Series 1: Building a Balanced Diet- Grain


Howdy everyone and welcome back! To continue things in our first blog post series, Building a Balanced Diet, we will jump right back into things today as we go over grain relative to a horse’s activity level/stage of life! Unlike hay, not all horses need grain. It all depends on if your horse is an easy keeper or a hard keeper, what exercise program they are in, and what stage of life they are in (foal, weanling, pregnant broodmare, breeding stallion, etc). While it’s impossible for me to help you all select a grain for your particular horse, we are working with the “building the toolbox” approach again. The goal is that by giving examples and explaining what you need to look for, you can have a better idea what to do for your own horse! Buckle in as this post is going to include a lot of math! Fear not! There’s no advanced calculus here! Just simple operations, and I will show you my work for every step!

~Grain and horse activity level/stage of life~

While not every horse needs grain, most require additional feed on top of forage to meet their nutritional requirement. Horses that are gestating, lactating, growing or working will typically require additional nutrients beyond hay to maintain their body weight. If you are trying to improve your horse’s BSC (body score condition), you will have to feed even more grain. There should be instructions for how much to feed your horse by weight on the back of the bag. Feed labels can also be confusing, and many horse owners find it a challenge to understand what it all means, so we will work through that today!

*Remember new grains should be introduced SLOWLY over a period of a week to two weeks. If you are moving down to a lower fat diet, within the same brand this will be on the short end of the range. If you are moving to a higher fat diet, to a different brand, this will be on the higher end of the range. Look for an upcoming post that explains this in depth!

When feeding a concentrate, or a grain, horses should be fed no more than 0.5% of their body weight in one sitting. Horses are not built for meal feeding. They have a small stomach capacity that is meant for continuous eating throughout the entire day. Depending on what stage and activity level your horse is in, the amount of feed they will get per day will change. For instance, a horse in light exercise will require less grain than a racing horse or a high-performance show horse. Growing horses will have a greater nutritional requirement than adult horses, and lactating and late gestation mares will have higher requirements than most.

Below is an attached chart from the University of Minnesota and NRC that states the different energy requirements of varying horses, expressed per pound and per day.

But how do you know which grain is the right choice for your horse? There are several different brands and variations of concentrates to choose from. The best place to start is by understanding your hay (this is why we covered hay first in our series!) If you remember from our pyramid, grain was the second tier. By understanding the nutrient requirements of your hay, this will help you determine what grain you need to choose for your horse.

For instance, say you are feeding a Bermuda coastal hay that has 9% crude protein, and .9 Digestible Energy Mcal/lb. You are feeding Lucky, a light performance mare. Lucky’s voluntary total intake is 2% of her bodyweight (this is typically what every adult horse’s intake is, broodmares can go up to 3-3.5% during late gestation and lactation!), which is 1255lbs. This means she will eat 25lbs a day. (1255 times .02= 25lbs). Lucky gets 22.5 Mcal of Digestible Energy (DE) from his hay per day (25lbs/ day times .9 Mcal/lb= 22.5 Mcal/day). If we look at the second chart, provided by NRC, we see that Lucky needs 23.9 Mcal. If we look at the first chart, provided by the University of Minnesota, we see that Lucky needs 8.8% crude protein. This means Lucky is meeting her crude protein requirement, but NOT her energy requirement. This means we need a grain that maintains a similar crude protein level but provides more energy.

Since Lucky is a low performance horse, I am going to choose a grain that has a low crude protein percentage (nothing over 15 percent). I want to aim for a grain that is low in starch as well. Low starch grains help to improve the overall diversity of the gut’s microbiome, or bacteria. Happy gut bacteria= happy horse! As stated in the hay post, expect another post going in depth on gut healthy! Let’s say that Lucky is an easy keeper, so I will also want to select a grain that is under 10% in fat. In the industry, grains that are over 10% in fat are said to have “added fat”. These grains are best for hard keepers and horses in moderate-intense exercise. Based on these criteria, I am going to select Nutrena Safe Choice for Lucky. I am selecting Nutrena as they are a fixed grain ingredient brand. Meaning that they will always use the same ingredients for every bag of feed, but the price per bag of feed will change depending on the cost of the ingredients. I choose to feed fixed grain as this way I will be feeding the same ingredients, the same analysis every single time. Instead of having to rework my diet every time the analysis changes.

