Cost-Effective Feeding for Horses
Buy the best-quality forage you can find. While it's more expensive than low-quality hay, it has higher nutrient levels and still costs less than grain.
How to design an affordable feeding program without compromising your horse's health.
You care for your own horses, you probably have their hay- and feed-buying routine down pat. Every three months you write a check to the hay guy when he delivers four tons of timothy. On the first of each month you head to the feed store and stock up on a couple of bags of grain. And every 30 days, like clockwork, you retrieve your horses’ supplements that were delivered to your doorstep.
Feed is an expense you’re never going to be without as long as you own horses. But we can’t blame you for wanting to find ways to cut feed costs without sacrificing your horses’ health or performance. When evaluating these costs, we generally look at forage, including pasture and hay, grain (concentrates), and supplements. The goal is to optimize a feeding program and, at the same time, spend less.
Know What Your Horse Really Needs
Paul Siciliano, PhD, an equine management professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Animal Science, in Raleigh, says there are several things you can do to save money on feed, but first you must determine your horse’s nutrient requirements.
You can do this with the help of an equine nutritionist or by using online programs (often offered by feed companies) that simply require you to enter your horse’s weight, age, and other details. Knowing your horse’s nutritional needs will help you avoid under- or overfeeding.
Siciliano says overfeeding is common and can be costly. He explains that in one of his classes, he has his students feed university horses according to the label directions of various companies’ products and then analyze how it lines up with the animals’ nutritional needs. Because feed companies can’t know what kind of hay and other supplements each horse consumes, “the result tends to be a ration that might be more grain than needed, especially if you are feeding a high-quality forage,” he says.
To figure out if you’re overgraining, start by determining your forage’s quality and nutrient content. For owners who make their own hay or purchase it in bulk, Siciliano suggests having each batch analyzed. This might be impractical, however, for owners whose hay source is less consistent—perhaps they buy only a couple of bales a week from the feed store.
Regardless, place a premium on buying the best-quality forage you can find. It might be more expensive than lower-quality hay, but good hay still typically costs less than grain, unless you live in an area where very little hay is grown or if hay crops are in short supply due to drought.
“The higher the nutrient quality of the forage, the less grain and supplemental feed you’d need,” he says. “A middle-aged easy keeper probably won’t need grain.
“Figure out what it costs per day to feed your horse,” Siciliano continues, adding the cost of grain and supplements to the forage amount. “If it’s about $2 to $3 per day, you are doing a good job. If it’s costing $5 or $6 per day, there may be some waste or overlap. Many people don’t count the cost of unnecessary supplements, and this is where it often becomes expensive. The horse may not need all the extra things.”
Good Pastures Preserve Hay
Carey Williams, PhD, extension specialist in equine management at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, lectures on reducing feed costs by improving pasture management.
“After we renovated our pastures here at Rutgers, we saved between $3,000 and $4,000 in one summer by not having to feed as much hay,” she says. “Many horse owners just have one field or pasture where they turn horses out, sometimes 24/7 all year long, and there is very little grass left.”
Williams says that to maintain good pasture, the grass should always be taller than 1 or 2 inches.
“Work with your stocking density so you can maintain 70% vegetative cover when grass is about 3 inches tall or more,” she says. “Once grazed below that height, it is difficult for it to grow and recover. You’ve stopped the root growth and there is no (energy) reserve.”
There are several ways to protect pasture from overgrazing, allowing it to recover more quickly and grow more abundantly. “You can divide pastures into sections and graze rotationally, using electric tape fencing—two to three strands and movable posts that you just stick in the ground. The fence can be removed or changed easily,” says Williams.
At Rutgers, facility managers divided their 4-acre and 8-acre pastures into four sections each and rotated three horses per section every three weeks. “This grazing system helped us tremendously,” Williams says. “This year we stopped feeding hay at the end of April because we had lots of grass, and last fall we were able to graze through the first part of December.”
Horse owners need to figure out how much grazing their grasses can tolerate, which might vary annually depending on weather and growing conditions. In mid-summer, for instance, when grasses are dry, you might rotate your horses more frequently—every week or so.
In areas where hay is very expensive, alternative forages such as hay cubes or pellets—while generally more expensive than long-stem forage because they’re processed—might be more cost-effective, says Kathleen Crandell, PhD, an equine nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research, in Versailles.
“Horses usually eat the alternative forages with little or no waste,” she says. “Depending on the price you pay for hay, it may be worth comparing what you pay for 50 pounds of hay versus a 50-pound bag of pellets to see if it is more economical. If prices are similar, it may be worth replacing a portion of the hay for pellets or cubes because there’s less waste.”
Some feed manufacturers make hay extenders, which can also help lower your forage costs in regions where hay is very expensive. “Hay extenders are pelleted, high-fiber feeds that often contain soy hulls, alfalfa, and other types of digestible fibers,” says Crandell. “These pellets aren’t typically used as the sole source of fiber, but may be a way to supplement and not feed as much hay. Another product that can replace a portion of the hay is beet pulp—a high-fiber feed that may be cost-effective in areas where hay is expensive.”
Heather Smith Thomas
“It is ideal to have a drylot where you can keep horses off pastures during times of drought or during winter,” says Williams. “You don’t want them eating every bit of grass.”
