Pelleted Feeds: Packaged Nutrition

They look like rabbit food, and the technology that made those bunny pellets a complete diet now is used regularly to make feeds for horses. Granted, pelleted feeds don't usually exude the tempting aroma that most molasses-laced sweet feeds have, but they more than make up for that in terms of convenience and digestibility. Furthermore, feed mills have learned to apply pelleting techniques to practically every type of feed a horse can consume, from hay to grains to combinations of the two (often called "complete" feeds).

Tina Hines

One of the major advantages of pellets is that, compared to other types of feed, they are very low in dust. "Compete" pelleted feeds can include not only grains, but vitamins and other supplements. And manufacturers have created many types of pelleted mixes to suit all sorts of horses, no matter their activities.

Almost no commercial feed ration is left untouched by the pelleting process -- sift through a prepared sweet feed with your fingers, and you'll discover a smattering of pellets mixed in with the oats and corn and other grains. That pellet generally contains a vitamin/mineral supplement for the ration, bound up with a fiber source such as dehydrated alfalfa. Pellets, it seems, are everywhere!

In The Mill

Pete Mitcheson, general manager of the main Peterborough feed mill of Growmark, Ontario, a major feed manufacturer, oversees the production of dozens of different types of pelleted feeds every week. He explains the process of making a pelleted feed: "You need to find good suppliers to begin with. The quality of the ingredients going into the pellet determines the product you come out with, and quality control is as important in pelleted feeds as in textured products (i.e., sweet feed).

"We start," he continues, "by grinding the grain into particles. You get the best results when all the particles are a uniform size--not too fine, and not too coarse. The particles need to be held together with a 'binder,' and for horse feeds, we like to use natural binders as much as possible."

Sometimes the ingredients already in a ration serve double duty by helping to bind the pellet particles together--wheat, in particular, is an excellent binder that helps make a hard, durable pellet, and barley also does a creditable job. So does molasses, a naturally sticky product that is frequently added as a flavoring agent to horse feeds.

In the case of a recipe that has little in the way of ingredients that are natural binders, manufacturers might add an artificial binder, usually a product called "lignasol," which is a fine, yellow powder. Lignasol is widely used in other livestock feeds because it is less expensive than natural binders, and because it is easy to work with; however, lignasol's use in horse feeds is limited because there is a consumer perception that "natural" is better -- and horse feed recipes are far more driven by consumer opinion than are, for instance, cattle feeds.

In a mixing chamber, the ground particles are churned together and compacted, and the binder is mixed through (except in the case of a "wet" binder like molasses, which generally is added during "conditioning," the next step in the process). Then, if the product is to be a grain pellet, the particles move on to a "pellet mill conditioner," where forced steam heats them to a temperature of 180-190° Fahrenheit for about 20 seconds. (Since longer exposure to the steam was found to make a more durable pellet, some newer mills now are equipped with "double pass" steaming chambers, which steam the ingredients twice.)

"You want it to be steamed for as long as the machinery will allow," says Mitcheson. "Steaming gelatinizes the starches in the grain, which makes it stick together, and helps it slip through the die (shaper) better."

The object is not to cook the grain, which would destroy vitamins and minerals, but just to break the bonds in the complex starches. Some researchers feel this increases the overall digestibility of the grain as well. (Increased digestibility of gelatinized starches has been demonstrated in dogs, cats, pigs, and poultry, but the jury is still out with regard to ruminants and horses.)

A pelleted product made of hay generally is not steamed; rather, it is artificially dried or dehydrated after grinding--leading to the popular name "dehy pellets." Binders are added after drying, and wet molasses, to a level of about 7.5-10%, often is the binder of choice for a good, durable pellet.

