VMC Equine Feeding Blog Part 5 – Ration Balancers

In the last segment of our nutrition blog, I want to talk about ration or diet balancers.

In many cases, they are the perfect feed to feed our easy keepers or laminitic horses, as well as our horses on poor quality hay.

Why do I like them so much and what are they?

If the forage supplies adequate energy, horses will either maintain their weight or gain weight, and this may seem as though all of the other nutrient requirements are being met.

Unfortunately, with today’s forages this may be a false assumption. Many times, there are inadequate amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals in the forage required for the work asked of the horse, whether it is performance, growth, or reproduction.

Easy keepers are sometimes fed lower nutritional quality hays at lower amounts to reduce calorie intake. They may need additional protein just to meet requirements.

But beyond just meeting requirements there is the issue of protein quality.  Even a grass hay that provides adequate crude protein might lack adequate levels of some essential amino acids.

Ration balancers not only provide crude protein, they tend to provide guaranteed levels of the most limiting essential amino acids, such as lysine and methionine, that are vital.

The advantage of using a balancer pellet is that the horse owner can meet the horse’s requirement for protein, vitamins, and minerals.

A balancer pellet can be used three ways:

1) alone as a low-calorie source of protein, vitamins, and minerals;

2) combined with straight grains, such as oats or corn or

3) as a top-dress for a concentrate fed at less than the recommended feeding rate.

There are two different kinds of balancers: one to feed with grass diets and one to feed with alfalfa diets. This is because the nutrients are formulated to complement your horse’s diet.

If your horse consumes more than 50% of his forage in grass, pasture or grass hay, he should have the grass formula. If he consumes more than 50% of his forage in alfalfa, then he should have the alfalfa formula.

Why are they good?

  • They are low calorie and low starch
  • They are meant to be fed in small amounts (1-2# day).
  • They have little grain content
  • They have added high quality proteins such as lysine and methionine, which aren’t present in lower quality hay and pasture

Common misconceptions

  • They cost more and are too expensive
  • They have too much protein (Egads – 30%!!!)- my horse will get high or it will stress his kidneys

So, first the expense

A bag of balancer is going to cost around $30, while a high end sweet feed costs somewhere around $16. How can the balancer be cheaper?!?

It comes down to amounts that must be fed.  Feed 2 # of balancer per day (what the label says for your horse – remember that label!), vs the 7# of feed the sweet feed bag label says.  The bag of balancer will last you 25 days, the sweet feed 7 days. So, you will spend 3 times as much on the sweet feed, and be feeding your horse way more grain – not an ideal situation.

If you reduce the amount of sweet feed, yes, it will make your bag last longer, but remember that label?  That feed is meant to be fed in the minimum amount on the bag.  If you aren’t, you aren’t feeding a balanced diet.

Ok, how about all that protein!?!

Use a comparison in protein levels between ration balancers and performance feeds. Most performance feeds have crude protein levels around 12% and a daily recommended intake upwards of 5 pounds per day. At 5 pounds per day this would provide 0.6 pound of protein or the same as two pounds of the 30% ration balancer. In fact, performance feeds given at the upper ends of the recommended feeding levels provide far more protein a day than the ration balancer.

When should you not use a ration balancer?

  • If you are feeding adequate amounts (i.e. label amounts) of a high-quality feed and forage.
  • If you need more energy in the diet (to increase weight, to add more energy), you will need to add a source of calories such as fats or grains. Increasing the ration balancer does not add more calories and here is a case where more does not equal better.

When should you use one?

  • Poor quality forage or hay
  • Poor muscling, poor toplines
  • Dieting horses (laminitic, Cushings)
  • Easy keepers
  • Whenever you are not feeding the given feeds according to label directions

Thank you, and let me now if you have any questions!

Dr. Elizabeth Callahan, MSOL, DVM, DACT, DABVP

drcallahan@vmceaston.com