Grain in bucket

Learn how your horse’s dinner arrives nutritionally balanced and quality-control tested

Horses have long enjoyed the addition of concentrates and complete feeds to their forage rations. We take regular trips to the feed store to pick up these products—packaged neatly in brightly colored, sweet-smelling bags—or, perhaps, we have the feed supplier deliver them to the farm. But have you ever wondered how your horse’s feed is made and what quality controls are in place to ensure he’s consuming a safe product? In this article, two independent nutritionists who have worked with a variety of feed manufacturers will share what they’ve learned.

Horse feed manufacturers range from small local mills to large ones that can produce hundreds of tons of feed per day. At some mills people produce the feed by hand, while at others mechanized equipment controlled by the latest technology does the job. And it’s not just the largest feed mills that are most advanced. Clair Thunes, PhD, owner of Summit Equine Nutrition, in Gilbert, Arizona, recalls a small mill she visited that was completely computerized, while a larger feed manufacturer still relied on manpower for its bagging line. Neither method is better than the other because every mill must abide by the same regulations and quality assurance practices.

“Our feed, just like our food, is safer than it used to be,” says James Lattimer, MS, PhD, assistant professor of equine nutrition at Kansas State University, in Manhattan. “We continually come out with new processes that allow us to use new ingredients to increase the performance and digestibility and improve intakes.”

Rules and Regulations

Lattimer says the equine feed industry follows annual guidelines published by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) outlining feed label recommendations, such as what appears on ingredient labels and the “Guaranteed Analysis” of nutrients. The individual state departments of agriculture enforce these guidelines through legislation, and state officials must inspect each state-licensed mill. Some mills might also have a federal license and get inspected by either the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the state acting as a federal representative.

“Some states allow what we call collective feed terms,” on labels, says Thunes. “You can say things like ‘plant protein product,’ and that could be one of more than 20 different things. AAFCO defines what a plant protein product can be.”

Thunes adds that manufacturers that use collective feed terms are likely using least-cost formulation, in which feeds must have the same nutritional makeup from one batch of raw ingredients to the next, rather than fixed-ingredient formulation, in which ingredients always stay the same, regardless of price. Fixed-ingredient formulation provides continuity of ingredients, whereas the least-cost formulation reduces ingredient costs while providing continuity of nutrition, even if the feed company decides to swap out ingredients based on availability and price. This formulation is not ideal for horses with food sensitivities, she says.

In states that don’t allow collective feed terms, manufacturers must list every ingredient on the label. This allows customers to know exactly what their horse is consuming. The downside is these feeds might be more expensive, says Thunes.

If ingredients include a medication or the manufacturer makes certain claims about a product, the FDA gets involved in its approval and regulation.

In 2011 the Food Safety Modernization Act brought the most sweeping food safety law reforms in more than 70 years. The act established current good manufacturing practices (cGMPs) for manufacturing, processing, packing, and storing of animal feed. All manufacturers must be registered with the FDA and have a certified hazardous control official responsible for implementing the mill’s well-documented hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls. These seek to avert issues related to biological, chemical, and physical hazards that could cause the product or work environment to become unsafe.

Your Horse's Feed: From Field to Feed Bag

Sourcing Ingredients

Horse feeds include a large variety of components. After an equine nutritionist develops a formula for producing a certain feed, it’s up to the procurement team to find ingredients for the mill. “They’re looking to get the best deal, but they should also not buy products that don’t meet the quality standards of the company,” says Lattimer.

Thunes says feed mills can source farm-grown ingredients, such as hay, oats, alfalfa, corn, barley, etc., in a variety of ways. The most economical method is to purchase straight from the farmer. However, mills that don’t need large quantities of an ingredient or don’t want to deal with a direct purchase might buy through a broker. Some feed mills even grow their own ingredients.

Horse feeds include a variety of vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, iodine, cobalt, copper, selenium, zinc, biotin, and vitamins A, D, and E. Thunes says mills might buy vitamins and minerals loose or formulated into a premix by another company. Sometimes they do both and add further vitamins or minerals to the premix based on what they prefer.

Additional ingredients include byproducts of other manufacturing processes, such as beet pulp, which is a byproduct of the sugar beet industry; wheat middlings, a byproduct of the flour milling industry; and distillers grains, a byproduct of the ethanol industry.

With byproducts, says Lattimer, the feed industry can make wise use of nutritionally beneficial resources and not waste ingredients that would otherwise be discarded.

Quality Control

The ingredient procurement team works directly with the manufacturer’s quality assurance or quality control department, which might reject ingredients that do not meet the company’s specifications, says Lattimer.

