Uncomplicating the Feed Tag

Uncomplicating the Feed Tag


Everyone who owns or has owned a horse has probably visited the local feed store to purchase feed and or a supplement.  Often this trip is viewed as entering a world of the unknown.  This is aided in the ensuing confusion by the plethora of advertisements, friendly recommendations, and often sales personnel who are not trained in horse nutrition.  Being able to decipher the information on a feed tag or supplement pail will allow the horse owner to make a better selection of products appropriate for their horse(s).

The information on the tag is not mysterious and is in fact dictated by the Association of American Feed Control Official, Inc. (AAFCO).  This organization is comprised of state officials with the responsibility of regulating the production, labeling, distribution, and sale of animal feeds.  Although AAFCO has input into what comprises the feed tag, the individual states may dictate specific labeling requirements for feeds in that state.  It is also the responsibility of the state officials to insure compliance with all labeling regulations.  Inspectors may sample finished products for laboratory analysis to insure the product meets all label guarantees and approved ingredients are in the product.  They have the authority to stop the sale of the products failing to meet the guarantees or containing unapproved ingredients.  Some labels must meet the guidelines established by the National Animal Supplement Council.  These labels are used for products that contain ingredients that AAFCO does not recognize, e.g. glucosamine. That will be reviewed in another blog.

What is Included on the Feed Tag

Each state is responsible for regulating the commercial feeds and supplements produced or sold in the state.  Tag information regarding nutrients listed, ingredients used, feeding directions, and any precautionary statements are similar from state to state. (Table 1).

Brand Name, if any and Product Name

The brand name is usually the company name.  This is often omitted, but may be useful when several feed companies produce similar feeds or for specific classes of horses, e.g. senior feed.  The product name must accurately describe the intended use of the feed.  For example, a feed for mature horses in light work would be a “maintenance” feed.  This feed would not be appropriate for the young growing horse.  The purpose of the feed provides information for which class or classes of horses the feed is appropriate, (weanlings, lactation mare, hardworking).

The type of feed, while not required in all states, may also be on the feed tag and is usually under the product name.  Horse feeds are divided into several categories: 1) textured (sweet feed); 2) pelleted; 3) extruded; 4) complete; or 5) supplement (protein, mineral, vitamin, or mineral-vitamin combinations).

Textured feeds are grain mixes containing various amounts of molasses.  The grains may be whole or processed, e.g. flaked, depending on the physical characteristics of the individual grains.  This feed may contain additional protein, minerals and or vitamins.  These are often found in a pellet or crumble added to the cereal grains used to provide nutrients necessary to supplement the forage portion of the diet.

Pelleted feeds may contain the same nutrient levels as a textured feed, but may contain different feed ingredients.  Pellets may also be produced in different sizes for the same feed.

Extruded feeds are processed under more pressure than pellets and results in improved feed utilization.  Extruded feeds are eaten more slowly than pelleted or textured feeds.  This slower intake may reduce digestive disturbances.  Both pelleted and extruded feeds reduce fines and sorting.

Complete feeds are pelleted mixtures of grains and roughage; and may contain added protein, minerals and vitamins.  Complete feeds may be beneficial for horse owners with limited feed storage, traveling to shows and events often, when high quality forage is difficult to obtain, or when required because of specific nutritional or medical conditions.  All complete feeds designed to be the sole source of nutrients for the horse need to be fed according to label directions to insure proper nutrient intake.

Supplements should provide specific nutrients or compounds in specific amounts that enhance the feeding program.  Often these nutrients cannot be added to the feed because of variable feed intake by different horses or they are not required by all classes of horses or by every horse in each class.  An example of variable intake and the problem of adding something to the feed would be glucosamine.  For argument sake, let’s say an effective amount of glucosamine is 3000 mg per day.  This could easily be added to a feed at 500 mg per pound.  The problem occurs when an easy keeper receives three (3) pounds of the feed per day and a hard keeper requires ten (10) pounds of the same feed to meet his nutrient needs.  The easy keeper would receive 1500 mg of glucosamine and the hard keeper receives 5000 mg.  One horse may not show any benefit because of insufficient glucosamine, while the other would result in increased cost for excessive glucosamine.  The same scenario would exist for many other products, such as hoof supplements.

