7 Tips for Selecting and Feeding a Complete Feed

Here are seven tips for selecting and feeding complete feeds for horses.

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What you should know before you make the switch.

When good-quality hay or forage is unavailable, or when the horse can no longer consume hay, horse owners have the option of utilizing what is termed a “complete feed” to replace the forage component of their horses’ diet. However, choosing a complete feed and understanding how to feed it can be challenging. Randel Raub, PhD, director of Equine Business Development and Technical Services at Land O’ Lakes Purina Mills, and Tom Trotter, general manager of Progressive Nutrition, offer seven tips for selecting and feeding complete feeds to help alleviate some of the concerns with this type of diet.

Tip 1: Know how to identify a complete feed

When describing feeds, the terms complete, supplement, and concentrate are often used with varying meanings. So what exactly is the difference?

“My definition of a complete feed is one that can be fed without hay, so it provides adequate amounts and types of fiber because the forage or hay component is built in,” says Raub. “The complete feed should also provide the protein, vitamin, and mineral components of a horse’s diet; it should not require any type of additional supplementation. Some feed companies use the term complete feed for what I refer to as a complete concentrate, like an Omolene (a texturized Purina feed) or Strategy (a pelleted Purina feed). My definition of a true supplement is more of a nutrient-limited type of product, like biotin, which is a more specific single nutrient supplement than calorie supplements like rice bran or corn oil.”

Trotter has a similar definition of a complete feed, that is “a product which contains protein, vitamins, and minerals, and appropriate levels of forage so that product can be fed to a high percentage of the diet so it can meet the animal’s requirements.” He uses the term “grain mix” to describe what Raub calls a complete concentrate. As far as supplements, he states, “There are supplements that are just one thing, and then there are supplements that are more complete and more balanced.”

The horse owner might believe he or she can identify a complete feed by looking at the types of fiber or the percentage of fiber listed on the feed tag, but these values can be misleading. For instance, Purina’s pelleted product Ultium, which is not a complete feed, but, rather, a beet pulp-based high-fat concentrate, is listed as 18.5% fiber, whereas Equine Senior (a Purina complete feed) is 16% fiber. The difference is that Equine Senior actually contains a higher level of lesser digestible types of fiber than does Ultium, allowing the complete product to be fed at a higher rate and mimic the natural diet of the horse, especially for horses that are sick, malnourished, or no longer able to consume or digest hay. In contrast, a horse in training or competition would be better served by the calorie-dense Ultium in combination with good-quality forage.

What types of fiber are commonly used in complete feeds? “A lot of complete feeds have a high percentage of alfalfa or grass-type forage,” says Raub. “You need to look at other types of fiber to provide a more indigestible type of fiber residue that’s important to complete feeds, such as rice hulls, oat hulls, or peanut hulls. Beet pulp and soy hulls are much more digestible. Rice bran runs 20% fiber, but is also 20% fat. Wheat bran is also used, but there is no inherent value to it versus other fiber sources. The type and the mix of fibers determine the caloric value a complete feed may have.”

Some horse owners might balk at the term “lesser digestible fibers,” but Raub makes the purpose clear: “The lesser digestible fiber sources reflect a more natural composition, as if the horses were out grazing mixed forage; in theory it helps maintain gastrointestinal health and function. When you reduce that, you may very well have an impact on gastrointestinal health. If you have an excessive amount of indigestible residue, then feed at a lower total rate, it’s a good recipe for colic. This was a consideration in the development of Equine Senior and reconfirmed by research we have completed in developing our new line of WellSolve feeds (Purina diets for horses that are obese or sensitive to starch or sugar.).”

Tip 2: Know your horse’s nutrient requirements

A horse at maintenance will consume about 2% of its body weight per day in dry matter (20 pounds for a 1,000-pound horse). The equine digestive system must be able to extract a sufficient amount of calories as well as adequate amounts and proper ratios of protein, vitamins, and minerals to maintain satisfactory body condition and health. Although complete feeds are a more concentrated source of nutrients, without hay or forage in his diet a horse might need to consume upwards of 15 to 20 pounds of a given complete feed daily to meet his caloric requirement.

Tip 3: Know when a complete feed is needed

When should a horse owner consider feeding a complete feed? “I think certainly in a geriatric horse that doesn’t have the ability to chew hay anymore,” says Raub. “Dentition often dictates whether a horse can chew hay. Equine Senior is used extensively in equine hospitals as a post- colic diet, often soaked. The ease of digestion may be one reason it works well in a clinical setting.”

