Minimizing Feed Costs

Let's face it, those aren't gerbils out in your stalls and pastures. They're 1,000-pound herbivores, with appetites wired for perpetual hunger and teeth designed to make short work out of massive amounts of fiber. If your feed bills are starting to make you consider the comparative joys of virtual pets, that's no surprise. "Horse feed ain't cheap," and in some parts of the world, where hay and/or grain have to be imported, the price tag can rocket into the "positively appalling" range.

Short of trading your equine friends in for caged rodents, how can you minimize your feed costs, yet still provide complete and correct nutrition? The good news is there are a number of strategies at your disposal to help you make your operation as cost-effective as possible. Mix and match a few of these simple ideas for a feeding program that's both efficient and nutritious.

#1: Minimize Waste

You can reduce feed costs considerably by depending on good pasture to provide much of your horse's forage requirement, rather than feeding large quantities of hay. But even if you have acres of Kentucky bluegrass at your disposal, your horses still will find a way to cost you more than you'd planned. Given the opportunity, horses will waste a substantial amount of their pasture. As most of us know, horses are selective grazers which tend to create two distinct areas in their pastures: "lawns" (the preferred grazing areas) and "roughs" (which are used as manure dumping stations, thus encouraging rampant weed growth!). Delicate creatures that they are, horses prefer not to graze where they defecate, but their "hunt and peck" method of grazing works better on the open plains than it does in enclosed spaces. In order to encourage them to use more of the land for grazing, you need to minimize the roughs by spraying or mowing the weeds, then picking the manure manually or spreading it over the field with a chain drag or harrow. (The catch there is that you have to leave the pasture empty for a period of a couple of weeks so the sun can kill the worm eggs that lurk in the manure; otherwise, you might increase the chance of your horses' acquiring a bellyful of internal parasites.)

You also might want to consider rotational grazing, in which you divide your pasture into sections (generally with portable electric fencing). Grazing by rotation provides your land its best opportunity for maximum forage yield. Each section of the pasture should be just large enough so that your herd can consume most of the grasses in about two weeks (during the growing season). Once they've grazed it down, move the fence to allow them to graze a new section. Rotational grazing cuts down on the "lawns and roughs" syndrome and helps you get more out of your pasture.

Hay is another nutritional resource that horses frequently squander. Nutritionists have estimated that when fed outside in a group situation, horses waste as much as 20% of what they're given by spreading it out (the better to find those choice morsels), trampling it, or in wet or muddy conditions, using it as bedding for a nice dry snooze. This is true whether you spread the hay on the ground, feed from a round bale, or put the hay into a hay rack. Most horses will empty a hay rack just because it's there, regardless of how much it contains or how much they're really interested in eating. And, of course, once the feed is on the ground, it might get soggy or become contaminated with urine or manure, whereupon horses won't touch it.

Try these strategies to help minimize hay wastage:

• Feed only as much as each horse will consume, with little or no wastage. When you notice your horses have cleaned up what they have, offer a little more.

• Horses will waste less hay when they're in stalls than when they're outside and competing for space with the rest of the herd. So even if you prefer to keep your horses outside much of the time, it might be worth bringing them into the barn for feeding.

• Feed hay in feeders with solid sides and bottoms. This minimizes the loss of the tender leaves, which are the most nutritious portion of the hay. Alternatively, use a hay rack that is designed for horses, with a tray underneath to catch the leaves and other small morsels.

• Horses waste considerably less when they're given hay of good quality than when they have to sort through piles of weedy, wispy, moldy, or impossibly coarse stuff to find anything of nutritional value. There's no point in paying 50 cents less per bale if your horse wastes three times as much as he would have if you bought better quality hay.

Does your horse waste grain by throwing it around the stall rather than consuming it? Try placing a few large, smooth stones in his feed tub to encourage him to slow down and take his time when he's eating. Or buy a feed tub with a specially designed rim that deflects flung feed back into the tub, or one of the patented feeders with bulbous bottoms, designed to make "the fling" practically impossible. You also can minimize wastage by feeding small quantities, often. Your horse will be far less tempted to spread the bounty around.

#2: Small Amounts, Often

Every equine health care book you've ever read likely recommends that you offer your horse hay and grain in a number of small meals per day, rather than one or two large meals. It's advice that hasn't changed in hundreds of years, and rightly so. Because horses are grazing animals, designed to wander and chew, wander and chew, their digestive systems are adapted to keep small amounts of food moving through constantly. When you mimic this system, you give your horses the best chance of extracting complete nutrition from their feed, and of processing and absorbing those nutrients without digestive upset (colic).

In one study, 10 ponies which were fed only once per day lost 3% of their body weight over a two-week period. Then, when their feeding regimen was changed to offer the same amount of pelleted feed spread over six small meals, they increased their body weight by 0.6% over two weeks. Not all of us have the luxury of offering six meals a day; you'd rarely get to leave the barn. But if you can offer three or four, you'll increase your horse's feed utilization as well as his contentment level. You might even want to consider investing in mechanized feeders that can dump a predetermined amount of feed in your horse's bucket according to the settings on a timer.

