What is the difference between the different fibre sources available?
The UK horse feed industry is leading the world in the reduction of feeding starches from cereal grains like wheat, barley and oats, as well as an increase in feeding high fibre feeds. Whilst this is is a positive step, we mustn’t get complacent as we still have a long way to go.
The primary driver of change in the industry was the success of Dengie selling their alfalfa (Lucerne) based products. This led to other feed firms following suit and the horse feed market became flooded with alfalfa products, ryegrass chaffs, pellets and packaged haylage products.
Another source of fibre has also started to appear. In the UK this was led by beet pulp but actually there are a whole host of ingredients available that are by-products of the human food chain. It is worth noting here that the term by-product is used to denigrate these ingredients on social media and elsewhere but when I was at University (early 1970s) the ideas about the importance of fibre were just being formulated. One concept that has stuck in my mind for all these years was proposed by Professor Denis Burkitt who argued that there was more nutritional value in the cardboard box that corn flakes were packed in that in the corn flakes themselves. He was probably right.
Now we have access to a whole host of these ingredients that would be really healthy for humans to eat but that we discard or feed to livestock.
The pressure from Dengie and its followers led the more conventional feed firms to look at boosting fibre in their products and, as an oversimplification, some took the route of adding chaff type ingredients and others went down the by-products route.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of each:
Chaffs (grass and alfalfa)
It is easy to think that horses are designed to eat grass so there should be no problem with these products and in moderation that is certainly true. But interestingly we come across more and more situations where grass is causing problems. Mostly this relates to good quality grass with a strong fertiliser history grown for meat production or dairying. These grasses are very high is sugars and starches and often contain far too much potassium too.
These sugars and starches are fabulous food for the bad bacteria in the hindgut of horses. They may contribute to ulcers, colic and metabolic diseases like EMS and laminitis. So while these grasses are better horse feed than cereals they can still cause problems.
The problem with the commercial chaffs is they are very intensively grown crops so, if fed alongside rich pasture, they may be less than ideal.
The chemical structure of the fibre in these crops is also less digestible than some other sources though that can be enhanced when “super fibres” are fed.
A sub-section of this is haylage. It certainly can have the same problem of being too rich and sugary but it can have one benefit. Haylage is made by excluding air from the cut grass and allowing the naturally occurring bacteria to pickle the feed by producing lactic acid. It is exactly these lactic acid producing bacteria that we need to encourage if the horse is going to have a healthy hind gut. So haylage is an excellent source of these beneficial bacteria.
Of course the easier way to add these bacteria to the horse would be as a supplement but the EU, in its wisdom, allows the addition of these beneficial organisms to human foods like yoghurt and health drinks like Yakult and Actimel. You can buy bacterial probiotic supplements for you and your family, your cats and dogs. Farmers can buy them for pigs, poultry, sheep and cattle, but for some reason the EU doesn’t allow the equine supplements industry to sell it to you to add to your horse feed. So a small amount of good quality haylage could be very good for your horse as a source of beneficial lactic acid bacteria.
There are two key benefits to most of these fibre sources. The first is that they are what is left when the mill has removed the sugars or starches to make refined sugar and flour or the oils to make cooking oils. That means they are generally much lower in these troublesome nutrients than the chaffs.
The second issue is the digestibility of the fibre in these products. Generally they are considerably more digestible than grass and hay sources. Equally important is the positive effect they have on the gut bacteria by actually enhancing the digestibility of the fibre in grass, hay and chaff. So the benefit is magnified.
Interestingly the digestion of these fibres is not carried out by the horse but by the beneficial bacteria in the hindgut. The bacteria turn these fibres into nutrients called Volatile Fatty Acids. These are absorbed by your horse and used as fuel for work and maintenance.
So feeding these “super fibres” is great for the gut flora and that in turn is good for the horse and a virtuous circle of health is created.
There are a number of different sources of these by-product feeds and each have their pros and cons, so whether you choose beet pulp or wheatfeed or soya hulls is a matter for a longer article.
Non by-product fibres
Some of the superfibres are available in whole feed form. Linseed, copra (the heat treated meat of the coconut), sunflower and hemp can all be found in their entire state as well as with their oils removed. As fats and oils make excellent horse feed these nutrients are also very valuable additions to the horse feed portfolio.
Over the past few years there has been more and more work done on the thousands of different bugs that make up the gut flora or microbiome. What is becoming clear is that if the early diet is poor the microbiome may never recover fully even when probiotics, prebiotics and super fibres are fed. In other words there is a limit to how much good diets can change the digestive efficiency of a horse damaged by a poor early diet. This goes part way to explaining why we have good and bad doers but is no reason not to feed the very best high fibre options we can.
Horses do much better on diets that are high in fibre and relatively low in starch and sugar. Even performance horses can compete successfully if the diet is well constructed. But not all fibre is created equal so while alfalfa and grass chaff may be higher in things like protein than some hays it isn’t necessarily any better as a fibre source.
On the other hand super fibres punch well above their weight because they impact on the digestion of the whole diet. So small quantities of super fibres can have a substantially bigger impact on horse health than you would probably expect.
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