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Horse Feed Tag Breakdown: The Guaranteed Analysis

A Guaranteed Analysis of feed has never been so important to horse owners, so why now? Beyond protein percentages and price tags, what else is there to consider? 

Feed companies prefer you pay attention to the colorful marketing schemes covering the bag.  For the conscientious horse owner, there is a wealth of information located on the perforated white tag placed at the bottom of the feed bag in the guaranteed analysis. This owner knows that the key to consumer advocacy is education, so read on and take a stand for your horse’s health!

This is part 1 of a 3 part series breaking down the feed tag.  Part 1 tackles the intricacies of the nutrition found in a horse feed bag.  While part 2 covers reading between the lines of an ingredient list. Lastly, part 3 puts it all together; leaving you a savvy, tag-reading equestrian, ready to tackle the feed aisle.

What is Included on a Feed Tag?

The information provided on the feed tag is controlled by federal and state regulations. So it is expected to provide the same information no matter the brand of feed.

Commercial Feed Labels Will Contain the Following:

  • Product name and brand name (if any)
  • Purpose statement – species and animal classes for which the feed is intended.
  • Guaranteed Analysis
    • The Minimum percent Crude Protein (CP)

    • Minimum percent Crude Fat (Fat) 

    • The Maximum percent Crude Fiber (CF) 

    • Minimum and maximum percent Calcium (Ca)

    • Minimum percent Phosphorous (P)

    • The Minimum Copper (Cu) in parts per million (PPM)

    • Minimum Selenium (Se) in parts per million (PPM)

    • Minimum Zinc (Zn) in parts per million (PPM)

    • The Minimum Vitamin A (International Units (IU) per pound)

  • Feed Ingredients

The Purpose of a Feed Bag's Guaranteed Analysis

Above all, the list of minimums and maximums, numbers, and units sums up the guaranteed analysis. This complex list of vitamins and nutrients can take time to understand. Though, learning how to decipher the information will make you a better advocate for your horse’s health.

A feed bag’s guaranteed analysis  is where the manufacturer states the amount of nutrients they guarantee in the product. Furthermore, it provides information about the levels of crude protein, crude fat, and crude fiber found in the feed. The term “crude” refers to the specific method of testing the product, not to the quality of the nutrient itself. Also, it contains information about vitamins and minerals.

Guaranteed Analysis

Why is Protein Listed as a Minimum?

Anything listed as a minimum is an expensive ingredient.  To keep feed companies in line, government regulation requires this number to be the minimum amount of that nutrient expected in the feed.  There can be slightly more, but no less.

Additionally, protein is made up of amino acids used to lay down muscle and tissue. It also plays a role in the production of enzymes and hormones. Young growing horses, mares in the late stages of pregnancy, and lactating mares require the highest levels of protein at 14-18%.  Therefore, as a horse matures, the protein requirements decrease to around 9-12%, depending on workload.  Senior horses are the exception with protein requirements of 12-14%.

Choosing The Right Amount of Protein for your Horse

Choosing the appropriate percentage of protein is important. More protein is not necessarily better and can be counterproductive. By feeding high levels of protein, the horse has extra protein to break down into urea, which is excreted in the urine.  The urine then rapidly converts to ammonia. (If you have spent time mucking stalls, you recognize this smell quickly.)  Unfortunately, this excess of environmental ammonia can lead to respiratory problems over time.

A feed bag’s guaranteed analysis does not provide information about the quality of the proteins. The quality of protein in a feed is important, especially for growing horses, and is an important concept that we cover in part 2 of this series (Decoding the Ingredient List).  While not an indication of quality, some concentrates developed for growing horses may list essential amino acids, namely lysine. Lysine must be present for a horse to build protein in his body.  Lysine is important to provide in feed for growing animals at the appropriate levels. The lysine requirement for a weanling is .65% then decreases to .45% for a yearling.

Recommended Equine Minimum Percent Crude Fat

To feed a high-fat diet is a new trend in the horse industry. Fat is an important source of energy in the diet, providing nearly 2.5 times as much energy per pound as carbohydrates (starch) and protein. Even so, horses can tolerate a fairly high level of fat in their diet. Thus, making it an excellent and easily digestible source of energy. Commercial feeds not supplemented with additional fats contain approximately 2% to 4% fat. Commercial feeds are occasionally supplemented with fat in the form of stabilized oil. These feeds can contain anywhere from 6 %to 12% fat. Incorporating high-fat concentrates into the diet is beneficial when horses need large amounts of energy to do a specific job, or grow. 

