If it is, don't fear. There are lots of components to reading a feed tag, and many different things on a feed tag. Some of these things (let's face it...most of them!) can be pretty intimidating!
There are a few things you will find on almost every feed bag:
We'll go through each one, discussing what it is as well as its importance to you and your horse.
The Feed Name
The feed name is exactly what it sounds like: the name of the feed. You'll probably find it numerous times on the bag, including splashed across the front in big letters. This is one of the hardest things to miss when reading a feed tag.
The Company Name and Contact Information
The company name and contact information is also exactly what it sounds like. It is required to be on the feed bag so that customers can contact the feed company if they have comments, complaints, or questions.
Usually you'll find this information on the back of the bag somewhere close to the ingredient list.
Contact information includes a phone number and mailing address, and sometimes also includes an email address or a website.
The Net Weight
The net weight is simply how much feed is in the bag. If you were to weigh all the feed without the packaging, the net weight is what you'd get. Feeds are sold by net weight to ensure that each bag contains the same amount.
Since feeds should also be fed by weight, it also makes it easy to know exactly when you are going to need a new bag of feed.
The net weight can usually be found on the front of the bag in the lower left corner.
Purpose of the Feed
The purpose of the feed tells you a number of things. It tells you what age/stage the feed is meant for. Examples of this might be foals, working horses, pleasure horses, breeding horses, older horses, and the list goes on.
It also tells you whether the feed is meant to be fed as the sole diet (a complete feed), be a calorie and nutrition supplement (the category most feeds fall into), be a forage, or be only a nutrition supplement (most of what we as horse owners simply call "supplements").
There is no one usual place for the feed purpose, and it can appear anywhere on the bag. Thankfully when reading a feed tag, the feed purpose is usually understandable from reading the other areas of the bag.
When reading a feed tag, the feeding directions are one of the most important parts! I've said it before, and I'll say it again:
When feeding your horse, you MUST feed the minimum amount indicated by the feed bag every day to ensure that your horse is getting the nutrition guaranteed by the bag!
Usually the feeding directions have a range of feeding levels for various ages and/or workloads. Find the category your horse most closely fits into and feed that amount.
Here is a sample of typical feeding directions:
If your horse is hyper or depressed on that level, he's most likely getting too many or not enough calories, and that feed is not the right one for him. If that is the case, its time to look into changing his diet or workload.
The guaranteed analysis may well be one of the most misunderstood and underutilized parts of reading a feed tag.
The guaranteed analysis tells you what level of each nutrient is in the feed. It is important to note that it doesn't tell you exactly how much is in there, just the minimum (and for some nutrients the maximum).
So, for example, on the tag below, this feed is guaranteed to have 0.8% lysine. However, it could also have 1.0% lysine, since it doesn't have a maximum guaranteed. Likewise, it guarantees that the maximum fiber content is 11%. However, it could very well be somewhere around 8%, if that is within the allowed variance by AAFCO (more on that in a minute).
As a rule, the analysis is probably going to be pretty close, simply for an economic reason. The nutrients that has minimums is usually fairly expensive for companies to add to the feed, so they are going to add as little as possible to meet the minimum.
As well, nutrients that have maximums are usually less expensive, so the company will add as much as possible while still meeting the analysis.
It is important to know that feed companies are regulated in what they put on their guaranteed analysis by a group called the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO sets limits about how far off a company can be from their feed tag (called the variance). The amount of variance allowed depends on the nutrient being discussed, with some nutrients having very small variances, and some having larger variances.
The guaranteed analysis should be used to calculate how much of each nutrient your horse's diet is providing. These numbers can then be compared to his needs to see where his diet is excessive or lacking.
This is also one of the most important parts of reading a feed tag. The ingredient list tells you exactly what is in the feed, and the ingredients are listed by weight, giving you a better idea of what exactly is in your horse's feed.
Here is a sample ingredient list:
In this feed, dehydrated alfalfa meal is going to make up most of the feed by weight, followed by soybean hulls, wheat middlings, and on down the line.
In general, for most horses, you want the first 2 ingredients, if not more, to be forage-based as opposed to grain-based. Things that have either grass, hay, or alfalfa in their name (such as the dehydrated alfalfa meal above) are always good, as well as wheat middlings, distillers grains, and ingredients of that nature. These ingredients are good fiber sources and are utilized by the horse like hay is, helping to keep the horse's digestive tract healthy.
If the first few ingredients are grains, it is usually more desirable to see low starch/sugar grains, such as oats, before high starch/sugar grains like corn.
Another important aspect of the ingredient list is HOW the ingredients are listed.
Ever seen a feed tag with grain products (or something similar) on the ingredient list? What that means is that they can use any grain they want, and their ingredient tag will still be accurate.
These feeds are called
least-cost formulas, and are something to avoid.
For example, if corn is cheapest one week, most of that processed grain by-products will be corn. But next week, if oats are cheaper than corn, most of that might be oats.
So, in essence, even though you are buying the same type of feed every week, you could be significantly changing your horse’s diet with each new bag -- without even realizing it!
If those grain products are first on the ingredient list, then that’s even worse, because that means that the changing ingredient makes up most of the feed, so you could be putting your horse at risk for digestive upset by changing his feed abruptly every time you open a new bag.
Instead of a feed tag with "grain products" or "forage products" what you want to see instead is the individual ingredients listed. For example, I'd buy a feed that the first three ingredients were "corn, oats, wheat" over a bag that the first ingredient was "grain products" any day...
...even though those two bags could contain EXACTLY the same ingredients at EXACTLY the same levels. The difference is that I KNOW what is in the first bag, and that there will always be more corn than oats and more oats than wheat in the first bag, while I have no idea what grains, or how much of each, is in the second bag.
Hopefully this look into reading a feed tag has helped you gain more knowledge about what each part of a feed tag does and how it can help you understand what is in your horse's diet.
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