Guaranteed Analysis

The amount of specific nutrients is provided in the guaranteed analysis.  The information provided here when combined with the nutrients supplied by the forage the horse receives will meet the nutritional requirements.  Although there are some minor state variations, most states require feed manufacturers to provide the minimum amount of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum amount of crude fiber expressed as a percentage (%).  If the product is supplying specific minerals and additional Vitamin A, these must also be on the tag.

Crude Protein

The crude protein of a feed or supplement is expressed as a minimum percentage.  This is because protein feedstuffs are usually one of the more expensive ingredients in the mix.  It is not economical to add more protein that is stated on the tag.

Crude protein is a method of expressing the nitrogen content of the feed.  It should not be interpreted as an indication about protein quality.  Protein quality is determined by the amino acid composition of the feedstuffs.  Adding amino acids to a feed may improve the biological value of the feed.  For example, a feed containing 14% crude protein with added lysine may be equal to a 16% crude protein feed in quality.  The lysine content is as important than the percent crude protein in young horses.  Growth will be compromised in young horses receiving a diet deficient in lysine, even when the crude protein and other amino acids are adequate.  The lysine requirement for weanlings is 0.65%.

With the above said, often too much importance is placed on the level of crude protein in the product.  Many times the level of crude protein is confused with the amount of energy the feed contains.  Sometimes the feed is purchased on the amount of crude protein with little attention paid to the other nutrients.

Purchase feeds with a crude protein content that is designed for the class(es) of horse(s) being fed.  All horses require a minimum amount of protein per day for maintenance, growth, and production.  This amount is comprised of protein from all of the feedstuffs the horse eats, roughage, grain, and or supplements.  To determine the amount of protein provided by each feed eaten, multiply the percent crude protein by the amount (pounds) eaten.  For example, a horse consuming 22 pounds of feed daily comprised of 10 pounds of a 12% crude protein feed would receive 1.2 pounds of protein (10 lb X 12/100 = 1.2 lb) and 10 pounds of hay containing 10% crude protein would receive 1 pound of protein (10 lb X 10/100 = 1.0 lb) for a total intake of 2.2 pounds of protein.

Most commercial feeds contain from 10% to 16% crude protein.  The higher protein feeds are usually designed for young horses and broodmares in late gestation or early lactation.  They may also be required for other classes of horses receiving low protein forage.  Feeds containing 12% to 14% crude protein are designed for performance horses and a 10% to 11% feed for mature horses doing little work.  It is of interest to note, exercise does not increase the percentage of crude protein the horse requires.  Work requires additional energy which in turn requires more feed.  An illustration of this is a horse that receives three (3) pounds of a 12% crude protein feed and is doing light to moderate work.  If this horse is then required to do more work, heavy work for example, he may need six (6) pounds of the same feed to meet his increased energy demands.  At three (3) pounds he received 0.36 lb of crude protein (3 lb X 12/100 = 0.36 lb).  Increasing feed intake increased the horse’s protein intake to 0.72 lb (6 lb X 12/100 = 0.72 lb) or double the protein intake.  Note the percentage of protein in the feed remained the same.  Most of the premium performance feed, i.e. high energy feeds, require slightly more protein because of the higher energy density and lower feed intake.

Crude Fat

The crude fat content is also expressed as a percentage and the minimum amount is required on the tag.  This amount includes any fat or oil that may be in the feedstuffs along with any added fat or oil.  The primary difference between a fat and oil is fats are solid at room temperature and oils are liquid.  Fats are usually saturated and oils unsaturated.  There are some nutritional differences between the two, but the energy content is equal.

The crude fat content is a good indicator of the feed’s energy content.  As a general rule, fat contains 2.25 times the energy content per pound as carbohydrates or proteins.  Fat not only contains more energy per unit, it is a much safer way to increase the energy the horse receives.  Unlike carbohydrates, fat does not increase the chance of grain overload founder.  Because of the energy density of a fat, the higher the fat content, the more energy (calories) provided per pound of feed.  The higher the energy content, the fewer pounds of feed (concentrate) required to meet the energy requirement.

Most carbohydrate based feeds, without added fat, contain 2% to 4% crude fat.  Some of the premium horse feeds currently marketed contain from 6% to 10% crude fat (Table 2).  There are a few extruded feeds containing 14% to 22% crude fat.  Some of the super-premium feeds and supplements will list the amount of omega-three and omega-six fatty acids.  While this information is not required, knowing it may be beneficial to the horse owner.