Shaping The Pellet

Whether hay or grain, the next step is pushing the feed (at relatively low pressure) through a die--which is basically a metal plate with holes in it. The size of the holes determines the size of the resulting pellet, and many manufacturers attempt to mark their products with a pellet of distinct dimensions--anywhere from about the thickness of a pencil to about the thickness of your thumb. (Unlike dogs and cats, who can become so accustomed to a certain shape of kibble that they refuse to eat anything else, regardless of the taste, horses don't seem to attach much importance to the size or shape of a pelleted feed, as long as it's chewable. Pelleted products designed for foals sometimes are finer than those made for adult horses.)

The pellets that result then drop into a pellet mill cooler, where excess moisture is drawn out until the product contains less than 15.5% moisture overall. This step is essential to prevent mold growth. Once it is accomplished, pelleted feeds have little chance of going moldy unless they are stored in damp conditions. Before bagging, the pellets undergo one final step in their journey through the mill when they travel through a pellet shaker, a device like a sifter that removes the small chips and fines (small dusty particles) from the intact pellets and recycles them into the next batch.

One of the major advantages of pellets is that, compared to other types of feed, they are very low in dust. A number of factors determine the hardness and durability of a pellet. Mitcheson says, "Not enough exposure to the steam can make a pellet that's too soft--and when you put it through the shaker, it will fall apart." (Fortunately, those particles can be recycled, sent through the conditioner, and used to make another batch.)

Other factors that can influence the hardness of a pellet are the retention time in the die, moisture levels in the feed, the ambient temperature and humidity, and the type and amount of the binder. Molasses, for example, is a good binder, but is "hard to pellet," according to Mitcheson.

"What you want is a hard, fairly long pellet--because the fines (small dusty particles) come from the ends of each pellet, and the shorter the pellets, the more ends you have!"

Feed mills now can measure the relative durability of a pellet--and if the durability is unacceptable, the feed is recycled and processed again. Not only does a soft pellet tend to be dusty, but it's generally considered less toothsome to horses, who as a rule show a marked preference for harder, crunchier pellets.

Pros And Cons: Advantages

Why feed a pelleted ration, rather than unprocessed hay or grain? There are several advantages, and a few cautions, to consider.

  • Pelleted feeds are significantly less dusty than loose or baled hay, or unprocessed grains (when not coated with molasses). This can be an important factor if you are feeding a horse with respiratory problems. It also makes working with pellets a pleasure--just scoop and pour, with no coughing necessary! Because pellets are not coated with molasses as are most commercial sweet feeds, they are also easier to handle in the winter, when molasses can freeze as hard as concrete.
  • Pelleted feeds take up significantly less storage space, particularly in the case of pelleted hay products. A ton of baled hay can take up 200 to 330 cubic feet of storage space in your barn; a ton of hay pellets or cubes requires only 60 to 70 cubic feet. Pelleted products also are, therefore, much more portable, and they can be ideal for traveling -- to a show, for example, or when camping.
  • Horses can't sort ingredients in a pelleted feed. If you have a picky eater who likes to sort all the oats out of his sweet feed and leave the rest, he is likely not getting the nutrition the ration is designed to deliver. With a pellet, he has no choice but to eat the whole thing--and most horses will eat a pellet as readily as they will unprocessed grain. The unpleasant taste or texture of some ingredients, such as fats and oils, can be "disguised" in a pelleted ration so the horse eats them much more readily than if the products were top-dressed.
  • Because pellets are relatively low in moisture, feeding them tends to result in reduced manure output--especially in the case of hay pellets. Although the digestibility of hay pellets is the same as for baled or loose hay, horses on a pelleted diet have a lower fecal water content--on average, about 75.2%, as compared to 81.5% on loose hay. The advantages of less manure output need hardly be explained to anyone who has ever wielded a muck fork! Some researchers feel, however, that this could increase the risk of impaction in some horses. Studies currently are examining the question.
  • Pelleted hay products (and to some extent, pelleted grains) result in less wasted feed. Loose hay fed on the ground results in wastage of at least 14-22% by cattle, and researchers expect those numbers would be similar (if not higher) in horses. The leaves of legumes, in particular, tend to shatter and be lost (and the leaves, of course, contain much of the nutrition in the hay). In a pelleted product, there is almost no wastage, since the leaves and stems of the hay are incorporated into the pellet in the mill. With grain products, wastage is reduced because horses cannot sort and discard ingredients.
  • Hay pellets can reduce intestinal fill, which some people believe might contribute to a trimmer appearance and less of a "hay belly." Because a pelleted product already is compacted, you might be able to feed 20-30% more pellets than loose hay--an advantage if you are trying to put weight on a hard keeper, or increase a horse's intake as his workload becomes heavier.
  • Because pellets are made up of feed ground into particles, they are, in a manner of speaking "pre-chewed." This makes them a much more digestible choice than whole grains or hay for very young or old horses, or for any horse with a mouth or tooth problem. Pellets also can be soaked into a mush to be fed to elderly horses which have little or no grinding surfaces left on their teeth. (Pellets have not been shown to increase overall digestibility of a ration when fed to adult horses with no chewing difficulties, however.)


