Boarding Barn Feeding Practices

Use these tips to make smart mealtime decisions when feeding many types of horses.
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Tips for making smart mealtime decisions when feeding many types of horses.

equine welfare
Designing an effective feeding program for a boarding facility can be challenging. | Photos.com

Designing a feed program for a boarding facility can be a challenge, especially if the barn population has many types of horses. Is it possible to feed ponies, stock breeds, Thoroughbreds, and Warmbloods under one roof without making chores more complicated than a moon landing?

Equine demographics, budget, barn setup, and staff flow are all factors when deciding how to feed hay and concentrates. Horses can be fed in stalls, outside in groups, or a combination of the two.

Hay

You can generally purchase hay in varying sizes of small square bales (40-100 pounds), large square bales (usually 750-1,000 pounds), and round bales (usually 900-1,400 pounds). Small squares are easiest to maneuver when feeding hay in stalls, though large squares are also divided into “flakes” and can be distributed similarly. Round bales are easiest to feed when there are enough horses in a group to eat them down reasonably quickly.

If a barn’s demographics dictate horses must get different types of hay—for example, some might do best on straight grass, while harder keepers benefit from alfalfa or a heavy alfalfa mix—small squares are nice because you can stack them in separate piles, and barn staff can distribute to each horse or paddock as assigned. This can be more challenging with large squares if storage space is limited.

Round bales offer major advantages for groups of horses if the barn has equipment to stack and move them and if all the horses can be permitted access to free-choice hay. Round bales can pose issues for horses with respiratory issues, as the outer layers of even high-quality round bales tend to contain higher levels of mold and dust than small squares. They also carry a slightly higher risk of exposure to pathogens that cause diseases such as botulism, which can occur when animal carcasses are inadvertently baled into hay. (It is important to note this can happen with any forage, even small squares and bagged products such as hay cubes.)

Krishona Martinson, PhD, animal science professor and equine specialist at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, studies equine forage utilization and management as well as forage-related equine health issues. She explains how she helps farm managers/business owners choose the best type of hay for their herds: If a barn can only logistically or financially maintain a single type of hay, “I always start with a high-quality grass,” she says, “and then see how the horses do. If a horse ends up needing more energy, we try to supplement with concentrates. If a horse needs less, I encourage increasing exercise.”

Her reasoning: Good grass hay is safe to feed most types of horses. Compared to alfalfa, it is lower in calories and protein but can be slightly higher in sugars. Conversely, alfalfa or a grass-alfalfa mix might be a better choice for barns with a more homogenous demographic—performance horses, young growing horses, breeding stock, rescues.

Haynets and feeders can significantly reduce hay waste and save boarding barns the cost of throwing away soiled hay. Many brands of haynets are available for stalls and even round bales. Filling and hanging them can be labor-intensive, which is also a consideration, but haynets can be very beneficial to slow consumption and prevent horses from flinging hay around a stall or paddock.

Concentrates

Despite the dizzying number of brands and types of concentrates available to horse owners, there is no one-size-fits-all “grain” for all types of horses. Individuals running boarding farms have hundreds of choices when it comes designing a concentrate program, so where to start?

One option is to have each owner provide their own concentrate. This can work if the number of horses is small and the barn has enough storage space for everyone’s feed. This strategy takes grain ordering off the barn manager’s plate and can reduce boarding costs. However, it requires more organization and diligence by barn staff to keep the grain organized, and owners must stay on top of making sure their horses have grain.

In most cases boarding farm managers choose a base feed to provide each horse in the barn, and owners provide any additional supplements. How many types of base concentrate the barn supplies depends on storage, staffing, and horse ­demographics.

Rachel Mottet, PhD, equine nutritionist and owner of Legacy Equine Nutrition, in Ocala, Florida, says she approaches big barn situations with a few different products: “For most barns, a ration balancer, a performance or maintenance feed, and a complete feed are all you need.” After making sure the forage program is sufficient and other basic nutrients such as water and salt are taken care of, she evaluates the brands available to the barn and chooses products that fit the types of horses at the facility.

“A lot of horses will do great on a ration balancer, but if that doesn’t meet their energy needs, we can use a performance feed,” Mottet says. “And there are a variety of reasons a horse might need a complete feed.” Simplifying a barn’s program to just a few products can result in more balanced diets and less confusion in the feed room, she adds.

