The Anatomy Of a Feed Tag

Tuesday, October 6, 2020
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Lucky me, to have Kelly R. Vineyard, Ph.D.,Senior Nutritionist, Equine Technical Solutions with Land O'Lakes, Inc. Purina Animal Nutrition living so close to me here in North Central Florida. I have been wanting to review all the feed, supplements I use, as well as our hay, to be sure the ponies are on the right track.I have tried many different feeds, and a sea of supplements over the years.

Kelly R. Vineyard
Dr. Kelly R. Vineyard, horse owner, Mom, researcher and Dr.of Nutrition for Purina Equine.

Kelly, Dressage rider, Mom, Dr. of Nutrition, has been with Purina for 10 years as an integral part of their research team, and here she is almost in our back yard in North Central Florida!

Like many equine owners we want what is best for our animals and for many reasons I keep going back to Purina after trying all the feeds that are out there. And no, they are not paying me to say this. A few years ago I went to Purina headquarters in St Louis, Missouri, and attended a 2 day seminar along with about other invited guests, farm owners across the US. I was blown away by the passion and pride the company and their employees takes in their research, and the process in how they produce the largest and most popular brand of horse feed in the USA.

I learned about the latest addition to the Purina feed, Outlast, which has been a staple in the diet of my ponies ever since. There are so many designer feed companies in the world, and they all have wonderful qualities. As Kelly said "Being the largest feed company in the US, we have regulatory eyes on us all the time, so we have to follow the top of the line standards and practices." And they do.

A few years ago we reported two top FEI Dressage competitors has tested positive for a trace of ractopamine, an additive used in cattle and swine feed to promote leanness. As a result, many of us became aware that some feed companies use the same processing equipment for both cattle and equine. While great care is taken for cross contamination, there is always the issue of human error, and as many of us know, it only takes a trace. Purina guarantees they have completely separate processors for their feeds, because they have to.

So now let's get onto the topic of today's article.

Reading and comparing feed tags to help determine which horse feed to purchase can be a daunting task. Not only do you need a little background knowledge about nutrition terminology, but you also need a good understanding of horse nutrient requirements to make sense of it all. Because a feed tag is required by law to be on every bag of commercial horse feed, it is the only consistent information available across all brands that can be used to make comparisons. However, there are limits to what can be included on feed tags for horses, and it is important to understand what you can and cannot determine from the information presented.

Feed tags are legal documents, and are regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), as well as individual state regulatory agencies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). AAFCO publishes an official document each year outlining requirements for feed labels for all animal feeds.

What a feed tag tells you:

  1. Product name and weight – an obvious, but nevertheless important piece of information.
  2. Purpose statement identifying the type of horse intended to be fed – a surprisingly large number of horse owners do not pay attention to this. Checking that your feed has been specifically formulated for your class of horse is critical. For example, you would not want to feed a product designed for a “mature horse at maintenance” to a “young growing horse”.
  3. Guaranteed analysis of certain nutrients – AAFCO dictates that the following nutrient guarantees be listed for all fortified horse feeds: Crude Protein (minimum), Crude Fat (minimum), Crude Fiber (maximum), Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) (maximum), Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) (maximum), Calcium (minimum and maximum), Phosphorus (minimum), Copper (minimum)(if added), Selenium (minimum), Zinc (minimum), and Vitamin A (minimum)(if added). Sugar (maximum) and Starch (maximum) guarantees are also required on any horse feed that includes carbohydrate claims on the packaging and/or marketing materials. Any nutrient that is guaranteed on the tag is potentially subject to testing by regulatory agencies to determine whether the tag guarantees are accurate.
  4. Ingredient list – this listing may include individual ingredients (e.g. oats, rice bran, etc.) and/or collective terms (e.g. grain products or processed grain by-products). The choice of ingredient terminology is determined by the feed manufacturer in most states, but some states require individual ingredients on horse feed labels. Some horse owners feel that an ingredient list that includes individual ingredients means that the manufacturer is “locking” or “fixing” the feed formula, while collective terms indicate that the feed formula is using “least cost” formulation. However, the ingredient list does not provide insight to the formulation strategy utilized for any given feed product. Further, individual versus collective terms does not yield information regarding quality of ingredients in a feed. Ingredients are required to be listed in descending order of inclusion. However, there are no reliable analyses to determine exact amounts of ingredients, or even clearly distinguish specifically which ingredients are included, so it is difficult for regulatory agencies to monitor compliance to this law.
  5. Feeding directions – again, a surprising number of horse owners do not read the feeding directions. Horse feed manufacturers formulate feeds to be fed at a specific range of feeding rates, and when a product is not fed according to directions, the full nutritional benefits of that feed may not be realized and the feed will not perform as intended.