  • Pellets can be eaten faster than unprocessed feeds--especially in the case of hay pellets vs. loose hay. Because horses have an urge to chew almost as compelling as a rodent's, the reduced time eating his feed might mean that he goes looking for something else to chew--like fencing, the stall boards, manure in the paddock, or even his neighbor's tail.
  • Some researchers feel that the increased rate of consumption of pellets also could increase the risk of digestive upset, as the finer particles can have a tendency to pack in the gut. However, studies have demonstrated no difference in the rate of intestinal fermentation between sweet feeds and pelleted feeds--an argument against an increased risk of colic. These results are still open to interpretation.
  • Because they are compacted and bulky, pellets might carry a slightly increased risk of choke, especially in horses who bolt their feed. Strategies that can help address this include placing a few large, smooth stones in the feed tub; feeding little and often; mixing in some chaff, chopped hay, or soaked beet pulp; and placing some bars across the feed tub, similar to a foal feeder. Or try this: Choose smallish pellets (which are more difficult for horses to pick up with their lips) and spread them out thinly in a large, shallow feed tub to make your horse slow down and work for his meal.
  • It's also a good idea, even if the package directions on the feed suggest it is a complete replacement for hay or forage, to provide pasture grazing or at least a half-pound of forage per 100 pounds of horse (or a half-kilogram per 100 kilograms) per day, over and above the pellet ration, in order to keep the digestive system working smoothly and to satisfy the grazing urge. This should keep any inappropriate chewing to a minimum. Only in the case of a horse with severe respiratory problems should you consider completely eliminating hay or forage from the diet in favor of a pellet.

    Especially in the case of hay pellets, it might take a few days for the horse to accept the change from loose hay. Pelleted grains, however, are readily eaten by the vast majority of horses.
  • It can be difficult to assess the quality of a pelleted product, because the ingredients are compacted and ground. The manufacturer's nutritional analysis (printed on the bag or on a feed tag attached to the product) should provide you with some assurance, but the only way to be sure of the quality of a pelleted ration is to examine it visually for a firm (not crumbly) texture, a pleasant smell, no visible signs of mold, weeds, or foreign material, and few fines. And you could send a sample of the product for a nutritional analysis by a commercial or university laboratory. Buying from a reputable manufacturer that offers a product guarantee can go a long way toward your peace of mind.
  • The cost of processing a hay or grain pellet will almost always push the price of such a ration up past what unprocessed feeds (whole grains and baled hay) would cost. What you get for that extra money is consistency and convenience, but only you know whether that's significant to you.

From complete feeds to alfalfa, to dehydrated beet pulp, to vitamin/mineral supplements, the pellet format has demonstrated its versatility--and earned a valuable place in many feed rooms. Your feed dealer or state extension specialist can be a great help when exploring what kind of pellets will best fit into your program, and which might help the health of your horse.

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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