Offices and state and local agencies authorized by the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS, an agency of the USDA) oversee all grain inspection, weighing, and grading. This oversight helps the grain industry operate under uniform and official standards and procedures. When selecting grains for purchase, feed ­manufacturers can assess the official grain certificate, which outlines that product’s grade, class, and condition.

Mills look for grain of a particular grade, says Thunes, based on moisture content, odor, percentage of damaged kernels (by heat and mold), dockage (weed seeds, stems, and other waste materials), foreign materials, shrunken or broken grains, fungi, mycotoxins, aflatoxins, etc. As grain and other ingredients come into the mill by either truckload or rail car, a mill’s staff might also perform its own quality tests. However, Thunes says the testing requirements vary greatly between companies.

“Some have high standards,” she says. “Some have standards that are not so high. Some may not test. The really good feed companies are going to test (the grain) before it even comes into the mill.”

If the ingredients don’t meet the feed mill’s standards, they’re sent to another buyer with different requirements.

The mill’s staff might also perform nutrient analysis using near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), says Lattimer. While not as exact as true laboratory wet chemistry, it does give a reliable, economical, and quick estimation of starch, protein, fat, fiber, moisture, etc., levels in the grain.

Throughout the manufacturing process the feed mill’s quality assurance procedures help maintain the feed’s quality. Lattimer says the staff might discard feed if, upon visual inspection, they find foreign material in it, such as unwanted stalks, cobs, husks, or even pests.

Lattimer says some manufacturers use magnets as a quality control measure to ensure random metal pieces from harvesting and other equipment don’t make it into feeds. They’ll also perform additional testing to ensure feeds meet the standards set on the labels’ guaranteed analyses.

One of the biggest concerns for horse owners is ensuring their horse feed does not contain monensin. Manufacturers sometimes add this antibiotic to ruminant, swine, and poultry feed, but it is toxic to horses. While large feed manufacturers might have mills dedicated to medication-free feed production, “many mills don’t have that luxury,” says Lattimer. “So they have to do things to help ensure monensin-free feed. One is proper cleanout of their systems. Two is what we call sequencing.”

With sequencing, the mill produces a nonmedicated nonhorse feed between batches of medicated feed and horse feed to flush out the manufacturing line.

“I would never make a horse feed directly behind or after a monensin-­containing calf feed,” he says.

Your Horse's Feed: From Field to Feed Bag

The Manufacturing Process

Certain ingredients might undergo further processing using a variety of methods to create smaller particle sizes or pellets. The purpose is to improve the ingredients’ digestibility. The most common types of processing include the following:

Pelleting involves heat and steam as the already-mixed ingredients are forced through a die with hundreds of small holes to create cylindrical pellets. The pellets are then cooled and dried before bagging and storage.

Steam flaking involves exposing the grain to temperature and moisture in a steam chamber over time, before rolling it into a flake.

Rolling involves using a rolling mill or crusher to smash grain into a much finer particle size.

Grinding involves using a hammermill or roller mill to crush grains until they are small enough to pass through holes in screens to create a variety of particle sizes.

Extrusion involves cooking grain under pressure with high-temperature steam for a short period before exposing the grain to cooler air, causing it to “pop.” It is then pushed through a die, which gives it a unique form and shape resembling pet food kibble.

Then ingredients get added into a mixer, either by people doing the measurements by hand or, as is more often the case, by computerized equipment, which helps ensure accuracy and tracks ingredients. 

Mixers vary in size based on the manufacturing plant and its production capacity. Some mills might only mix 1,000 pounds at once, while others mix tons of feed at a time. Liquids, such as oil for added fat or molasses for flavor, can be incorporated at different phases of mixing or sprayed on the feed right before bagging, says Thunes.

After mixing, the feed might be bagged or placed in a bin to be added to a textured (a blend of ingredients in various forms) feed or shipped in bulk to a large horse operation.

At the end of the manufacturing process, many feed mills save several bags for quality control. They record the lot’s number and manufacture date so they can refer to those bags if a problem arises after sale.

In Summary

With the variety of industry regulations and the feed manufacturers’ quality control methods, horse owners can trust that great effort has been made to ensure the safety and quality of their horses’ feed.

“While feed manufacturing processes may seem somewhat secretive and mysterious to most horse owners, if owners are ever curious or have concerns about how their feed is made I encourage them to reach out to their feed company’s sales representative or nutritionist,” says Thunes. “Most companies are very willing to answer customer questions and deal with any concerns they may have.”