#3: Buy In Bulk

You'll be more likely to get a good price on your horse's hay and grain if you're able to buy in large quantities and store the feed yourself. Hay is always cheapest during, and immediately following, the growing season. Farmers, for the most part, prefer to take hay straight from the field to your barn, rather than putting the bales in a barn, then having to pull the bales out of their own storage facilities and bring them to you. So if you can afford it, and have the storage facilities, try to purchase a year's supply of bales in summer or fall at harvest time. Waiting until winter might mean that hay is in shorter supply and greater demand, so you might find yourself paying quite a premium, or worse, having to scramble to buy any hay at all.

Buying hay in large batches also is a good idea from a nutritional point of view. The best way to balance your horse's diet is to know the nutrient content of your hay. This easily can be determined with a hay analysis, but the results are far more helpful if you know that all of your hay was grown by the same farmer, in the same field, and cut at the same time. Hay purchased in small batches, from different growers and under variable growing conditions, will be all over the map, nutrient-wise, making your calculations far less accurate.

If you're going to store large quantities of hay, you'll want to consider whether your storage facilities are truly workable. Hay that is exposed to moisture can mold; hay that is exposed to sunlight tends to lose much of its vitamin content; hay that is packed in tightly while its moisture content is high might spontaneously combust and burn down your barn! Ideally, your hay storage should be in a separate building from your horses. The building should be naturally cool, dark, and well-ventilated to keep air circulation high and moisture build-up low. That way, you'll minimize wastage, save yourself money, and keep your horses safe. Needless to say, your storage building also has to be accessible to your barn and to equipment such as tractors and hay wagons.

If you're short on storage space for hay, you can establish some dietary consistency by feeding hay cubes or pellets instead of baled hay. While not cheap, hay cubes come with a guaranteed nutritional content, and the bags can be stored in much smaller spaces than bales (they still need to be kept dry and out of reach of rodents, however). You also might want to consider bagged haylage (hay altered by a fermentative process). It offers more concentrated nutrition than regular hay, so your horses will eat less. The initial price of haylage might be daunting, but because you feed smaller quantities, the end financial result is fairly similar to feeding ordinary hay.

If you have an operation with 10 horses or more, then buying grain in bulk might be a viable option for you. An average 10-horse barn will go through half a metric ton of grain per month; a 20-horse operation, a ton or more. Feed mills frequently will give you a better deal if you buy in large quantities because they save on packaging and storing. They generally are equipped to deliver grain in bulk to farms with appropriate storage facilities. That means an air-tight and rodent-proof grain bin or silo, with a chute that allows grain to pour down into your feed room. You can buy grain bins in various sizes, from one ton capacity on up. Most feed mills consider a purchase of one ton of feed their minimum for bulk delivery (at some mills, it's two tons). The objective is not to store months and months worth of grain. One to two months' worth is optimum if you want to maintain the feed's freshness and nutrient content, both of which degrade over time.

Buying grain in bulk also provides you with maximum flexibility in terms of ingredients. If you have a secret formula you'd like your feed mill to mix for you, it likely will oblige by doing a "custom" run if your order fulfills the minimum purchase requirements. The mill might even help you formulate one by providing the services of an equine nutritionist to furnish input. It also can keep your recipe on file in order to mix and deliver new batches on a regular basis for you.

Keep in mind if you're going to be storing grain in bulk that high-molasses feeds have a tendency to make the feed chute pretty sticky. Such feeds also might go moldy in summer and set like concrete in winter! If you're storing large quantities of grain, it might be best to consider whole grains, such as oats or corn, or a pelleted or extruded ration. You also can get your feed mill to mix a sweet feed with a very low molasses content. (Another alternative is to use dry molasses as a flavoring rather than wet molasses.)

#4: Shop Around

When you're exploring buying grain in bulk, it pays to listen to grain prices and be flexible with your feeding program. You might be able to provide comparable nutrition for less money just by switching from oats, for example, to corn. In many parts of North America, corn is a less expensive grain, and it is perfectly suitable for adult horses with good dental health. Also, because it's more energy-dense than oats, you might find that you can feed less and save yourself even more money. The same is true of barley, which is an often-overlooked--but excellent choice--for horses.

Keep in mind, however, that small, hard grains of barley need to be processed, by rolling or flaking, to render their nutrients more available to the horse (the same is true with corn if you're feeding youngsters or geriatrics). Once you breach the protective seed coat, vitamins within the grain break down quickly, and the grain becomes vulnerable to mold. Therefore, processed grains have to be purchased and stored in much smaller batches. They aren't good candidates for several-tons-at-a-time purchases. Processing also pushes the price up.

Even the source of a grain sometimes can influence its value, and even open the door to a possible bargain buy. For example, in my home province of Ontario, you can buy "Western" oats, grown in Alberta, or Ontario oats. Western oats usually are larger, plumper grains, and go for a premium price. Ontario oats, while smaller and skinnier, provide perfectly comparable nutrition, and often are much cheaper. When you comparison shop, however, make sure that the cheaper offering isn't cheaper because it's full of dust, fines, debris, weeds, or other undesirable products.

