Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Molasses Myths

Molasses seems to have become somewhat of a swear word and during the last year, the number of enquiries that I receive about molasses certainly seems to be increasing. So, what is the truth about molasses and should we really be fearful of it?

Molasses is a by-product taken from the refining of sugar beet or sugar cane and contrary to popular belief, contains approximately 55% sugar. Molasses or alternatives such as Molaferm and Molgo (made from a blend of molasses and oil) are used by the majority of feed manufactures and therefore very few feeds are molasses free. However, this does not automatically deem feeds ‘unsafe’ or ‘unnatural’ as commonly thought.

Many people fear that sugar is unnatural to the horse but in fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Horses evolved to consume a forage only diet and therefore are well adapted to digesting and absorbing sugar. In fact, the sugar in molasses is largely sucrose, the same sugar found in grass! Horses cannot be ‘allergic’ to sugar and all horses, even those prone to conditions such as laminitis, need some sugar to stay healthy (see previous blogs on allergies and sugar). Having said this, problems can occur when overweight, under-exercised horses/ ponies are fed high levels of sugar and there are undoubtedly some that need a low sugar diet. However, this doesn’t automatically mean that feeds containing molasses are unsuitable.

Firstly, ‘molasses free’ does not mean sugar free and feeds containing molasses are not automatically high in sugar. If your horse needs to be on low sugar diet it is the total amount of sugar in the diet and not just the inclusion of individual ingredients such as molasses that should be of concern. In fact, many feeds suitable for laminitics and excitable horses do contain some molasses. Molasses or molasses and oil blends are typically added at 5-10% and therefore may contribute as little as 2% sugar. In total, mixes, cubes and chaffs typically contain 4-6% sugar and when you consider the quantities, in which they are eaten in comparison to forage, actually account for a very small proportion of the total sugar consumed. In fact, forage is the largest contributor sugar in the horses’ diet (including hay) and a 500kg horse living out at grass can easily consume up to 1.9kg of sugar per day from glass alone (compared to approximately 120-180g in 3kg of ‘hard’ feed).

The term ‘everything in moderation’ is often accepted as good advice for humans and in the case of molasses, is perhaps something that should be applied to our horses. In truth, the facts often do not justify the fears and molasses is certainly not something that must be avoided at all costs.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Feeding Sugar Beet – The Facts

Sugar beet has long been fed to horses, but trying to separate the myths and misconceptions from the facts, can often make the decision of whether or not to feed sugar beet a confusing decision. So what is sugar beet and what can we, or should we, really be using it for?

Sugar beetSugar beet is a root vegetable, the root of which is high in sucrose (table sugar). The sugar beet pulp we feed to our horses is the by-product of sugar beet processing which provides the sugar to put in our tea!

Sugar beet is high in fibre but in low starch and sugar (if unmolassed- approximately 5%) and therefore is a safe, easily digested and non-heating feed. For laminitics, look for varieties approved by The Laminitis Trust. Sugar beet is also high in calcium and low in phosphorus (which is ideal for horses) and being rich in branch chain amino acids, can be a useful feed for horses with liver damage.  Sugar beet must always be soaked before feeding (10 minutes – 24 hours depending on the variety) so as not to cause choke or colic.

Although high in calories (up to 13 MJ/ DE/ kg depending on the variety) and commonly fed for weight gain, sugar beet contains approximately 80% water once soaked and therefore is of very little nutritional value unless fed in large amounts (nutrients are diluted in water). This considered, sugar beet is often not fed in large enough quantities to provide a significant level of calories. A scoop of soaked sugar beet weighing 1kg, actually equates to only 200g of feed (approximately). For good-doers this is of course ideal as once soaked,  only a small cupful will go a long way, helping to add ‘bulk’ without excess calories. The motto of the story here is to weigh your sugar beet before you soak it!
Sugar beet pulp 
Being high in digestible fibre, sugar beet can also be fed as partial hay replacer for horses and ponies with poor teeth but again, take care to weigh it before soaking to ensure that you are providing enough fibre!

Used correctly, sugar beet can be a useful and versatile feed but like any other, must be understood if we are to see the benefits. Will you be feeding sugar beet this winter?

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

16 years young...

"I'm as young as I feel"

We all want to do the best for our horses as they get older, but when is the ‘right time’ to move to a senior feed? In truth, there is no definitive answer as like people, horse’s age at different rates.  In the past horses at 16 were sometimes described as ‘veterans’ however nowadays with suitable management many horses continue to live healthy and active lives well into their twenties or even thirties! 

