Feed By Touch

(This article appeared in Country Routes, 2011. Please respect copyright and do not distribute without permission! karen.dallimore@gmail.com)

How many calories do you need? A moderately active human adult male requires about 2,400 calories a day, while women only need around 2,000 calories per day.  
 
Your 1,000-pound horse, by comparison, will need 17,000 calories just to hang out at the feeder all day. If he’s a two-year old racehorse, bump that up to 26,000 calories or more. It’s unreasonable to expect him to get that out of hay alone.  
 
Feeding horses well is an art but there needs to be good science behind it. 
 
“Your hay test is the backbone of any feed program,” Alf Budweth of Budson’s Farm and Feed Company in Erin told a group of horse owners at the Equine Erin Seminar Series. Equine nutrition was one of the topics addressed in the four-part series of horse-oriented lectures held at Stewart’s Farm Equipment in Brisbane.
 
Lots of commercial feeds are available but feeding them should revolve around the quality of your hay. 
 
Alf Budweth comes from a farming background, raised on a beef farm and eventually working his way into the horse feed industry, taking over Budson’s from the Stewart family about five years ago. Not only do they feed Erin’s growing equine population, they’re also feed consultants for elephants, rhinos and flamingos at the Metro Toronto Zoo. 
 
Getting back to horses though, the art component of horse feeding becomes apparent when you take into account that every year is different and every horse is different. 
 
Forage and pasture quality is affected by seasonal changes, and since forage and pasture make up seventy percent of a horse’s diet, it’s easy to understand that a feeding program is only valid for a given time. 
 
“One feed is not appropriate, fed at the same amount all year long,” said Budweth, who suggests body scoring your horse at every major milestone of the year. The Henneke body score is a number on a scale of one to nine that subjectively describes your horse’s condition from bony to bulging, subjectively measuring fat deposition at six places on your horse’s body. A score of one is poor and nine is extremely fat. Your nutritionist will want to know this to formulate a ration.
 
One major milestone, of course, is the change of the seasons. At 20 degrees Celcius, an animal doesn’t need energy to thermoregulate. What about at 30 degrees? Add ten percent to his calorie intake to compensate for sweating. 
 
Going the other way, at 0 degrees Celcius, he’ll need 25 percent more energy to stay warm, and at minus 10, add 50 percent to his energy requirements. The research doesn’t go lower than that, but Budweth does: add snow and a bit of wind, and he says that you can expect your horse to need 70 percent more energy. 
 
A horse can eat about 30 pounds of hay per day, says Budweth, which means that he physically can’t eat enough to maintain his weight under extreme weather conditions. Their stomach is only about the size of a rugby ball. “You need to find a different energy source.”
 
Blanketing and shelter can both help in the extremes, with any extra dietary energy needs coming from grain, commercial feed or strategically fed second cut hay. 
 
Looking at your typical 1,000 pound pasture pet horse though, if he’s getting 13.5 kg of low quality hay with 9 percent protein and a typical 1700 calories of energy per kg, according to the charts he’s actually getting enough energy and protein to do alright even on a regular cold day. He may not need extra concentrated feed at all, but he’ll likely still need what Budweth calls his “Flintstones” – an added vitamin and mineral supplement.
 
When you do make changes to his diet, make them one at a time or you won’t know what worked, using the time-honoured replacement guideline: one handful in, one handful out.
 
It’s impossible to generalize all aspects of a feeding program, but once your feeding program is in place, Budweth suggests that you “feed by touch”, using your best judgement and re-evaluating as circumstances change. “It doesn’t matter what the math says,” advised Budweth. “The label is only a guideline.”
 
(692 words)
©2011 K. Dallimore. All Rights Reserved.
 

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