Crude Fiber

The crude fiber content of a feed can be an excellent indicator of the feed’s energy content.  On a per unit basis, fiber provides much less energy than grains or protein feedstuffs.  At least most traditional fiber sources, such as hays, contain less energy.  For most feeds, the higher the fiber content, the lower the energy density.  Research conducted over the past few years has shown this is not the case for certain types of fiber.  For example, soybean hulls have been shown to contain as much digestible energy as oats.  This type of fiber is referred to as “soluble” fiber.  Other good sources of soluble fiber include sugar beet pulp and alfalfa leaf meal.  Referring to the ingredient list will assist in determining the fiber sources in the feed.  Because of the energy of these soluble fibers, gauging the energy content of a feed based on the crude fiber level is not as accurate as in the past.  To adequately gauge the energy content examine the fat content, fiber content and the source(s) of the fiber.

Fiber is important in the ration, whether it is derived from the feed or roughage.  Fiber helps maintain the gastrointestinal tract health and keep it functioning correctly.  Complete feeds should contain at least eighteen percent (18%) crude fiber.

Calcium and Phosphorus

The amount of calcium in a feed is presented as a minimum and maximum.  This is because 1) calcium is vital in proper bone formation and 2) calcium is a relatively inexpensive ingredient.  Most products will tend to contain the maximum quantity of calcium.  Phosphorus, on the other hand, is a very expensive ingredient.  Like calcium, phosphorus is involved in proper bone formation and also in many metabolic pathways.  Calcium content will usually exceed phosphorus.  Feeds that contain relatively high energy content will usually have greater than one percent (1%) calcium and almost an equal amount of phosphorus.  This is due to the lower intake of the feed required to meet the horse’s energy requirements.

Copper, Zinc, and Selenium

The amount of copper, zinc, and selenium is expressed as a minimum and unlike the nutrients given above, the amount is presented as part per million (ppm) or milligram per kilogram (mg/kg).  To determine the amount of these minerals on a per pound basis divide by 2.204.  Copper and zinc are important in bone formation and various other metabolic pathways, e.g. energy utilization.  Selenium is vital to the proper function of the immune system and in reproduction.

Vitamin A

If there is added vitamin A in the feed it must be stated on the label.  Vitamin A is expressed as International Units (IU) per pound or per kilogram and is important in reproduction.

Other Guarantees

Crude protein, crude fat and crude fiber are required on all horse feed and supplements labels.  If specific sources of copper, zinc, selenium, and vitamin A are added to the product, they are required on the label.  In general, if the product supplies a specific nutrient then that nutrient must be on the tag.  Some states may require the amount of Ash, which relates to the total amount of minerals.

In addition to the required nutrients, some manufacturers add additional nutrient level guarantees.  These may include; lysine, specific fatty acids, other minerals, other vitamins, and others, e.g. glucosamine.  These guarantees may be in percent, IU’s, grams or milligrams per unit weight or per daily feeding.

Ingredient List

All feeds and supplements are required to list the ingredients used in the product.  These are listed in descending order, from the greatest amount to the least.  The manufacturer has the option to list ingredients as individual and specific feedstuffs, e.g. oats, or as part of a collective feed name, e.g. grain products.

Collective labeling (Table 3) is often used in feeds when they are developed as a least-cost formulation.  While this insures the nutrient guarantees are met, the ingredients used may change depending on cost.  Least cost formulation uses the lease expensive ingredients to meet the guarantees.  This can change the true amount of a nutrient available because of digestibility differences and may also change the acceptability of the feed because of odor or flavor differences.

Use Directions

Each feed label is required to give correct feeding directions for the product.  If more than one class of horse is affected, directions for each class must be included.  These directions usually include the pounds of feed and hay to be fed on a daily basis.  Other feeding tips may also be included in this section.

Cautions or Warnings

Each label will also include any warnings you need to know to use the feed properly.  This usually includes storage of the product.  If an added nutrient could cause problems with another class of horses or animal species it is also listed here.  We often see feeds formulated for horses carry a warning “Do Not Feed to Sheep”, this is because of the added copper and the sensitivity of sheep to copper.

Manufacturer’s Name and Address

The manufacturer of the product is required to provide contact information and net weight (quantity) of the product.


Knowing the basics of a feed tag and the type of horse(s) being fed are particularly important for the nutritional well-being of the animal and the purchaser’s pocketbook.  Although each state may require slight variations in label requirements, the basic information will remain the same.  A little homework will pay large dividends at the feed store counter.