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Grain processing for horse health

While forage is the most important part of any equine diet, the increased calorie needs of performing and breeding horses often means that pasture and hay alone probably will not provide enough energy for work and weight maintenance.

Typically, this energy deficit is met through the inclusion of grains. Grains provide starch and are a great energy source for working horses, however there are numerous considerations regarding how they are fed.

Every grain requires processing before being fed to horses, with the exception of oats.

The purpose of any type of grain processing is to improve digestibility for the horse, increase convenience for the owner and extend the shelf life of the product. This occurs through exposing the starch within the grain seed to enzymatic breakdown in the small intestine and cooking the starch to improve digestion.

Steam flaking is one of the most popular grain processing methods, as it enables the grains to still be visible in textured, or muesli style feeds. Steam flaking is where grains are heated and exposed to steam, before being rolled and dried. The amount of gelatinisation, and therefore digestibility, depends on correct heat, moisture and roll pressure being applied. When this ‘perfect storm’ is achieved and all three factors are correct, gelatinisation is high and the grains will have become highly digestible to the horse. Steam flaking can also be more palatable than other processing techniques and makes textured feeds aesthetically pleasing for the consumer.

Pelletising is another popular form of grain processing and creates a digestible and convenient feed type. With pelletising, the ingredients are ground to a uniform size before being steam heated, pushed through a pellet die and left to cool and dry. This leads to a high level of consistency, as every pellet contains the same ratio of ingredients. High quality pellets will have good colour, uniformity, a dull surface and very few ‘fines’. Pellets should be durable and able to be handled repeatedly without falling apart. Shiny pellets can indicate partial gelatinisation and should be discarded. When made to a high standard, pelletising provides the same nutrition as any other processing technique.

Each of these processing methods utilises heat, moisture and pressure. Studies have found that with most grains, heat is required to increase pre-caecal starch digestibility, particularly in corn. Grain processing carried out by a reputable manufacturer such as NRM and McMillan Equine, results in little nutrient-loss, due to minerals being very stable to heat and vitamins being protected from oxidation by a gel-coating.

While there are individual benefits of each method, the ultimate goal of all grain processing is to create a more beneficial feed for the horse. The minimal difference between digestibility of processing techniques means that often the choice
between processed feeds comes down to personal preference of both the owner and the horse.

For further advice on grain processing and selecting the correct diet for your horse, consult a reputable equine nutritionist.

Article supplied by Luisa Wood, Equine Nutritionist