Cattle feed not a substitute for horse feed

posted March 5, 2018 8:42 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Brooke Bechen, Regional Editor |

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BRISTOL — There are many differences between cattle and horses, including what to feed them. And according to Dr. Kevin Kline, animal science professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, not all animal feeds are created equal.

Cattle are ruminants and they process their food in a four-chambered stomach; horses are hind gut fermenters and ferment fiber at the end of their digestive tract. Cattle are also more efficient at digesting fiber and are able to extract greater nutrition from poor-quality feed; horses on the other hand, generally require higher quality forage than cattle, Kline explained.

“Having one concentrated feed for all animals is not a good idea,” Kline said Feb. 24 at the 2018 Stateline Equine Education Program. “And feeding ruminant feed, especially cattle feed, to horses can be fatal.”

It is not uncommon for horses to be housed on properties with other livestock such as cattle and sheep. It is also not uncommon for some horse feeds to be produced at facilities where other feeds are being produced. However, there are things horse owners can do to protect their animals from eating potentially harmful feed.

Kline encouraged horse owners to carefully read the labels and ingredients in the feed they give their horses. Look for certain vitamins and minerals, the quality of the ingredients, fat sources, levels of crude protein and if there are any feed additives that could be sub-lethal if consumed by a horse.

Horse feeds generally contain greater concentrations of nutrients, especially trace minerals and B vitamins, than cattle feed. And because horses lose electrolytes through sweating, something cattle do not do, their feeds may also contain higher levels of electrolytes than cattle feed.

“In general, cattle feed is usually lower in vitamins and minerals since cattle have lower requirements than horses,” Kline said.

There is one thing horses and cattle do have in common, and that is they both use fat as an energy source. But again, because their digestive tracts are so different, horse owners should pay attention to the source in which the fat is coming from in their feed. Good fat sources in horse feeds include vegetable oil (linseed, soy and canola) and rice bran, Kline said.

Much like the fat source, horse owners should also look at the crude protein listed on the feed package label. Protein levels may look similar when comparing feeds but the source for that protein could be very different, Kline added. The available protein in cattle feed is often inadequate for horses, especially for breeding, growing and performance horses.

Feed additives can be dangerous and even fatal for horses, with monensin (also known as Rumensin), lasalocid (also known as Bovatec), amprolium (also known as Corid) and decoquinate (also known as Deccox) leading as the most dangerous. The additives are “all very similar” and can often cause similar adverse effects like heart and muscle damage, kidney failure, anorexia, muscle twitching and death.

“The bottom line: Keep your cattle and poultry feed away from your horses and ensure your horses are not drinking water that has been treated with monensin,” Kline said.

For harvested hay, Kline most commonly sees farmers using large round bales, which shed water better if kept outside and have a relatively long shelf life. Smaller square bales and larger rectangular bales are also used, but may require more labor or specialized equipment to move them.

Kline uses large round bales on his horse farm but warned others about the dangers of the netting used around the bales. Remove all netting before feeding horses a hay bale, he said, as they can nibble on the netting and cause gut strangulation if ingested. Not only think about the quality of the feed, he added, but also the safety of the horses.

Kline offered several parting tips to horse owners: feed only grain mixes and supplements designed specifically for horses; stick to feed manufacturers with a good safety record; use feeds within their listed expiration dates, especially high-fat diets; and follow safe grazing practices that maximize high-quality forage intake.

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