Trotter concurs about geriatric horses with bad teeth. “Those horses just can’t otherwise consume enough nutrients to meet their needs,” he says.

Horses with medical conditions such as recurrent airway obstruction, in which dust or particles from hay irritate the airway, might also benefit from the elimination of hay from their diets.

Another application might be when complete control is needed for a growing horse’s diet. “Equine Junior (a complete feed for growing horses) can be used when you’re pushing halter futurity or sales yearlings. You’re walking a tightrope of disaster when you are really pushing growth rates, so you need to be as consistent as possible with nutrient profiles,” states Raub.

Tip 4: Calculate the cost per day

Complete feeds also are an alternative when good-quality hay is unavailable. In the last three years, many areas of the United States have been plagued by inclement weather; either there has been too much rain or not enough, and when combined with the soaring costs of fuel and fertilizer, these conditions have made good hay difficult to find and costly to obtain.

Drought is still widespread, according to Brad Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center: “There are three general areas that are currently affected by drought. The first one is the southeastern United States. The other area we are looking at is the southern Plains. Three years ago they were in about a 2½-year drought where we saw extreme drought through Texas and Oklahoma. Last year they were very wet; now areas down in South Texas, particularly San Antonio, are back in an extreme drought situation. In the Oklahoma panhandle, southwest Kansas, and North Texas panhandle we are seeing some serious impact with agriculture and water supply. Parts of the Southwest and California had a dry year last year and a pretty decent snowfall year in the mountains, but then it’s been very dry this spring, with the fires being evidence of how dry it is now (summer, at presstime).”

The cost per head per day of a traditional diet versus one based on complete feed is easy to calculate. For the traditional diet of grain and hay determine the pounds of hay and grain fed using an inexpensive fish scale and a plastic bag. Remember to include any supplements.

To calculate the cost of feeding a complete feed, simply determine the cost per pound and multiply it by the pounds fed each day. With either diet a local equine nutritionist, feed company representative, or veterinarian can ensure you are meeting the horse’s caloric needs and other nutrient requirements. (See Figure 1)

Trotter thinks of this as a management decision. “Hay is always available, it’s just available at a cost,” he says.

In addition, you can use a complete feed to partially replace the forage component of the horse’s diet. (See Figure 2) “We’ve had a step up in demand for complete type feeds in the Southeast and Northeast last year, especially with the hay shortage,” says Raub. “You can physically substitute a complete feed like Horse Chow to stretch your hay. The complete feed is more nutrient dense and digestible than whatever hay you may be feeding, so you may be able to feed one-half to three-quarters of a complete feed compared to the amount of hay you may be feeding.”

Tip 5: Follow Directions

Detailed instructions on how to feed a complete product for horses of different ages, physiological states, or activity levels usually can be found on the feed tag or bag. Remember to weigh the feed as mentioned above. “Complete feeds are designed from a nutrient density standpoint to be fed in larger volumes. So if you’re feeding less than that you need to, make sure you’re delivering the protein, vitamins, and minerals your horse requires,” cautions Raub.

Tip 6: Feed in multiple feedings

In general, the maximum recommended amount of pellets to feed in a single meal is 5 pounds. This means that a horse consuming 15-20 pounds of a complete feed per day needs to eat at least three to four meals throughout the day. For horse owners pressed for time, one possible schedule would be a morning feeding, an evening feeding, and an additional feeding before bedtime.

Tip 7: Prevent boredom

Horses evolved to spend the majority of the day grazing and browsing mixed forages. So when the opportunity to express this deeply ingrained behavior is removed, they often replace it with other behaviors to pass the time. Unfortunately, these behaviors include wood chewing, stall weaving, cribbing, and coprophagy (eating feces). Trotter recommends feeding two to four flakes of hay per day to satisfy the horse’s need to chew. Other ways to avoid these behaviors are to provide regular turnout and exercise and feed the complete product in multiple small meals.

Take-Home Message

Complete feeds are a viable dietary substitute in situations in which good-quality forage is not available, or they can be useful if a horse is unable to consume or digest forage. Owners should feed complete products at the correct rate in small meals throughout the day and consult with veterinarians or equine nutritionists to ensure their horses’ dietary requirements are being met.


Written by:

Jon Padgham is a freelance writer and works as an equine nutritionist for D&L Farm and Home in Aubrey, Texas. He obtained his master’s degree in horse nutrition from Kansas State University in 2001.

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