For a barn with a diverse population, ration balancers can be incredibly versatile. These are pelleted feeds fortified to provide the vitamins, minerals, and protein the horses’ forage might lack. They typically do not contain as many calories per pound as performance or maintenance feeds. Ration balancers are especially good choices for “easy keepers” that don’t require many calories beyond what’s provided in their forage but can also be used to feed performance horses and harder keepers when combined with higher-calorie concentrates such as fat supplements. Ration balancers are typically not sold in bulk and cost more to purchase per 50-pound bag than other feeds. They are fed, however, at a very low rate: 1 to 3 pounds per day depending on the size, breed, and use of the horse. For ponies and Miniature Horses, the feeding rate is even lower.

A major advantage of providing ration balancers is you can safely feed them to almost every type of horse. Owners can be assured each horse is receiving adequate nutrients, and additional calories can be supplemented at whatever rate is appropriate for each individual horse. Another benefit is a lower feeding rate means horses finish their meals faster, making it more efficient for barn staff to turn horses out after mealtime is done.

Show barns might use higher-calorie performance feeds. These are fed at varying rates, depending on each horse’s needs, ranging from 4 to 10 pounds per day. They also contain varying percentages of fat and nonstructural carbohydrates to provide energy and are much more calorie-dense than ration balancers, maintenance feeds, or senior feeds. Using these products can be problematic, however, if some horses in the barn don’t need the amount of calories the minimum feeding rates provide, because feeding less than the minimum will not supply adequate vitamins and minerals.

Maintenance feeds can be fed at similar rates as performance feeds but generally contain fewer calories per pound. As with performance feeds, they need to be fed at a minimum feeding rate of about 4 pounds per day (always check the feed tag for this information), so if horses don’t need the calories that minimum provides, a ration balancer might be a better option. These feeds can be good options for barns with horse populations in consistent moderate work. One advantage for bigger barns is these feeds are often available in bulk, which can reduce grain deliveries, bag handling, and overall feed costs. The disadvantage is they might provide too few calories for some horses and not enough for others.

Senior Horse Considerations

Older horses with dental or digestive issues can be challenging for boarding barn managers. Some horses cannot chew or digest long-stem forage (hay) properly and need a complete feed to maintain their condition. Complete feeds are designed to provide both the forage and concentrate and must be fed at a fairly high rate—usually 10 to 18 pounds per day for an average to large horse—to maintain body condition and meet horses’ nutrition requirements.

Because complete feeds contain a lot of forage products, they are not as calorie-dense per pound and usually not as high in fat as performance or maintenance feeds. For this reason, complete or senior feeds are not usually efficient or appropriate choices for a general barn population but should be used for those horses that need them to replace forage in their diets. Barn managers might choose to make these feeds available to horses in their care that need them, but not feed them to everyone.

Supplements

Most barns require horse owners to provide their own supplements, if they opt to use these products. In some cases a barn manager might choose to provide a high-calorie supplement, such as a high-fat pellet or nugget, to complement a ration balancer base diet. They then pass the cost along to the horse owners.

The Value of a Nutritionist

Most major feed companies have regional nutrition advisors who can visit boarding facilities and help barn managers develop programs that work for their horses. If a barn already uses a particular feed brand, these professionals can help refine or streamline a feeding program. Independent equine nutritionists, usually with a doctorate-level education, along with equine veterinarians, are also excellent resources to help with specific horse issues or develop solutions for barnwide trends, such as lowering body condition scores or correcting poor toplines.

Dollars and Sense

Feed is the largest single monthly expense for most boarding business owners. They must weigh the costs and benefits of providing various types of hay and concentrates. Horse feed has not been immune to the power of inflation, and prices have gone up significantly. When evaluating the cost of concentrates, boarding farm managers must look at the cost to feed them, not the cost to purchase them. While ration balancers cost more per bag, the lower feeding rate can make them cheaper to feed than maintenance feeds. For example, a horse might only need 1 pound of ration balancer per day but 4 pounds of maintenance feed. And as with most things, higher-quality horse feeds cost more.

Horse owners who board should remember barns often have to cater to a wide variety of horses. Rising costs mean board rate increases are inevitable, especially if the farm manager wants to prioritize a high-quality feeding program.

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Written by:

Jennifer Selvig, DVM, is an associate equine veterinarian at Cleary Lake Veterinary Hospital and the owner and manager of Stargazer Farm, an eventing and dressage barn in Lakeville, Minnesota.

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