Hay is the standard feed for horses but grain is a close second. And given the choice, your horse will gobble up the grain first, each and every time.
Every horse owner I know feeds a different type of grain to their horses. With all these opinions and options, how do you pick the best type for your horse?
I have personally experimented with all varieties in my search for the right kind of grain. After asking several equine experts and reading veterinary texts, my research has revealed several interesting points on grains for horses. Including, which kind is the best.
The best kinds of grain for horses are oats, corn, wheat, barley, grain sorghum and rye. Of these, oats are the all around safest grain for most horses, while wheat and corn provide more energy. A combination of grains, otherwise known as mixed grains, are a common and ideal choice for palatability as well as for controlling nutritional value.
Let’s take a look at each type of grain and discuss feeding suggestions. Some of these grains, while appropriate feed for horses, do come with a few safety concerns which are important to note.
Types of grain for horses
Before you jump right in and start adding grain to your horse’s diet, remember that most horses actually do not need grain on a daily basis. If your horse doesn’t work very hard, chances are he doesn’t need the extra calories and energy found in grain.
All grains are low in fiber and vitamins and high in starch and energy. Grains should not be used as a “treat” or to make your horse’s feed less boring. Horses are suppose to eat grass and hay everyday. They don’t require variety like humans. In fact, too much variety is not good for their digestive system.
The following table lists the major grains in order of palatability and shows their energy value, crude protein and fiber contents. After the chart, I will briefly talk about each grain in a little bit more detail.
1 = High
7 = Low
|CRUDE PROTEIN||CRUDE FIBER||TAKE NOTE|
|Oats (regular)||7||11-12%||11%||Safest grain. Most palatable.|
|Oats (heavy)||6||12.5%||11%||“Race horse” or “jockey” oats.|
|Oats (hull-less)||4||18%||2.4%||Higher in feeding value than heavy or regular oats.|
|Corn (maize)||2||8-10%||2.2%||Most prone to mold and overfeeding.|
|Wheat||1||11-14%||1.5-3%||Should be processed. Less palatable than oats and corn.|
|Barley||5||12%||5%||Less palatable. Between oats and corn for safety.|
|Grain Sorghum (milo)||3||11.5%||2.6%||Should be processed. Choose Yellow over Brown.|
|Rye||2||12%||2.2%||Should be processed. 1/3 max of total grain mix. No ergot.|
Oats are the safest and most palatable grain to feed your horse because they are easy to chew, less likely to contain mold and other toxins, are high in fiber, lowest in energy and are less dense. Your horse will have to consume a larger amount of oats before suffering the same digestive problems that smaller amounts of other grains cause.
Regular oats and heavy oats are essentially the same except there is less foreign material in heavy oats. Therefore, heavy oats weigh more per volume than regular oats. Hull-less oats have a higher feeding value than regular or heavy oats. The hull contains most of the fiber so once it’s removed, the concentration of other nutrients increases. One pound of hull-less oats has more kernels than one pound of regular oats.
Corn is your horse’s second favorite cereal grain. This makes it extremely easy for your horse to overeat, especially if they gain unauthorized access to the feed room.
Cracked or flaked corn is easier for your horse to eat yet it’s more prone to molding than whole kernels. Highly fatal Moldy Corn Disease, also known as “blind staggers,” is caused by Fusarium mycotoxins in moldy corn. Infected corn kernels are usually pink to reddish brown in color. Death commonly results within 4 to 72 hours after neurologic symptoms appear. However, it can draw out as long as 4 weeks. There is no cure so please save your horse and yourself the pain and suffering by only feeding clean corn!
It is extremely important to inspect and feed only good quality, clean corn.
Wheat in the United States is usually reserved for human consumption. However, soft wheat is grown for animal feed. The small kernels are still hard enough that they require steam flaking, cracking or a course grind before feeding. It should not be ground into flour consistency.
Wheat provides the highest digestible energy of all the cereal grains. Therefore, it’s recommended that wheat should never make up more than half of the grain fed to horses. Choosing a grain mix with wheat is the safest way to prevent overfeeding while still providing the beneficial energy.
Barley looks similar to oats but has a harder hull. Some recommend feeding rolled or cracked barley but healthy horses with good teeth shouldn’t have any problem grinding it up. Good quality barley can be fed alone but it most commonly mixed with oats and corn.
Grain sorghum has such small, hard kernels that it must be steam flaked before feeding. Dry rolling is not enough. Since the small kernels are hard to chew and digest, the high energy of sorghum can pose similar risks as corn if overfed: obesity, founder, diarrhea, colic and high spirits.
This type of grain also contains tannins which helps resist mold but produces an astringent taste. Yellow sorghum has fewer tannins and is more palatable than brown sorghum. That being said, all grain sorghums are usually included in mixed grains and are often fed with molasses to make more appealing.
The most uncommon grain for horses is rye. It’s usually grown for pasture feed or hay but the grains can be harvested. Like wheat and grain sorghum, the kernels are small and very hard. They must be cracked before feeding. Rye is also the least favorite grain of most graze animals. It should not make up more than 1/3 of the grain mix because of it’s poor palatability. Also make sure to inspect that ergot is not present in the mix, which is toxic to horses.
Mixed grains and pellet feeds are a great way to guarantee and monitor nutritional content.
By combining several grain products, vitamins, minerals and other ingredients, manufacturers can create a pellet feed that provides equal, if not more, nutritional value than a straight serving of grain.
For example, Tractor Supply offers a 12% Horse Pellet Feed that contains 12% crude protein, 2.5% crude fat, 21.5% crude fiber, 0.9-1.4% calcium, 0.4% phosphorus, 30ppm copper, 0.3 ppm selenium, 80ppm zinc and 2500IU/lb vitamin A.