It also pays to do some comparison shopping when you're buying hay. As I've noted previously, feeding poor quality hay is a false economy. Your horse will waste far more than he consumes, forcing you to keep cracking open more bales. That's not to say that every horse needs super-rich, early-cut, straight alfalfa. Most, in fact, do not. What they do need is hay that is green and sweet-smelling, dust- and mold-free, cut at the appropriate time (hay that is cut too late has put all of its energy into developing seed-heads, leaving little nutrition in the stalks and leaves), and isn't full of weeds and debris. Too wispy, or too coarse, and your horses likely will turn up their noses. When you make arrangements to buy hay, go and examine it first, and if possible, crack open a few bales. Take a deep sniff to see whether there's any hint of dustiness or mold. Drop a flake or two to the ground from a few feet up to see whether any little clouds of mold spores rise as the hay hits. Take a handful of the hay and squeeze it in your fist. Good quality hay shouldn't hurt your hand when you squeeze.

It's also important to note that hay bales can vary widely in terms of their weight. An average-sized rectangular bale might weigh anything from 25 pounds to more than 100 pounds. That can mean up to a four-fold price difference per bale, in terms of the amount of hay you actually buy. In order to ensure you're getting the best value, ask to weigh a few random bales before buying. Then you might be able to negotiate a price per ton rather than per bale.

Depending on your storage facilities, you might be able to save money by buying your hay in large round bales rather than small, square ones. This is a valid option if you have a sizable herd to feed. Keep in mind that peeling individual portions from a round bale can be a chore requiring both brute strength, and considerable work space. Many farms place round bales in their paddocks to feed horses in the months when pasture isn't lush, but opinions are divided as to this practice. Many nutritionists feel that the potential for mold growth in outside hay is too great to justify the risk.

Whatever format it's in, try to avoid buying hay sight-unseen. Once it's in your barn, the grower might be reluctant to take it back.

#5: Grow Your Own

Have a few acres to spare on your property? Then you might be able to grow some of your own feed and cut out the middleman. Many horse operations maintain their own hayfields. Once seeded, hay is a fairly low-maintenance crop, requiring little care between cuttings. You don't need to go out and invest in six figures' worth of cutting and baling equipment, either. Just seek out a local grower and make a deal with him to cut and bale your field in exchange for either a cash payment or a portion of the yield.

Although it's less common, it's also perfectly possible, in many parts of North America, for horse farms to grow their own grain. Once again, you can make arrangements for a local grower to harvest your yield. If you have enough acreage, you might even be able to sell what you don't need and make a profit. Do have a backup source of feed in mind, however, in case your crop is poor or the weather gods are particularly unkind.

#6: Feed Only What You Need

Supplements, the bells and whistles of the feed industry, can push the total price of your feed program through the roof. Often, well-meaning owners who feed supplements aren't even sure whether the additives are necessary. Giving your horse nutrients he doesn't need is like pouring money down the drain, and giving him more than he needs also has no beneficial effect on health or performance. In fact, over-supplementing your horse can put him at risk of nutrient toxicities. More is not always better.

Protein probably is the single most over-supplemented nutrient in the equine feed industry. The vast majority of horses need no more than 8% to 11% crude protein in their overall diets, yet we frequently feed rations that provide far more than that. Not only is excess protein poorly processed by the horse's digestive system (generally being excreted in the urine in the form of ammonia and urea), the burden of getting rid of it can place stresses on other organs and structures over time. There's absolutely no performance advantage to feeding more protein than necessary, either. Finally, protein as an ingredient is fairly expensive. You've no doubt noticed that broodmare feeds formulated with 16% crude protein are pricier than "maintenance" feeds that provide 11% protein. For all of these reasons, there's no sense in feeding more protein than your horse needs.

Wherever possible, try to ensure that your horse's basic feed--his hay and grain--provides all the vitamins and minerals he needs so that you don't need to add powders and potions to the mix. Start with good-quality, early- to mid-cut hay, and add to that grains (and fats, if you like) that balance the nutrient content of the forage (as revealed by your hay analysis). Here, too, beware of false economy. A good-quality commercially mixed feed, whether it be a sweet feed, a pellet, or an extruded ration, is far more likely to provide a complete and appropriate range of nutrients than a bare-minimum, cheapest-one-they've-got mix that requires supplementation. When you add up the cost of all the supplements you'd need to make that bottom-of-the-barrel feed nutritionally complete, you'll probably find that you save money by purchasing a better-quality feed and not supplementing.

Armed with a few of these penny-pinching strategies, I hope you'll be able to save yourself a few dollars this year when you're purchasing feed. Remember, though, that your first priority has to be providing solid nutrition. Cutting corners in that department is likely to lead to extensive veterinary bills and reduced performance, and nobody needs those!

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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