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Managing Feed Costs: Fixed Formulations vs Least Cost Formulation

You can’t watch the news at night without seeing something about the current surge in inflation. This has affected everything that we touch, buy and use today. Our feeding programs have felt the full force of the upward surge in the price of just about everything in the last year. Fuel costs, low availability of trucks and of drivers have drastically driven up freight costs for hay, which also costs more to produce at the farm. This also has affected the cost of both feed ingredients to the manufactures and the delivery of finished feeds to both the distributors and retailers. When all of this is combined, the cost of getting proper nutrition into your horse has gone up significantly.


We can’t all buy hay at a discount by the truck load, or grow our own, though the expense of that has gone up also. We remain reliant on our forage providers for the best quality hay per feed dollar that we can find. In a proper equine diet, the forage portion of the diet is the foundation that everything should be based upon. I continue to say that the best return for feed dollar is better hay. As such we need to do the best that we can as far as the roughage portion of the diet is concerned. Before you remind me that finding good hay is hard, rest assured that you would be preaching to the choir.


So, where else can we maximize our feed dollars and realize the best results for money spent? This is a good time to look and just what we are achieving from the rest of the diet after the best hay that we can find has formed that nutritional base that our horses require to thrive.


Where feed concentrates to complement our hay program are concerned, the current situation makes it a good time to look at just what we are getting for our inflated feed cost dollars. Most commercial horse feeds are grain based. The recommended feeding rates are typically based on a percentage of the horse’s body weight. If fed as recommended, most grain-based feeds need 5 to 10 pounds per day to hit those requirements. While that may be what is recommended by the feed manufacturers, there is a problem here. Since horses did not evolve with the opportunity to eat anywhere near that much mature grain in a day, they did not evolve the ability to do so without disrupting the hind gut. Hind gut disruption limits the horse’s ability to properly digest that expensive, high quality hay that you are also feeding. While you can get these higher grain rations processed in the system by feeding small amounts three, four or five times per day, most horse owners do not have the time schedule that allows doing so. If limiting the proper digestion of the hay sounds like a bad idea, is there a better way to provide additional nutritional support that actually fits in your horse’s digestive system?


The answer here is a supplement/feed that achieves the nutritional goals in a grain free, more compact feeding. These are the higher fat (15% natural vegetable fat and above) feeds that are formulated to be fed at rates under two pounds per day. Since a horse’s system readily handles this volume of vegetable fats in their natural form, there can be significant digestible energy contributions from this type of feed while providing the added benefits of ease of digestion, limited and manageable starch and sugar contribution, and elimination of the hind gut disruption that was preventing proper digestion of that good hay.

Every feed bag seems to claim great benefits to be found inside if you buy it. Here is where a little better understanding of just what you are buying can pay big dividends in today’s higher priced market. As prices have increased over the last year, many feed companies have reformulated how they make their feed. It is important to understand the terms “fixed formulation”, and “least cost formulation” when considering what feed to buy.


“Fixed Formulation”

At one time most feed companies that sold a premium line of horse feeds used this process to make them. Fixed formulation means that the finished feed in every bag was made exactly the same, with exactly the same ingredient amounts and quality, every time it was produced. These will be the most consistent feeds from one bag to the next and from one production run to the next. The easiest way to tell if a feed is fixed formulated is to look at how the list of ingredients is shown. If the ingredient list is physically printed on the back of the bag itself, then you are looking at a fixed formulation. Since there is no way to change that information on the bag, and it is not legal to make the product in any way other than with those specific ingredients listed, you can be confident that you are looking at a fixed formulation feed. While a fixed formulation concentrated high fat feed will always be more expensive per bag, the benefit is a significantly lower feed rate that makes attaining the desired nutritional result much easier to reach without risk of disruption to the digestive system. This allows better hind gut function, a healthier immune system and much better use of the hay that you feed. When you look at the cost per horse per month, many horse owners are surprised that feeding this way is often less expensive and may even be safer due to less potential digestive upset compared to feeding larger amounts of lesser quality, high starch and sugar, grains.


“Least Cost Formulation”

The vast majority of grain-based feeds fall into this category. As ingredient costs rise, many feed companies are looking for any way that they can find to cut costs. While the bag of feed that you bought last month may look identical to the bag that you bought today, what is actually inside that bag can be very different. Ingredient buyers search the feed ingredient markets daily for ingredients that, when mixed together, will match the protein and fat numbers that the product claims while doing so at the least dollar output required to put those various ingredients together. This is made easier if they do not list the actual ingredient that they are using, but rather list it as a vague category. Ingredient descriptions like “Forage by-products” (which may include chopped corn stock), “grain by-products”, “roughage by-products”, allow the feed maker to substitute a wide variety of ingredients without telling the customer exactly what they are. This is the reason that least cost formulated feeds often look and smell different from one bag to the next, while the packaging still looks exactly the same. Why is feeding this a bad idea? Ever wonder why your horse readily eats a feed for a few months and, all of a sudden, stops? That feed has changed too much for them to accept. Horses thrive on consistency in their diet. Too great a change in formulation can put a horse off feed, or worse.


So, how do I know if the feed that I am buying is least cost formulated?


Pretty easy. The ingredient list will not actually be printed on the bag itself, but rather on an attached tag. This separate sewn on tag is easy to change from one production lot that uses one formulation to the next lot that may be made with very different ingredients. Using a lot of “by product” terms in the ingredient list is usually another give away. You should be able to identify all the specific primary ingredients listed on your feed tag.


Many horse owners like to add therapeutic supplements to their feed every day. Even these products may be moderated if there is no disruption to the proper function of the whole digestive system. If there is inefficiency in the system, it will also mean inefficiency in using those expensive joint, digestive and hoof products. This can be another reason that eliminating disruption and normalizing the whole digestive system by reducing or eliminating grain can be a good idea. A long-time horseman, and former World Champion, recently called me a month after streamlining their horse’s diets in this way. His comment was “ It is hard to admit, but I have been feeding wrong for forty years. My horses have never looked or felt better”.


Spring is a great time to give some thought to everything involved in the management of your horses. Riding weather is here, or close. Horses are shedding. There are more hours of daylight, and that gives us more time to enjoy what we love doing. Affording it is another thing entirely. For those of you who are feeding large grain-based rations to boost poor hay, it is a good time to rethink your program and what it really costs at the end of the month. Shift your priorities to better hay that your horse will not waste, and support that with a higher fat, non-grain, feed at just 1 to two pounds per day. Doing so will improve your horse’s digestive efficiency, allow better use of any supplements that you add, and may allow you to even eliminate a few. Your horse will look, feel and ride better, and you will know and control just what is actually going into their bodies.

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