Pros and Cons of Feeding Horses Beet Pulp

An equine nutritionist answers common questions about beet pulp.
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dry, shredded beet pulp
Beet pulp comes in two physical forms; shredded (as seen above) and pelleted. | Erica Larson/The Horse

Q. I have some questions about feeding beet pulp.

  • Is it a forage or concentrate?  Should it have added molasses or should it be plain?
  • Should it be in flake- or pellet-form?
  • What’s the correct water to beet pulp ratio?
  • How much should a horse eat per pound of body weight, and do you measure it with the beet pulp soaked or un-soaked?
  • What supplements should be included if any to ensure balanced nutrition?

I’d appreciate any input you have on the pros and cons of feeding beet pulp.

A. Beet pulp has long been a mainstay in many feed rooms, especially during the winter months. People often incorrectly think of it as a concentrate because in many cases it is fed instead of or alongside grain; however, in reality, it is actually a forage. Relatively high in hemicellulose, a fermentable fiber, beet pulp digestion relies on microbial fermentation in the hindgut. This makes it a feed closer to pasture and hay than traditional concentrates such as oats, which are high in starch and require enzymatic digestion in the small intestine. Yet, when it comes to the calories supplied per pound it compares more closely to oats than hay. This is what makes it such a good choice for hard-keeping horses.

A by-product of the sugar beet industry, beet pulp is what remains after the sugar is removed. Therefore, despite the name the sugar content is low. In fact, it is low enough to be safe for horses with insulin resistance (IR) or polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) as long as it does not have any added molasses. Beet pulp with molasses is often less dusty and might be more palatable, but it’s not safe for horses with IR, PSSM, or hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP). If you cannot find molasses-free beet pulp, you can soak beet pulp and then rinse it before feeding to wash off the molasses.

The low-sugar and -starch content means there are no concerns of overwhelming the small intestine’s ability to absorb these nutrients. There’s also no concern about them entering the hindgut and disrupting microbial fermentation as can happen if large amounts of high starch grain are fed. By feeding a product that requires microbial fermentation and provides a form of complex carbohydrate that’s relatively easy to ferment, the beneficial microbial populations in the hindgut are supplied with abundant substrate.

Beet pulp comes in two physical forms; shredded and pelleted. The pellets tend to be very hard and some are quite large, whereas shreds are exactly as the name implies— thin strips of pulp about half- to three-quarters of an inch long and about one-sixteenth of an inch wide.

soaked beet pulp
Some shreds are very dusty and soaking helps reduce the dust. Shreds swell and absorb water more quickly than pellets. | Photo: The Horse Staff

Contrary to popular belief it is not necessary to soak beet pulp before feeding. The horse’s stomach will not explode if fed dry beet pulp and it will not suck all the water out of the gastrointestinal tract and cause impaction colic. It is one of the biggest myths in equine nutrition. Just think about all the commercial feeds that contain beet pulp and recall whether any of them state that soaking is required before being fed.

That being said there are some good reasons to soak beet pulp prior to feeding. Because of beet pulp pellets’ hardness and size, I always recommend soaking beet pulp pellets. And, given that it is always beneficial to increase your horse’s water intake, my preference is to soak shreds, too. So while soaking is not required, it is something I always do and recommend doing.

Some shreds are very dusty and soaking helps reduce the dust. I personally prefer triple-screened beet pulp if you’re using shreds. I have found them to be a much cleaner and more consistent product and worth the slightly higher cost. Dust is also one reason why some manufacturers add molasses, plus it aids in palatability.

Shreds soak far more quickly than pellets. A good general rule that results in a good consistency of finished soaked feed is one part beet pulp to two parts water. You should weigh your pellets dry because weight at the end once soaked will vary with the amount of water you added. Plus, a pound of dry beet pulp is far more nutrient dense than a pound of wet beet pulp, which is nearly all water. Shreds swell and absorb water more quickly than pellets. You can put shreds in a bucket, add water and go ride and they will be ready to feed by the time you return in barely an hour. To speed up pellets soak them in hot water; just make sure it has cooled before feeding. Soaked beet pulp typically remains good for about a day; however, in hot, humid climates it might go bad in less than 24 hours. If it smells like wine or vinegar, it has spoiled and should not be fed.

As for amount to feed, this will depend on your horse. If you are needing to stretch hay or have a hard keeper or a horse with poor dentition you can feed up to 50% of the dietary forage as beep pulp (dry weight). So for a 1,200-pound horse being fed 2% of body weight as forage, you would feed 12 pounds of beet pulp per day.

Also, if you have an easy keeper, remember that beet pulp provides more calories per pound than an equal amount of grass hay. This means that if you are going to feed beet pulp to an easy keeper you will likely find yourself feeding less total forage per day, as you’ll need to reduce total intake to prevent the horse from gaining weight.

Beet pulp has a lower potassium level than most grass hays making it a useful substitute for horses with HYPP, where dietary potassium should be less than 1%. Beet pulp’s calcium content is good, as well, being higher than most grass hays although lower than alfalfa. As such, it compliments traditional grains such as oats that tend to have low calcium and higher phosphorus levels. The protein content is comparable to grass hay at about 8 to 12%. However, because it is not a fortified feed, a mineral and vitamin supplement will be needed to insure adequate intakes of trace minerals and necessary vitamins, such as vitamin E.

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

2 Responses

  1. I have been feeding beet pulp both pelleted and shreds to my horses for their lifetime.I soak the pulp in a carrot celery juice mash with Timothy/alfalfa pellets along with a senior feed and all supplements,Sea salt,brewers yeast,spirulina,chia occasionally peas,pumpkin seeds and oil

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