VMC Equine Feeding Blog Part 4 – Natural and Non-GMO Feeds

How about “Natural” feeds – is this a better option for my horse?

How about non-GMO feeds?

Surely, they are better – after all, they are more natural!

Well, maybe not…

The horse’s natural diet is composed of forage and forage alone, but since we ask our modern horses to perform a variety of unnatural things, we have to provide the additional calories they need. Our grasses and pastures are on depleted soil, so the hay, grass, or pasture is not balanced in itself.

Some people seem to think feeding unprocessed grains, and non-GMO grains is better for the horse. But, generally, the advantages of feeding straight grains (without additional fortification) are few and the “non-GMO” label has to be taken with a grain of salt.

First, let’s discuss the unprocessed grain diet, i.e. “Natural”

What are cereal grains?

  • Oats – Oats are palatable and easy to chew, less susceptible to mold and are considered a safe grain since starch from oats is easily digested in the small intestine. However, they don’t offer all the nutrients needed, cannot be considered a complete feed, and processed oats have a short shelf life.
  • Corn – Most horses like the taste of corn. But it’s high in starch (70%), low in protein, may not be completely digestible in the small intestine in large amounts, and undigested starch can trigger colic or laminitis. Also, it molds easily if not stored properly and moldy corn can cause death in horses.
  • Barley – Barley contains high energy, moderate protein and low fiber. Crude protein from barley is easier to digest than corn, and the energy is higher than oats, but barley starch has low digestibility in small intestine, and it molds easily if not stored properly.

The problem with just feeding cereal grains is that they vary widely in their nutrient profile. Some have adequate protein for a mature horse when paired with grass hay, but others do not. Cereal grains do not contain a balanced nutrient profile, and they must be paired with some type of additional fortification.  A straight cereal grain diet is unsuitable for young, growing, or geriatric horses, due to the lack of the essential amino acids especially lysine and methionine.

In order to make grains digestible for the horse, they must be processed in some way such as crimping, rolling, steaming or cooking. Cereal grains also are a high starch meal. The horse’s digestive system is easily upset with high starch meals, and big swings in insulin can result, leading to insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome and in young horses, possible links to OCD development.

Hard keepers may not be able to take in enough calories from a cereal grain ration; the use of fats and fibers in commercial feeds allow them to condense the number of calories per pound.

Why a Concentrate?

Concentrates, or commercial feeds are formulated specifically for the needs of a horse and a certain class, type or usage.  If chosen and used properly, commercial feeds represent the total nutrition package. Benefits of commercial feeds include:

  • They’re uniform and consistent.
  • They’re generally easy to digest.
  • They have an extended shelf life.
  • They guarantee a consistent intake of nutrients.
  • They simplify ration balancing.
  • They give the owner options for horses with problems such as poor teeth or respiratory tract disorders or poor forage availability.

How about non-GMO feeds – are they better?

Non-GMO means that the ingredients do not contain genetically modified organisms. A GMO is a plant, animal, microorganism, or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified using recombinant DNA methods (also called gene splicing), gene modification, or transgenic technology. Virtually all the soybean crop, as well as corn, alfalfa, sugar beets, and cotton in the US is now GMO.

Certain crops grown in the U.S. are not genetically engineered, and these include oats, barley, wheat, rice, sorghum, and millet.

Unfortunately, the term “Non- GMO“ product is not federally regulated; therefore, companies are on the honor system.

The problems?

  • Sourcing non-GMO product is difficult and these crops are more expensive, which raises the price of the feed substantially.
  • The feed is produced in mills that also use GMO products, so the feed will have residues (or more) GMO products in them.
  • Some products, such as soybeans, have no non-GMO alternative. That means that soybeans are not included in non-GMO feed.  Soybeans are rich in lysine, an essential amino acid.  For that reason, the non-GMO feeds are not suitable for young, growing horses or broodmares, as the lysine content is too low, and the protein is made up of lesser quality amino acids.
  • These feeds tend to be higher in starch and sugar, and usually are not suitable for horses with Cushings, equine metabolic syndrome, or those who are starch sensitive.

So, if you are willing to pay at least $2-$3 more per bag, and you are feeding a mature animal with no health or weight issues, the non-GMO feeds may be suitable to feed.  If you don’t want to feed them, be reassured that long term studies in multiple species have shown no difference between those fed GMO and those fed non-GMO feeds…

Dr. Elizabeth Callahan