Below are the nutrients that would be found on a feed tag and how to interrupt them (note this is not the feed we are using, but an example!)

  • Top left: Nutrient composition (Guaranteed analysis)

  • Top Right: Ingredients

  • Bottom: Feeding directions for horse’s stage of life/activity level

*We are focusing on crude protein and crude fat for today’s purposes. Crude protein is the top line under “Guaranteed analysis”, and is 14% in this particular feed. Crude fat is the fifth line under “Guaranteed analysis”, and is 7% in this particular feed.

One thing you’ll notice that is missing on the feed tag is DE. All feed tags do not include this amount. This is something you’ll have to contact the feed manufacturer for. For this particular feed, DE is 1.57 Mcal/lb. Based on Nutrena's recommendations, light performance horses are fed at 0.5-0.75lbs per 100 lbs. Since Lucky weighs 1225lbs, I am going to feed 6lbs a day. (1,225lbs divided by 100= 12.25 times 0.5 equals about 6 pounds) I selected on the smaller end of the range as Lucky is an easy keeper. If your horse is a harder keeper, but in the same exercise range, then I would select to feed on the higher end of the range. Below are the different ranges for the different activity levels as well as the nutrient composition

*Provided by Nutrena’s website

Now that we have our grain and hay, let’s see what our new diet is. Remember that Lucky’s TOTAL voluntary intake is 2% of BW. This means the total amount of food, for both grain and hay, that Lucky will want to consume in a day. For hay, let’s say that Lucky’s intake is 1.5% (as we always want to feed more hay than grain). This leaves 0.5% for grain (which fits into our one meal feeding). As an easy keeper, in light work, Lucky shouldn’t need more than one meal a day. For hard keepers, or high-moderate performance horses, a 1% hay and 1% grain diet is appropriate with two or more meals a day (as we ALWAYS want to keep a single meal at 0.5% body weight)

Recall that Lucky weighs 1225lbs. She is eating Bermuda coastal hay that is 9% crude protein and .9 Mcal/lb. We are adding in 6lbs of Nutrena Safe Choice (which has 14% crude protein and 1.57 Mcal/lb.) We will be feeding around 18lbs a day of hay (1225lbs times 0.015 [1.5% divided by 100]). This gives us 16.2 Mcal of DE from the hay. In addition to our 6lbs of grain, we are also getting 9.42 lbs of DE (1.57 Mcal/lb times 6 lbs= 9.42). In total Lucky is getting 26.62 Mcal/day. This is slightly greater than her requirement of 23.9lbs, which is what we want! We want to meet requirements while giving a slight excess. This slight excess allows nutrients to be deposited to the coat and hooves, allowing for a shiny coat and strong hooves! This also makes our total volume feed come out to be 24lbs (18lbs from the hay plus 6lbs from the grain), which is right under our total voluntary intake (25lbs [recall it’s 2% of body weight, so Lucky weighs 1225lbs so 1225 times 0.02= 25lbs]). Which means we are checking all our boxes! We also need to check that our total diet is meeting crude protein requirements.

I know this all seems TERRIFYING, but don’t worry! Here is another way of seeing it with all the calculations- including how to calculate crude protein!

The equation and math above is typically how we in the industry go about determining what to feed for a balanced diet. Based on the calculations, we see that we actually exceed our crude protein requirement! Which again is okay! We want a little bit of excess so that some of these nutrients can be applied to the coat, hooves, etc. If we just meet nutritional requirements then we would have dull coats and brittle hooves, and no one wants that!

*One major thing to point out is that all of this math was done based on weight NOT by volume! It was never one scoop, one cup! It was all in pounds! Horses should ALWAYS be fed by weight, and never by volume! You can figure out how much a scoop weighs and make a mark where the proper amount would be for the volume you need to make feed time easier. Since I only have one horse, I have a scale in my feed room. I zero out the weight of my scoop and weigh out how much feed I need at every feeding. Boarders can also do this themselves and leave pre-weighted bags for their barns!

Before I sign off, I will also include a convenient PDF checklist for you to walk through as you make your own horse’s hay and grain diet! I hope you guys enjoyed our second post, and as always if you have any questions, feel free to reach out in the comments or send me a private email! Have a blessed week!

Checklist for determining your horse’s grain and hay diet
Download PDF • 67KB

~Alyssa Terry

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