Whoever told you pelleted feed was harder to digest was wrong. Packing only the most essential portions of each ingredient into the feed not only increases palatability, but reduces waste and filler, meaning you actually feed less, and in the end, lower your cost considering the bag goes further.
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One of the major advantages of pellets is that, compared to other types of feed, they are very low in dust. "Compete" pelleted feeds can include not only grains, but vitamins and other supplements. And manufacturers have created many types of pelleted mixes to suit all sorts of horses, no matter their activities.
Almost no commercial feed ration is left untouched by the pelleting process -- sift through a prepared sweet feed with your fingers, and you'll discover a smattering of pellets mixed in with the oats and corn and other grains. That pellet generally contains a vitamin/mineral supplement for the ration, bound up with a fiber source such as dehydrated alfalfa. Pellets, it seems, are everywhere!
In The Mill
Pete Mitcheson, general manager of the main Peterborough feed mill of Growmark, Ontario, a major feed manufacturer, oversees the production of dozens of different types of pelleted feeds every week. He explains the process of making a pelleted feed: "You need to find good suppliers to begin with. The quality of the ingredients going into the pellet determines the product you come out with, and quality control is as important in pelleted feeds as in textured products (i.e., sweet feed).
"We start," he continues, "by grinding the grain into particles. You get the best results when all the particles are a uniform size--not too fine, and not too coarse. The particles need to be held together with a 'binder,' and for horse feeds, we like to use natural binders as much as possible."
Sometimes the ingredients already in a ration serve double duty by helping to bind the pellet particles together--wheat, in particular, is an excellent binder that helps make a hard, durable pellet, and barley also does a creditable job. So does molasses, a naturally sticky product that is frequently added as a flavoring agent to horse feeds.
In the case of a recipe that has little in the way of ingredients that are natural binders, manufacturers might add an artificial binder, usually a product called "lignasol," which is a fine, yellow powder. Lignasol is widely used in other livestock feeds because it is less expensive than natural binders, and because it is easy to work with; however, lignasol's use in horse feeds is limited because there is a consumer perception that "natural" is better -- and horse feed recipes are far more driven by consumer opinion than are, for instance, cattle feeds.
In a mixing chamber, the ground particles are churned together and compacted, and the binder is mixed through (except in the case of a "wet" binder like molasses, which generally is added during "conditioning," the next step in the process). Then, if the product is to be a grain pellet, the particles move on to a "pellet mill conditioner," where forced steam heats them to a temperature of 180-190° Fahrenheit for about 20 seconds. (Since longer exposure to the steam was found to make a more durable pellet, some newer mills now are equipped with "double pass" steaming chambers, which steam the ingredients twice.)
"You want it to be steamed for as long as the machinery will allow," says Mitcheson. "Steaming gelatinizes the starches in the grain, which makes it stick together, and helps it slip through the die (shaper) better."
The object is not to cook the grain, which would destroy vitamins and minerals, but just to break the bonds in the complex starches. Some researchers feel this increases the overall digestibility of the grain as well. (Increased digestibility of gelatinized starches has been demonstrated in dogs, cats, pigs, and poultry, but the jury is still out with regard to ruminants and horses.)
A pelleted product made of hay generally is not steamed; rather, it is artificially dried or dehydrated after grinding--leading to the popular name "dehy pellets." Binders are added after drying, and wet molasses, to a level of about 7.5-10%, often is the binder of choice for a good, durable pellet.
Why feed a pelleted ration, rather than unprocessed hay or grain? There are several advantages, and a few cautions, to consider.
Pelleted feeds are significantly less dusty than loose or baled hay, or unprocessed grains (when not coated with molasses). This can be an important factor if you are feeding a horse with respiratory problems. It also makes working with pellets a pleasure--just scoop and pour, with no coughing necessary! Because pellets are not coated with molasses as are most commercial sweet feeds, they are also easier to handle in the winter, when molasses can freeze as hard as concrete.
Pelleted feeds take up significantly less storage space, particularly in the case of pelleted hay products. A ton of baled hay can take up 200 to 330 cubic feet of storage space in your barn; a ton of hay pellets or cubes requires only 60 to 70 cubic feet. Pelleted products also are, therefore, much more portable, and they can be ideal for traveling -- to a show, for example, or when camping.
Horses can't sort ingredients in a pelleted feed. If you have a picky eater who likes to sort all the oats out of his sweet feed and leave the rest, he is likely not getting the nutrition the ration is designed to deliver. With a pellet, he has no choice but to eat the whole thing--and most horses will eat a pellet as readily as they will unprocessed grain. The unpleasant taste or texture of some ingredients, such as fats and oils, can be "disguised" in a pelleted ration so the horse eats them much more readily than if the products were top-dressed.
Because pellets are relatively low in moisture, feeding them tends to result in reduced manure output--especially in the case of hay pellets. Although the digestibility of hay pellets is the same as for baled or loose hay, horses on a pelleted diet have a lower fecal water content--on average, about 75.2%, as compared to 81.5% on loose hay. The advantages of less manure output need hardly be explained to anyone who has ever wielded a muck fork! Some researchers feel, however, that this could increase the risk of impaction in some horses. Studies currently are examining the question.
Pelleted hay products (and to some extent, pelleted grains) result in less wasted feed. Loose hay fed on the ground results in wastage of at least 14-22% by cattle, and researchers expect those numbers would be similar (if not higher) in horses. The leaves of legumes, in particular, tend to shatter and be lost (and the leaves, of course, contain much of the nutrition in the hay). In a pelleted product, there is almost no wastage, since the leaves and stems of the hay are incorporated into the pellet in the mill. With grain products, wastage is reduced because horses cannot sort and discard ingredients.
Hay pellets can reduce intestinal fill, which some people believe might contribute to a trimmer appearance and less of a "hay belly." Because a pelleted product already is compacted, you might be able to feed 20-30% more pellets than loose hay--an advantage if you are trying to put weight on a hard keeper, or increase a horse's intake as his workload becomes heavier.
Because pellets are made up of feed ground into particles, they are, in a manner of speaking "pre-chewed." This makes them a much more digestible choice than whole grains or hay for very young or old horses, or for any horse with a mouth or tooth problem. Pellets also can be soaked into a mush to be fed to elderly horses which have little or no grinding surfaces left on their teeth. (Pellets have not been shown to increase overall digestibility of a ration when fed to adult horses with no chewing difficulties, however.)
Davison points out, "Pelleting technology allows more diversity in ingredients, and many ingredients are lower in NSC. However, years ago, before the inclusion of higher fat levels, lowering the NSC also lowered the calorie content; then horses with high calorie requirements had to eat a much larger volume of feed. Modern fiber sources and the use of fat have enabled production of higher-calorie feeds that remain lower in NSC."
She stresses the importance of evaluating calorie content of a low-NSC diet. "A feed that is low in NSC and low in calories requires more quantity to maintain condition; then the horse ends up with a larger meal and, ultimately, at least as much NSC as he would if fed a product that is slightly higher in NSC, yet higher in calories so it could be fed in smaller amounts."
Take-Home Message: Everything in Moderation
Gordon stresses, "Grains, with associated sugars and starches, are not inherently evil for horses. The brain and hoof require huge amounts of glucose for proper function and health. Balance is key: do not overfeed, do not let your horse get overweight, and exercise him as much as possible, as nature intended."
Watts emphasizes: "We need to realize that a horse is not a cow, a pony is not a racehorse, an old horse is not a young horse. And that the way Grandpa fed horses is no longer applicable."