Yes, you’ll be feeding more hay when keeping horses off pasture, but our sources say you will have better grass come next summer. In the long run it reduces the amount of hay you’ll have to buy.
Handling Hay Costs
Especially when concentrate feeds cost $20 to $30 a bag, Williams says, the best place to start when cutting costs is, again, with quality forage. “Many horses, including some hard-working horses, can do well just on good-quality hay, without grain or with a minimum of concentrates.
“Sometimes people try to skimp on hay,” she says. “It might cost $9 per bale at one place and $7 per bale at another, and they choose the cheaper hay. The $7 bale might not be such a good deal if it only weighs 40 pounds and the $9 bale weighs 60. The more expensive bale might also be better quality with more nutrients, and you might not need to feed as much.”
Kathleen Crandell, PhD, an equine nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research, in Versailles, explains that it’s more economical to buy hay by the ton rather than by the bale, if you have the storage space and equipment to move it around.
“It’s cheapest to buy it right out of the field,” she says. “The fewer times it has to be hauled and restacked, the less expensive it will be, saving labor and fuel costs. It’s more expensive to buy a few bales at a time from the local feed store because they have to handle it and store it, so they have more markup on price per bale.”
If you don’t have the storage space or horse numbers to warrant buying in bulk, consider combining forces with a friend or neighboring horse owner.
Often, owners opt for less-expensive large square bales or round bales over small square bales. But if you don’t have enough horses to consume round bales before they go to waste or get moldy because of rain, this cheaper form of hay might not be economical in the long run.
Also consider whether you’re paying for a higher-quality hay than your horse actually needs. While a performance horse needs a calorie-rich hay, says Amy Gill, PhD, a Kentucky-based equine nutritionist, an easy keeper does best on a slightly overmature timothy, which inevitably costs less.
Grains and Concentrates
Keep in mind, again, that some horses—namely pleasure horses, trail horses, or lightly worked performance horses—don’t need grain at all.
“Many horses maintain condition on pasture and/or hay, and you might just need a balancer pellet,” says Williams. “Concentrate feeds are mainly for pregnant or lactating mares, growing foals, hard-working athletes, or individuals that have trouble maintaining body weight.”
If your horse does require added calories from concentrates, don’t skimp on a cheap feed. “Saving money with concentrates can be tricky,” says Crandell. “If you buy the least expensive type you generally have to feed more of it to maintain the horse’s weight or performance, so it can be a false economy. It may be cheaper to feed a higher-quality product if you can feed less of it.”
Another expensive energy source is oil. “It’s more economical to buy a concentrate feed with added fat than to top-dress with your own oil,” she says. “A situation where top-dressing would be more economical is when you have various horses with different energy needs and the amount of oil can be customized to the needs of each horse, rather than buying different feeds.”
Some people try to save money by feeding less than the recommended rate on the feed label. “The recommended rate is there for a reason. This is the target rate in order to have a balanced diet,” says Crandell, keeping in mind the horses’ forage quality, of course. “If you are feeding less, the horse is not getting adequate nutrients—at which point some people might consider topping the feed with a vitamin-mineral supplement. When you do the math on this, if you feed one pound of the ration balancer daily plus some oats, it comes out cheaper than buying a concentrate feed and then topping it off with a vitamin/mineral supplement.”
Easy keepers, in particular, might just need a small amount of ration balancer per day to augment their forage, since the nutrients in these products are very concentrated. They can help you save money in a feeding program and are economical when a horse doesn’t need large amounts of concentrate.
“They may be more expensive than a concentrate, but you don’t have to feed very much to get benefits,” says Crandell.
Last But Not Least: Supplements
One of the other no-brainers when trying to cut costs is to do some supplement soul-searching, as these products can be the most expensive parts of a diet.
“When I look at horses’ diets when I do consulting, I can almost always find at least one unnecessary supplement,” says Williams. “I recommend talking with a nutritionist who can tell you whether these are really needed. The key is to make feeding simple. Usually the more complex you make it, the more expensive it will be.”
“Often a lot of the extra things that people buy as supplements are overlapping or window-dressed products that don’t have what the horse needs; they have a little bit of everything but not enough of anything to do much good,” Gill says.
Our sources say to scrutinize the supplements you use.
“Do your homework to see if the horse really needs a specific supplement or whether you actually see a difference when using it,” says Crandell. “If you are feeding correctly, the horse may not need any supplements, or at least not all the time. For example, if your horse gets by fine with a little salt daily, just use electrolytes at specific times of need, such as during travel or at the time of performance.”
The key is eliminating redundant supplements. “These have overlapping ingredients and can actually unbalance a good feeding program,” says Gill. “The best economy is in using a product correctly balanced for the type of horse you are feeding and not using unnecessary supplements.”
Trying to save money on feed costs involves finding a balance—taking into consideration what that individual horse needs, what’s available, and what your budget allows.
Nutritional needs differ from horse to horse. A diet that might be perfect for one might be inadequate or too much for another, even among horses in the same kind of work. Feeding horses is as much an art as a science, taking health issues into consideration. In some situations, cutting costs is simply too difficult or impossible to do.
About the Author
Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.
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