For the average horse owner, buying a pre-made pellet feed or mix is the easiest and most affordable option. I highly recommend going this route. You won’t have to worry about combining the correct amounts of whole grains yourself in order to create an optimally balanced feed.
Should I give my horse grain
Grain should only be fed to horses when the nutritional value of good quality hay is not enough to maintain their health and body weight. This can happen when your horse is expending a lot of energy during high levels of exercise. For example, cattle roping, barrel racing and other fast performance activities. Pregnant mares also require more calories and nutrition so they can support the growth of their foal. Senior horses also benefit from additional calories provided in grain.
If your horse is a backyard pet or simply a weekend trail rider, chances are you don’t need to feed him any grain. Giving large amounts of grain to an unworked horse will actually cause more harm than good.
Horses digest grains in their small intestines to get the most nutritional value. If they eat too much at one time, the undigested grain gets pushed farther into their cecum and causes cecal acidosis.
Over feeding grain will be obvious as your horse begins to suffer from severe diarrhea, colic and/or founder.
To help encourage full digestion, do not feed hay and grain at the same time. This is inconvenient I know, but if you have a high performance horse, chances are you want to do everything you can to keep him in peak health. Do not feed hay or forage 1 hour before and not for at least 3 hours after feeding grain.
How many pounds of grain should a horse eat per day
The average horse doesn’t need to eat grain everyday. Again, grain should only be supplemented if your horse isn’t getting enough nutrients from hay and foraging alone to remain healthy.
If your horse requires the extra calories grains provide, then grain should make up less than 50% of the total weight of feed your horse eats and no more than 6 – 7 pounds. To figure that out, make sure to read my other article which goes over exactly how to calculate how much hay your horse should eat.
So, if you normally feed your 1,000 pound horse 15 pounds of hay and you want to supplement with 20% grain, you need to give your horse 12 pounds of hay and 3 pounds of grain. You must decrease the amount of hay to keep the total weight of feed at 15 pounds. However, remember that it is important that your horse eats more hay and roughage than grain.
All horse feed, including hay, grains and supplements, should be fed by weight not volume. The easiest way to consistently feed the same amount is to use a simple scale. You might go by “scoops” once you learn how much each scoop weighs but just make sure to always check every new batch of grain or feed. It might be the same brand you always purchase but the composition can vary with each batch.
Eating excessive amounts of any grain will result in obesity, hyperactivity, nervousness and young horses can develop orthopedic diseases. You should consult with your veterinarian to decide if and how much, grain your horse needs.
How much does a bag of grain cost
Maybe you’ve decided that feeding grain to your horse is a good idea. And you are leaning toward a certain type. The next important question is, how much is it going to cost?
Most horse feed and grain comes in a standard 50 pound bag. Depending on the type and brand, you can expect to pay $11 – $35 per bag on average. The more complex the mix and nutritional claim, the higher the price tag.
If you want to provide your horse with some extra nutrition without breaking the bank, look for multi-species, all-stock or barnyard buffet style mixed feeds. These cost significantly less, usually less than $10, simply because they aren’t horse specific or name brand.
To give you a better idea, here are some grain prices from Tractor Supply (50 lb bags).
|GRAIN||PRICE PER BAG|
|13% All Stock Pellet||$7.99|
|12% Horse Feed||$14.79|
|All Grain Feed||$15.49|
|Nutrena SafeChoice Original Horse Feed||$20.29|
|Nutrena SafeChoice Maintenance Horse Feed||$18.69|
|Nutrena ProForce Fuel Horse Feed||$23.99|
|Purina Equine Senior Horse Feed||$24.49|
|Purina Ultium Competition Horse Formula||$29.49|
|Purina Enrich Plus Ration Balancing Horse Feed||$34.99|
As you can see, you get 1% more protein in the All Stock Pellet for only $7.99 than the basic 12% Horse Feed for $14.79. I’ve always given my horses a barnyard buffet style grain and they’ve never complained.
How long does a 50 pound bag of horse feed last
Since grain should be fed by weight, dividing 50 pounds by the amount of grain per day will give you how many days the bag will last. Here is a simple chart that shows the number of days for different pounds.
The less grain you feed per day, the longer the grain will last. Obviously, grain is used up faster when you feed more.
Safety tips for feeding grain to horses
Horses will eat all grains available before they eat hay. Even to the point of overeating and getting sick. That’s why it is so important for you to monitor the grain you feed and how you do it. The following 10 safety tips will help prevent overfeeding and problems associated with bad grain.
- Never feed moldy or suspicious looking or smelling grain. Dust, dirt, small bugs and other contaminants are not acceptable. Grain should never smell stale, rancid, or sour.
- Your horse’s total diet, by weight, should never be more than 50% grain.
- Regularly clean your horse’s grain bucket or trough.
- Make sure the feed bucket is empty before adding new grain. Grain can quickly mold in a moist feed bucket.
- Use a scale. Measure out the exact weight of grain each and every time to avoid overfeeding. Do not allow free feeding with grain.
- Don’t feed your horse his full grain allotment in one meal. Spread out the grain over two or three feedings so your horse has less grain to digest at one time.
- Only buy enough grain for several weeks or 1 month at a time. Fresher grain is best.
- Do not feed high moisture content grains. Risk of mold is extremely high even if you can’t see or smell it.
- Watch your horse. Just like us, horses won’t likely eat bad feed. If your horse isn’t gobbling down his grain like usual, suspect that something’s not right. Either with the grain itself or with your horse.
- Consult your veterinarian anytime you want to start a new grain regimen or adjust the current one. Changes should be made gradually over 7 to 10 days.
The bottom line, if the grain, regardless of type, doesn’t look and smell good enough for you to eat, don’t feed it to your horse!