Equalizing the Diet: Protein and Ration Balancers

Ration balancers are one of the most useful but misunderstood types of horse feed.  They are one of the most flexible tools we have to simplify the horse’s diet, and many times, the perfect answer to many of the feeding problems we see today.   In spite of all this, many horse owners fear ration balancers because of high protein levels.  Is it true that ration balancers will create a protein overload?  Let’s take a closer look and see if ration balancers really have as much protein as we might think.

Breaking down the Math

To figure out how much protein ration balancers provide, we have to take feeding rate into account.  Most ration balancers have recommended feeding rates of 1-2 pounds per day.  If we feed a ration balancer with a protein content of 30%, this means that 1 pound of ration balancer contains 0.3 pounds of protein.  We get this amount by multiplying 1 pound by 0.30 (representing the 30% protein).  Using that same math, 2 pounds of ration balancer would contain 0.6 pounds of protein.

When comparing the feeding rate and protein of a ration balancer to that of other commercial horse feeds, you will find that they are similar in the amount of protein being fed. If the recommended feeding rate of a 12% protein horse feed is 3 pounds, the amount of protein supplied by that feed would be 0.36 pounds…about the same as 1 pound of ration balancer!  If we were feeding 6 pounds of that 12% protein feed we would be supplying 0.72 pounds of protein…more protein than is in 2 pounds of a ration balancer.

Let’s take a look at the protein in ration balancers compared to the protein in hays.  Although the protein content of hays will vary wildly depending on many factors, we can say that average grass hays will have protein levels around 10-12%.  If we have an 1100 pound horse and we feed that horse 2% of his bodyweight in hay per day, that equates to 22 pounds of hay per day.  Assuming our grass hay has a 10% protein level, this equates to 2.2 pounds of protein per day.  As you can see, hay provides much more protein than a single serving of ration balancer.  Ration balancers may look extremely high in protein, but the actual protein contribution is low because of the low feeding rate.

Why Would I Need a Ration Balancer?

Many of you may be asking the question, “If hay provides so much protein, why do I need to add any more?  Why would I need a ration balancer?”  There are several situations where additional protein may be necessary.  If a horse is fed less than 2.0% of his bodyweight in hay per day, his protein intake will be lower.  Also, as we mentioned earlier, the protein content of hays is extremely variable.  Season, temperature, grass type, grass maturity, and weather conditions can all affect the protein content of a hay.  If your hay has a lower protein content, this will mean a lower protein intake for the horse as well (especially if fed at rates lower than 2.0% per day).

Perhaps the strongest reason why a ration balancer may be necessary is the issue of protein quality.  We have to look beyond a simple protein requirement when feeding horses; we need to look at the protein quality and what levels of essential amino acids the protein provides.  Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.  In order for a horse to have strong bones and muscles, he requires dietary protein that contains the right profile and amount of amino acids to match his needs.  Grass hays, even if they have high enough crude protein levels, may not have high enough levels of several key amino acids.   Or, the amino acids may be bound with indigestible fibers in the hay and therefore not available to the horse.  In these cases we would need a ration balancer to provide the important amino acids that are vital to muscle and bone health.  In other words, ration balancers can be seen as a kind of “nutritional insurance policy” to make sure the correct amino acids are present in the diet.

Variations of Using a Ration Balancer

The amazing thing about ration balancers is how versatile they are and how versatile they are and how they can be used in many different situations.  The advantage of using a ration balancer is that we can provide the nutrition a horse needs (amino acids, vitamins, minerals) while at the same time controlling the amount of calories and NSC that go into the diet.  There are three main ways to use a ration balancer.

Feeding a Ration Balancer Alone
Ration balancers can be fed by themselves to complement a horse’s forage.  This feeding practice is ideal for easy keepers or horses that need strict calorie management.  Ration balancers are the epitome of a low calorie feed.  With a high concentration of nutrition and low feeding rate, these products will supply all the quality proteins, vitamins, and minerals a horse needs to stay healthy without adding unnecessary calories to the diet.  This same feeding practice is also excellent for metabolic horses.  In addition to being a low calorie feed, ration balancers are also low in starch and sugar, which make them one of the best ways to control the NSC in a metabolic horse’s diet.

Feeding a Ration Balancer with Grains or Fats
If you have many different types of horses in your barn, it may be hard to find one single feed that fits the needs of every horse.  It can be easy to end up with five different feeds in a single feed room.  In this case, utilizing a ration balancer is an easy way to create a custom feed for each horse.  Ingredients that supply calories, such as grains (like oats), fats (like rice bran), or even beet pulp, can be used with a ration balancer to create the ideal feeding situation.  In this situation, each horse would be fed the amount of ration balancer appropriate for its age, weight, and lifestyle.  The chosen energy source would then be added to the ration balancer at whatever amount is needed to maintain the horse’s bodyweight.  This way, a barn owner could feed all of the horses in the barn with only two products.

You can also feed a ration balancer in this same manner if you have a horse that holds his bodyweight well in the summer but needs more calories in the fall or winter.  For this type of horse, you would feed a ration balancer year round and add your chosen calorie source when needed.  This way, your horse would receive adequate, quality nutrition year round and you could customize his diet to meet different calorie needs from season to season.

Feeding a Ration Balancer as a Supplement
Many times, ration balancers are excellent supplements to a commercial feed.  All commercial feeds are formulated to be fed at minimum feeding rates.  These feeding rates will depend on horse age, weight, and activity.   Many times, we see horses not being fed the minimum feeding rates because they are easier keepers.  When this happens, the horse is not getting his daily nutrient requirements from his diet.  Top dressing the commercial feed with a ration balancer is an easy fix to fill those nutritional gaps.

Ration balancers can also be utilized as a nutritional boost to improve topline or overall muscling in the performance or senior horse.  Sometimes, hardworking horses will have difficulties maintaining a quality topline.  In this case, the addition of around 0.5 pound of ration balancer per day (depending on the individual horse) will many times provide the amino acid boost needed to build and maintain quality musculature.  The same goes for older horses.  As horses age, it is very common for their muscle quality to decline.  Adding a small amount of ration balancer to the diet is a great way to combat this.

Take Home Message

If we consider the feeding directions and role of a ration balancer in the horse’s diet, we can see that ration balancers do not overload the horse with protein as we first thought.  It’s quite the opposite actually – most times ration balancers provide less protein than other parts of the horse’s diet.  In actuality, the ration balancer is an under-utilized tool that improves our horses’ diets.  Using a ration balancer is an excellent way to tailor your feeding program to your individual horse and ensure that he is getting everything he needs to live a long, happy life.

Beth Stelzleni, M.S., PAS
Seminole Feed®

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