Complete Feeds vs. Ration Balancers: What's the Difference?
Q. In several of the articles you have written, you mention feeding a ration balancer to horses consuming a diet comprised predominantly of forage. What is the difference between a ration balancer and a complete feed?

Nancy M., New Mexico

A. When I start working with new clients, I commonly find that they are feeding their horses a complete feed at a rate that’s less than the recommended daily intake. When I ask why they have chosen a complete feed, the response is often something like, “It is complete and provides him with all the nutrients he needs.” But, in reality, this is very unlikely to be true when the product is fed at a couple of pounds a day (typically well below the recommended daily intake). These clients have gotten complete feeds confused with ration balancers, so your question is a very good one!

“Complete” is a term used to describe a feed that contains everything your horse needs in his diet, including the forage; thus, complete feeds can be fed as the sole ration—no need for hay or pasture, just provide water and the complete feed. As a result, they tend to have very large serving sizes, often around 1.5% of the horse’s body weight. Conversely, a ration balancer is designed to be fed alongside forage and aims to complement common forages’ nutrient profiles.

When you look at the guaranteed analysis on a complete feed’s label you should find that the percent crude fiber content is in the high teens to high 20s. The first ingredient is typically a fiber source, such as shredded beet pulp, soybean hulls, alfalfa, or some other type of hay. The ration balancer, on the other hand, generally has low crude fiber, maybe as little as 4 or 5%, and the first ingredient is often soybean meal. This supplies the large amount of quality protein ration balancers typically provide.

Many complete feeds are designed for senior horses, as some older horses are no longer able to consume hay or pasture. Not all senior feeds are complete feeds, though, so read the label carefully. The crude protein content tends to be about 14%, which is a little higher than feeds designed for other adult horses due to the fact that senior horses might not absorb protein as well. Some manufacturers also guarantee specific amino acid levels such as lysine and methionine, which are often limiting amino acids in the equine diet. It is not unusual for a ration balancer to have crude protein content of around 30%, as one of the main goals with such a product is to provide a source of quality protein in the diet.

Owners often get concerned about these seemingly very high protein levels, but because the recommended daily intake of ration balancers is only 1 to 2 pounds, the actual grams of protein consumed are not that high compared to the total protein in the diet.

For simplicity’s sake, the easiest way to think about a ration balancer is as a supplement. It is a heavily fortified feed with a small daily recommended feeding rate. Its purpose is to provide your horse with the essential nutrients that are most likely to be insufficient in a forage-based diet. In addition to the quality protein from soybean meal, these ration balancers provide a good amount of calcium (unless they are formulated to be fed with an alfalfa-based diet), other key macro minerals, generous amounts of trace minerals–especially copper and zinc, as well as fat-soluble vitamins (in particular vitamin E).

Ration balancers are not intended to be fed for extra calories. While they do provide some calories, most are comparable to a pound of good-quality hay. They are low in fat and fiber and generally low in non-structural carbohydrates, although this should be confirmed if it’s a concern for your horse.

Feed a complete feed if you are looking to provide an alternative forage source for horses unable to chew or fully utilize hay or pasture. Again, the calorie content per pound is typically not as high as a performance feed, although if a senior feeds contains a good amount of fat the calorie content will be higher than one that does not.

As previously mentioned, feeding directions differ significantly between these two types of feed. For example, in comparing the ration balancers and complete senior feeds from three manufacturers, feeding directions range from 1.5 to 2 pounds, 1 pound, and 1 to 2 pounds per day for the ration balancers versus 12 pounds, 15 to 18 pounds, and 14 pounds for the complete senior feeds for a 1,100-pound horse at maintenance.

Because of the higher expected daily intake, the concentration of minerals and vitamins per pound in the complete feeds tends to be lower compared to a ration balancer’s. Again, comparing these same feeds, the zinc content in the ration balancers is 940 mg/kg, 500 mg/kg, and 730 mg/kg versus 170 mg/kg, 100 mg/kg, and 220 mg/kg in the complete feeds.

To further this point, if you take an average of these feed’s zinc contents, 723 mg/kg for the ration balancers and 163 mg/kg for the complete feeds, you can clearly see the ration balancers are far more fortified on an equal weight basis. The average serving size was about 1.5 pounds (0.68 kilograms) for the ration balancers and 14 pounds (6.6 kilograms) for the complete feeds. When feeding each product at the recommended feeding rate and using the average zinc content we calculated, the ration balancers provide 491 mg of zinc and the complete feeds provide 1,037 mg.

Despite what at first glance might look like a low concentration of minerals in the complete feeds, when fed correctly you end up with as much or more than the highly fortified ration balancer. However, if you just feed a “scoop” of the complete feed (which weighs, say, 2 pounds) you will only provide about 150 mg of zinc and the overall diet will not be as “complete” as you think.

This concentration versus serving size issue is why owners should feed fortified commercial feeds of all types at the manufacturer’s recommended amounts. Doing so helps ensure you are getting the full benefit of the feed and providing your horse with a well-balanced diet that is meeting his nutrient requirements.