Not all horses struggle to maintain condition as they get older, so it is important to choose feeds containing an appropriate level of energy (energy = calories). For those able to maintain weight well on forage alone, a balancer specifically formulated to meet the needs of senior horses, is the ideal way to ensure optimum nutrition without excess calories.

With age and previous worm damage, digestion and absorption of nutrients may be less efficient. A high fibre diet is essential for maintaining digestive health and constant access to water helps to prevent impaction colic. Some horses may also benefit from additional digestive support in the form of pro/ prebiotics. Feeds high in antioxidants, particularly vitamins C and E, provide respiratory and immune support.

Quality protein is important for helping to maintain muscle tone and topline but again, protein digestion may be less efficient in older horses. As a guide, look for feeds containing 12-14% protein (for compounds feeds – balancers will be higher than this). Stiffness and arthritis (to varying degrees), are common in older horses and some may benefit from feeds or supplements containing additives such as glucosamine.

Teeth can become a problem for many older horses and should be checked regularly (every six months). If not addressed, difficulties in chewing can lead to conditions such as choke, colic and weight loss. Look for mixes containing smaller pellets or where necessary, feeds/ cubes that can be soaked to make a mash. Remember that this may need to include a full replacer, either in the form of soaked cubes or short chopped fibre feeds.

Horses and ponies with Cushing’s disease need the same, careful nutritional management as a laminitic; regardless of whether or not they are on medication or have previously suffered from laminitis. In practise, this means providing a diet that is high in fibre and low in starch (found in cereals), sugar and fructans (found in grass). If your senior horse has Cushing’s, or is prone to conditions such as colic or tying up; avoid mixes and seek advice from a nutritionist. Remember that the most suitable diet may include feeds that do not say ‘senior’ on the bag.

Whilst the ageing process is inevitable, nutrition can play an important role in supporting senior horses whether they are in work or enjoying retirement. How many years ‘young’ is your horse?

Monday, 10 September 2012

Hay or Haylage: What will your choice be this winter?

Hay or Haylage? What will it be?
Image courtesy of Hannah Briars

The horses’ digestive health relies on suitable fibre intake and consequently forage should account for the largest portion of the horses’ diet (never less than 50%). Despite its importance, forage is often overlooked or misunderstood, resulting in conflicting beliefs. This can make it hard for owners to make the right choices when it comes to their horse’s forage.

One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to forage, is the belief that you should feed less haylage than hay. In fact, due to the higher moisture content (nutrients are diluted in water); you generally need to feed more haylage to ensure sufficient fibre intake (approximately 1.5 times more by weight).

Haylage can be higher in nutrients than hay but in truth, forage analysis is the only way to guarantee the nutritional value of either hay or haylage; regardless of its age, the cut or physical appearance.

When it comes to hay, owners often contact me following conflicting advice on soaking and steaming. Soaking for respiratory conditions such as RAO (Recurrent Airway Obstruction, formerly referred to as COPD) causes dust particles to swell, ensuring that they are ingested rather than inhaled. Studies have shown that whilst soaking for 10 minutes reduces dust particles; steaming is most effective for improving hygienic quality (reduces dust and mould particles).

For laminitics, forage should ideally contain less than 10% water soluble carbohydrate (WSC – sugar plus fructan), but many samples of hay that we analyse contain close to 20%, sometimes more. Although unable to guarantee safety, soaking hay for 12-16 hours in tepid water can reduce the WSC by up to 50%. Alternatively, consider a low sugar hay replacer approved by The Laminitis Trust.

Understanding forage is key to making the best decision for your horse. As summer draws to a close and our thoughts turn to winter, what will your choice be?

Monday, 30 July 2012

Can supplements make your grazing safe?

Laminitis is one of the most researched and talked about conditions and understandably, one that plays on the minds of many owners. When surrounded by an array of research, articles, myths and speculation, it can be difficult to know what to do for the best. Although far from being a condition that only affects fat ponies in spring, the majority of laminitis in the UK is pasture related. This considered, is the idea of a supplement that makes grazing safe too good to be true?

Nutritionally, prevention of laminitis demands a diet that is high in fibre and low starch (found in cereals), sugars and fructan (found in grass). Whilst there has been some debate over the role of fructans in the development of laminitis, managing as many risk factors as possible, including providing a diet low in non-structural carbohydrate (NSC ~ the sum of starch, sugar and fructan) is the best known prevention.

