Feeding Beet Pulp

Q: I've been told I should feed beet pulp to help put weight on my skinny Thoroughbred. But I'm worried about the stories I've heard about beet pulp expanding in the horse's stomach and causing colic -- or worse! Is beet pulp a good addition to my horse's diet, and if so, how can I feed it safely?

A: Beet pulp is the fibrous material left over after the sugar is extracted from sugar beets. It's an excellent source of digestible fiber, with a relatively low crude protein content (averaging 8 to 10%), comparable to good-quality grass hay. Its digestible energy is somewhere between that of hay and grain. In terms of other nutrients, it's not a stand-out--it has a relatively high calcium content and very little phosphorus, is low in B vitamins, and has virtually no beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A) or vitamin D. Its chief value is as a soft, easily digestible supplement to your horse's roughage (fiber) intake, and as such it's a useful addition to the diet of many types of horses.

Consider feeding beet pulp if your horse is a "hard keeper" (it's very good for encouraging weight gain), if he has dental problems that make chewing hay difficult, if the quality of your hay is poor, or if you have a geriatric horse who has trouble chewing or digesting other types of forage. It can be fed in addition to, or instead of, hay. Beet pulp's excellent digestibility also makes it a great choice for a convalescing horse--one recovering from illness or surgery, for example. It even can be fed warm in the winter months, just like a bran mash (and nutritionally, it's a better choice than bran). Most horses find it quite palatable, although occasionally you'll come across one who considers it an acquired taste.

In its original format, beet pulp is quite soft and prone to mold, so it must be dried for storage. You can buy dehydrated beet pulp in either a shredded or a pelleted format; either way, it's grayish-brown in color and has a slight but distinctive odor you'll come to recognize. Some companies add a touch of dried molasses to improve its palatability and energy content. Contrary to popular opinion, you don't have to soak beet pulp in water to feed it safely to horses--studies in which horses were fed dehydrated beet pulp, up to a level of 45% of their total diet, noted no ill effects whatsoever. Not only did the horses not "explode" (thus laying that myth to rest!), but they also suffered no signs of colic or choke, nor did the water content in their manure change. But most people prefer to soak beet pulp; it's more palatable that way, and less likely to cause choke.

To soak beet pulp, place the shreds or pellets in a bucket and add twice as much water as pellets. You can use cool or warm water; some people feel it soaks a little more quickly using warm, but be careful not to use water so hot that you cook the beet pulp, because that will destroy most of the nutrients it contains. Let the bucket sit for at least a couple of hours before feeding; when ready, the beet pulp should have soaked up all of the water, increased in volume to fill the bucket, and be light and fluffy in consistency. (If you use beet pulp pellets, it's easy to tell whether it has been soaked sufficiently, because there will be nothing left that resembles a pellet.) It's not necessary to soak it overnight. If you fextra water, don't worry; you can always drain it off before you feed, or you can feed the beet pulp on the "sloppy" side.

Although most horses will eat beet pulp on its own, its appeal will be improved if you stir it into your horse's regular grain ration. As with any new addition to the diet, start with only a small quantity and gradually increase the amount you're feeding over a period of a week or so. Because beet pulp is really a fiber supplement, not a grain, you can safely feed as much as you like; if weight gain is the objective, you may find yourself going through a gallon or more a day. Fortunately, beet pulp is a relatively inexpensive feed, so you don't have to be sparing with it.

It's best to make up beet pulp in small batches--just enough to feed in a single day. In the hot summer months, especially, soaked beet pulp left to sit tends to ferment, significantly changing its odor and flavor. If this happens, it's best to throw it out and make a fresh batch. Generally soaked beet pulp will keep for about 24 hours; in the winter, you may be able to stretch that to 48 hours or so.

I use beet pulp consistently in my own feeding program, both for my "bottomless pit" Thoroughbred and for my 28-year-old pony. It's an inexpensive, versatile feed with a number of benefits which easily outweigh the minor inconvenience of preparing it.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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