) as they likely contain too much sugar/starch and won't supply the necessary level of minerals and vitamins unless fed at the minimum levels shown on the product label (usually around 2 lbs/day or more for an "average" horse). 

Your horse does need minerals at least at the minimum levels recommended by the NRC or, even better, balanced to a hay analysis, plus some vitamins if not eating fresh forage/grass. As an interim measure, an iron-free supplement, such as the flax-based supplements from HorseTech, can provide basic support until you have hay analyzed and determine your horse's specific needs. A small amount of soaked beet pulp or hay pellets can be used as a "supplement carrier".

Basic requirements are available in tables at Equi-Analytical's website, or at the NRC's online program.  Neither the tables nor the online calculator tell you how to interpret or balance the results, and they both give you only minimum requirements - similar to the human "RDA", not the levels recommended for optimal health.

You can learn more by checking out the other articles and links on this blog. Joining the Equine Cushings and IR group will give you access to a wealth of science-based information that's been developed over the years, as well as support if your horse is currently laminitic (or suspected of having laminitis). Eleanor Kellon, VMD has begun offering a series of online equine nutrition courses, from the very basic through nutrition for the elite equine athlete, which you can complete at your own pace.

My own bit of cynicism -

I am always amazed at the folks who will pay large sums for the right tack, a new truck or trailer, correct riding clothes, but balk at $30 for a good scale, $26 for a hay analysis or taking the few hours to have someone help them to "learn the math".

Obviously, if you've read down this far, you aren't one of them. But, because you obviously care for your equine partner, you are vulnerable to any and all of the magic bullets offered to make us think we are doing the best for our horses. 

Your strongest weapon - and best resource - is knowledge. It's out there - I hope this helps you navigate the map but then its up to you to use it.


  1. Excellent article Patti! I'd like to see this article in Equus or


  2. Spot on! Great post, Patti - I hope it helps to encourage others out their to do the research when it comes to the well being of these gorgeous animals.