Premium or Economy Feed

Look at cost per day, not cost per bag.

When evaluating a feeding program it is vital to know how to calculate cost per head per day. To find the price per pound of feed, divide the cost of the bag by its weight. Do the same for hay, ideally weighing several bales to get an average. Then weigh the scoops of feed and flakes of hay that are being fed (one way is with an inexpensive fish scale and a plastic bag). Multiply the amount of hay and grain fed to each horse by their respective cost per pound and add the two together, including the cost per day of any supplements fed; the total will be the cost per head per day.

Another important consideration is the digestible energy or calories per pound of a given feed. Often this information can be obtained from the manufacturer or from a local representative and is useful when making comparisons. For example, feeding 5 pounds of a $14 bag of feed that weighs 50 pounds and is 1,550 calories per pound (7,750 calories) yields a cost per day of $1.40, while feeding 6½ pounds (7,800 calories) of a $9.65 bag of feed that weighs 50 pounds and is 1,200 calories per pound yields a cost per day of $1.25. The price difference to feed one horse is $0.15 a day or about $55.00 a year.

The point is that the best way to buy feed is by considering cost per day, not cost per bag. Owners who shop for feed by cost per bag often believe they are saving money by feeding a less expensive feed, when in reality they might be feeding more of that feed to meet their horse's needs and buying expensive supplements when the horse does not perform the way they think it should.

Economy and Premium Feeds

Many feed companies offer both an economy and premium line of feeds, although in today's complex world of feed formulation there is no exact definition or way to identify these types of feeds across different companies' offerings. Karen Davison, PhD, equine specialist with Land O' Lakes Purina Feed, explains: "Economy feed is hitting a price point. In our economy feeds (a line called Country Acres), we try to walk a line to keep them safe for the horse, but you have to have more leeway for least cost to try to hit that price point and tag guarantee."

Davison goes on to say that premium feeds are formulated to "hit a nutritional balance and support level," and that level is maintained despite fluctuations in grain prices.

If price, then, is the mark that most economy feeds are aiming for, logic dictates that often those feeds will be lacking in ingredients or additives that are expensive to include, such as high levels of vitamins and minerals, digestible fiber, specific amino acid ratios, and fat from sources that can be utilized by the horse. However, Davison warns that simply ripping a feed tag off a bag and giving it a quick once over is not a sufficient method of selecting a feed anymore.

"Reading a tag is so difficult because there is such a limited amount of information you can glean from it," she says. "Twenty years ago you could look at a tag and you could say an economy feed is going to be higher in fiber, which means it's lower in calories because it has a lot of roughage and filler in it. Today many premium feeds contain fiber that is very digestible from sources such as beet pulp, wheat mids (wheat middlings, a byproduct of processing wheat for flour), and soy hulls."

In addition, Davison points out that while many economy lines of feeds utilize different and less-consistent formulations as compared to premium feeds, often the manufacturer will use the same base ingredients as those in its premium line. The difference would be in the quality of nutrition and the level of fortification.

So, if an economy feed cannot be easily recognized by its appearance or the tag information on the bag, how does one identify it? Simply put, if price is the driving force behind economy feeds, then price might be one of the best indicators of whether it truly is an economy feed. It's the old "you get what you pay for" adage.

An alternative way to compare an economy feed with a premium feed is to investigate what classes of horses it is intended for; the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requires this purpose statement as a part of a product's labeling information.¹ Is it intended for foals? What about growing horses, breeding horses, and performance horses? Ultimately, does it meet the requirements of the horse and the goals of the owner?

Another rather large piece of the puzzle that has not been addressed is forage quality. Grass or hay make up the bulk of a horse's diet and provide the bulk of the nutrients. "When your hay quality falls the importance of your grain is magnified," Davison says. "If you have a horse that isn't doing a whole lot and is eating good-quality forage, you can get by feeding lesser quality grains. But when you've got a really hard-working, high-end performance horse or you're feeding marginal hay, you better come up with some pretty good grain."

Don Kapper, PAS (professional animal scientist), director of Nutrition and Technical Services for Progressive Nutrition, a feed company based in Harlan, Iowa, agrees. "The most expensive feed to feed your horse is poor-quality hay because you have to use so much more grain to meet their needs," he says.

The effect of feeding a diet that is adequate in caloric terms, but unbalanced or lacking in important nutrients, is difficult to ascertain in the short term. Often owners look for a dull hair coat and poor hoof quality or muscle tone, which all can indicate a deficiency. But other deficiencies (such as copper) might be impossible to detect until they have manifested themselves as full-blown problems.

Davison points out that feeding an economy feed could have long-term implications over the span of a horse's life if the chosen forage and grain don't meet the horse's nutritional requirements. "You take a horse that is 6 to 16 years old and maybe not very active, he can get by on economy feeds and marginal forage," she says. "But when he's 18, he's going to be a lot older 18 than a horse that is fed a good premium feed and balanced nutrition his whole life."

There might also be safety concerns associated with some economy feeds. Davison warns that some manufacturers might not have access to quality control and safety measures that larger manufacturers employ. The risk of contamination with cattle medication also exists when horse feed is made in the same location as cattle feeds. Some owners trying to stretch their dollar even choose to feed nonmedicated cattle feed to their horses: a potentially deadly practice. "There is a bigger difference in horse feed and cattle feed than the picture of the animal on the bag," warns Davison. "It's perfectly fine (in cattle feed manufacturing practices) for a nonmedicated cattle feed to follow a medicated feed in a run through a mill," but it increases the chance for contamination.

So where do oats fall in the realm of feedstuffs for horses?

At today's prices, oats cost as much or more than many premium feeds. Oats are relatively high in fiber and low in energy when compared with cereal grains such as corn. However, no matter how they are processed, when fed as a sole grain ration oats are lacking in essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals necessary for even a mature idle horse. Also, since oats are relatively low in calories per pound when compared with most complete concentrates, the practice of mixing oats with manufactured feeds just dilutes the nutrients that were added to those feeds during production.

Kapper says the quality and price of oats vary with their weight, cleanliness, and cost of freight. He also points out that horses do not have a requirement for cereal grains, especially those horses that do not have a need for calories above what can be provided from good-quality forage. Those types of horses will benefit from a diet balancer that will make up for any missing nutrients in their diet. Diet balancers also can be fed with oats if more calories are needed.

Middle Ground

The fact remains that with today's volatile housing market and the rising costs of feed, fuel, and groceries, many horse owners are struggling just to make ends meet. Feeding a lower-priced feed might be the best they can do for their horses with the resources they have.

In these situations, depending on the horse's requirements, the best economic value might be found in a mid-grade feed that many companies offer that will still meet the animal's protein, vitamin, and mineral needs when fed with good-quality forage. The owner then can use any savings to care for the horse's other needs, such as veterinary, dental, or farrier work.

Take-Home Message

In choosing a feed an owner should evaluate it for safety, level of fortification, purpose, feeding rate, and cost per head per day. Mid-grade or premium feeds in combination with good-quality forage present a desirable economic choice for the long-term health of animals that are growing, breeding, or performing.


¹ Freeman, David. Feed Tag Information for Commercial Horse Feeds. Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service. ANSI-3919. Available at:

About the Author

Jon Padgham

Jon Padgham is a freelance writer and works as an equine nutritionist for D&L Farm and Home in Aubrey, Texas. He obtained his master’s degree in horse nutrition from Kansas State University in 2001.

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