Supplements can help to support hoof health or quality but regardless of this, supplements cannot prevent or treat laminitis, nor can they make grazing safe. Rather than look for a supplement that claims otherwise, consider using a grazing muzzle which can reduce intake by up to 80%. Strip grazing or reduced turnout may also be useful but beware; horses can quickly learn to eat large amounts if only turned out for short periods un-muzzled (close to 1% of their bodyweight in 3 hours). However for known laminitics, it may be necessary to consider no grazing during peak growth (typically spring and autumn) and instead provide turnout in a bark paddock or ménage if possible. Turnout of sunny frosty mornings and grass that has been stressed (including over or under grazing) should also be avoided.

Used appropriately, supplements can certainly play an important role in the horse’s diet but in any instance, it is important to be realistic about what they can achieve. Regardless of the supplement, its ingredients or the manufacturer, no supplement can make your grazing safe.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Protein: Is it the root of all evil?

In science lessons we are taught that proteins are ‘the building blocks of life’, essential for growth and repair. This is true for us and also true for our horses. Proteins consist of long chains of amino acids, 10 of which (there are 22 in total) cannot be synthesised by the horse and therefore must be provided by the diet. This considered, can protein really be responsible for as many problems as is often believed?

Too much protein is often thought to cause/ contribute to conditions such as laminitis, colic and tying up. However, years of research has shown that nutritionally, excess starch and sugar (including fructan in grass) is often responsible and not protein. If undigested in the small intestine, starch and sugar is rapidly fermented in the large intestine resulting in the production of lactic acid. This causes damage and death to gut bacteria which can consequently lead to conditions such as laminitis and colic. Whilst many factors can have an effect nutritionally, it is also high levels of starch and sugar that can cause/ exacerbate excitability. So if research tells us otherwise, why is protein often deemed the culprit?

One possible explanation could be the law surrounding feed labels. Protein content must be declared on feed labels but for many years, this was not the case for starch (must now be declared if making a claim i.e. ‘non-heating’). Consequently, if moving to a higher energy feed resulted in a change of behaviour or episode of laminitis, many owners may have thought the increase in protein (and not the hidden increase in starch) was responsible.

Aside from the conditions above, lumps and bumps on the skin and filled legs are the most common reasons owners ask me for advice on low protein diets. Although traditionally diagnosed as ‘protein bumps’, in many cases, lumps and bumps are not diet related. True feed allergies are very rare are the result of a specific type of protein and therefore reducing the amount fed would be unlikely to help (see previous blog on allergies).

When not accompanied by heat or lameness, being stabled for longer periods i.e. overnight is generally considered to be one of the most common causes of filled legs. In fact, there is no reason why excess protein should cause filled legs and therefore any accompanying feed changes are likely to be coincidental.

Although there are some clinical conditions which do demand a low protein diet (namely liver and kidney damage); protein is essential for growth, life and health and certainly does not deserve the bad press it often receives.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Lumpy bumpy bits!

Some of you may already know me as the SPILLERS® Care-Line nutritionist. I may have even given you advice on your own horse and pony. Well, as of this month I'll also be doing my best to keep you "in-the-know" with recent topics and concerns from the SPILLERS® Care-Line. So to start us off, here's this month’s inside information on feed allergies.

Concerns about allergies seem to be on the increase and this month I have spoken to many owners worried about the possibility of their horse having a feed allergy. So, what is an allergy and can feed really be the cause? In truth, feed allergies in horses are rare and in fact, the term ‘allergy’ is one that some believe is overused even in people.
Example of lumps under the skin
Allergies are caused by the immune system overreacting to a type of protein (called an allergen) which in non-allergic horses/ people is normally harmless. This considered, true feed allergies are caused by a specific type of protein (not the amount) rather than oils or sugars as commonly thought. In fact, glucose is the only energy source that can be utilised by the brain and therefore horses could simply not survive if it were possible for them to be allergic to sugar!
If you do suspect a feed allergy, an elimination diet is by far the best action. This involves removing all hard feed from the diet for at least 4 weeks, monitoring the ‘reaction’ and then reintroducing feeds one at a time to see if the reaction returns. If it does, this would suggest that the horse is allergic to something in that feed and alternative can be tried. Skin or blood tests are available but unfortunately research to date has shown these to be unreliable.
Lumps and bumps are one of the most common reasons for suspecting feed allergies. However temperature, pollens, clipper oil, mites in forage or bedding or detergents used to clean rugs and numnahs are often the culprit and changes to feed (if any), often prove to be coincidental.