What a feed tag does not tell you:

  1. Additional nutrients needed by the horse that aren’t required to be guaranteed on the tag - some manufacturers choose to include nutrient guarantees beyond those required by AAFCO or individual states, and horse owners sometimes compare guaranteed analyses and feel that more (and higher) nutrient guarantees mean improved nutrition for their horses. However, even if a nutrient is not guaranteed on the label, it doesn’t mean that nutrient is not in the feed. Many manufacturers provide a completely balanced ration that includes many more nutrients than listed in the guarantee. State regulatory agencies often perform analyses on nutrients that are required to be listed. Some may also test additional nutrients that are guaranteed, but not required. However, the state is less likely to test for nutrients that are not required to be listed, and some nutrients are quite expensive to assay (such as amino acids, vitamins, and various feed additives), so compliance with those additional guarantees is not as reliable as for those required to be listed.
  2. Nutrient and ingredient quality or bioavailability – just because a tag states that a feed is 14% crude protein, that tells you nothing about the quality of that protein (i.e. the amino acid composition). For example, there are countless ways to blend various ingredients to make a feed that is 14% crude protein, but the horse will respond very differently depending on what ingredients supply that protein. In many cases, a feed containing 12% crude protein made with high quality ingredients will actually supply more total protein (and more essential amino acids) to the horse than a feed containing 14% crude protein made with lower quality ingredients. The same principle holds true for fat, fiber, vitamin and mineral sources. Not all ingredients are of the same quality, stability or availability for the horse.
  3. The “feed recipe” – the ingredient list isn’t a recipe, but simply a list of the ingredients used to make that product. Horses don’t have an oat or a soybean meal requirement; they have protein, vitamin, mineral and calorie requirements, and ingredients are simply vehicles for delivering nutrients. In addition, the inclusion of an ingredient does not necessarily mean that it is included at a physiologically meaningful level. Even though an ingredient is listed, it could be that just a trace amount was included.
  4. Whether or not the guaranteed levels of nutrients are appropriate – when reading tag guarantees, many horse owners tend to look for the tag with the “most” of everything listed. With that mindset, if one tag guarantees 3,000 IU/lb Vitamin A and a second tag guarantees 15,000 IU/lb Vitamin A, the second feed would be considered “better”, especially if the two feeds are the same price. However, there is a maximum tolerable amount of Vitamin A for horses, so the second feed could cause health problems in horses if fed at a high rate for a long period of time. This concept holds true for most nutrients. Sometimes more is not better. Sometimes more is just more, and sometimes more is worse, possibly even toxic.
  5. Quality control – Feed manufactures have widely differing quality control standards. There is an industry “minimum” standard for quality and safety measures for animal feed products, but many companies go above and beyond these minimum standards. It is up to the horse owner to investigate with each individual manufacturer what their approach to quality control may be. This includes whether or not horse feed is manufactured using the same equipment that cattle feed containing ionophores is manufactured with.
  6. Research behind the feed –horse owners often assume that all horse feeds are based on scientific investigation and rigorous testing prior to being sold on the market. However, this is not always the case. It is not a difficult process to develop a horse feed formula based on published nutrient requirements and common ingredients used in horse feeds, and simply bring that feed to market with no further testing. Not all feed companies put the resources into a comprehensive scientific research program to support their premium horse feeds.
Anatomy of a feed tag

At Purina®, we know that feed tag information does not tell the full story, either nutritionally or how that feed will perform. At the end of the day, the most accurate indicator of a good quality feed is how a horse looks, feels, and performs when they are eating it.

Our expert horse feed team includes 6 PhDs and 1 DVM who make it a priority to produce top quality products that exceed our customers’ expectations. We do this by focusing on things that cannot be found on a feed tag…studying advances in equine nutrition, conducting scientific research at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center and in collaboration with universities, conducting field tests to ensure our feeds perform as intended before ever being made available to the public, fine-tuning feed formulations, working with our quality control and production specialists, and constantly monitoring ingredient and finished product quality. In other words, we spend a great deal of time and effort making sure our horse feed products are the best they can be. Purina encourages their customers to learn more about exactly what they do and how they do it at

Kelly R. Vineyard, Ph.D. |Senior Nutritionist, Equine Technical Solutions|Land O’Lakes, Inc.|Purina Animal Nutrition