Recommended Equine Maximum Percent Crude Fiber

Fiber is very important for the proper functioning of the equine digestive tract. Often, the fiber in the horse’s diet comes from his forage ration and is provided in the form of hay or pasture.  The fiber found in feed does provide some energy, but in a less digestible form than fats, carbohydrates, or protein. Fiber and energy are conversely related. Meaning, as fiber amounts increase, energy levels decrease. A good rule of thumb is feeds with less than 7% fiber are energy-dense.  Therefore, crude fiber percentages above 12% are low in energy and everything in between is supplying your horse with moderate levels of energy.

Alternatively, there are many sources of fiber added to feed; some are more digestible than others and will add more energy to a feed than others. (In part 2 of this series, we will look at the digestibility of different fibers that appear commonly on an ingredient list).

Recommended Equine NSC Levels: Starch Content

A recent trend in concentrate feed is low-starch options.  In cases of obesity, it is ideal to select the feed that indicates weight control with supply low levels of easily digestible starches. The most common number used to indicate the starch level in a feed is NSC (nonstructural carbohydrates). Some manufacturers are starting to include NSC on their feed tags. Though, not required.

  • A NSC > 35% indicate a high-starch feed
  • NSC of 20% – 35% is considered a moderate starch level
  • NSC < 20% is low starch
Guaranteed Analysis

Horse Feed Vitamins

Vitamins are divided into two categories: water-soluble compounds and fat-soluble compounds. Water-soluble compounds consist of the B-complex vitamins and fat-soluble compounds consist of vitamins A, E, D, and K. The horse is able to synthesize many of the vitamins it needs including vitamin C, B, and K. Deficiencies in vitamins that horses can synthesize is extremely rare and thus feed bags do not often include such compounds. Importantly, extreme excesses in these vitamins are not desirable, particularly regarding fat-soluble vitamins. Excess water-soluble vitamins can excrete in the urine.  However, fat-soluble vitamins store in the fat tissue and have the potential to build up to toxic levels when fed in excess. Thus, it is important to use good judgment about your horse’s health, and keep in mind cumulative vitamin amounts when considering horse supplements and feed rations combined.

Vitamins A, D, and E Measurement

Vitamins A, D, and E are expressed as IU/lb, or International Unit. IU’s are based on the effectiveness of a particular vitamin. Conversions of different vitamin sources to International Units is a complicated process.  Feed that lists 3000 IU/lb of vitamin A, fed at 5 lbs per day, provides 15,000 IU’s of vitamin A each day (which is the daily recommended amount for horses).  Vitamin A is a commonly deficient vitamin for horses that do not receive commercial feeds or do not have access to green forage. Consequently, vitamin A is almost always indicated on the guaranteed analysis. Deficiencies in vitamin e, a, or d can be readily administered with a premix or horse supplement during feeding. 

Horse Feed Minerals

Minerals are not produced by the body and must be obtained through food sources. Listed as percentages are the macrominerals calcium, phosphorus, and, in some cases, salt or sodium, and magnesium. The macrominerals that are listed will depend on the state’s laws. Because calcium and phosphorus are so important to bone health, these two are nearly always included.

Calcium and Phosphorus

One common mineral ratio you will see when looking at a bag of feed is the calcium: phosphorus ratio. Furthermore, it is important to check that both commercial feeds and vitamin/mineral premixes have a calcium: phosphorus ratio between 1:1 and 2:1. Calcium is pulled from the bone when phosphorus levels are higher than calcium levels. Calcium then transfers to the bloodstream to balance the calcium to phosphorus ratio, resulting in weakened bone strength.  On the other side of the spectrum, high-quality alfalfa hay can have a calcium to phosphorus ratio of 6:1 or higher.  The altered ratio contributes to a number of developmental orthopedic diseases like epiphysitis, colic, ulcers, contracted tendons, and osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD) when not corrected with concentrate feed or horse supplements. This is especially important when feeding young, growing horses and broodmares.

Trace Minerals

Lastly, trace minerals listed on the guaranteed analysis include copper, zinc, and selenium. These trace minerals are given as minimum values and are often found on feed tags with the unit “PPM” used. PPM stands for “parts per million,” literally one part per one million parts. Often premium horse feeds contain around 0.6 ppm of selenium. Meaning, 0.6 mg of selenium exists in 1 kg of this feed.  Feeding 2 kgs of this concentrate will supply the horse with 1.2 mg of selenium each day. The daily selenium requirement of 1-3 mg of attained when combined with selenium delivered through forage.

It is important to understand that mineral needs change depending on your horse’s age and status (i.e., if the horse is working, gestating, or lactating). Consequently, most commercial feed companies balance their feed to meet the mineral requirements of different classifications of horses. Keeping a horse supplement available for show-ready days can help stabilize the correct balance of minerals even when on the go. 

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