Most horse owners are bound to know someone who swears by the sugar beet they feed their horses.
It’s possible you may have seen the dark, fibrous-looking stuff soaking in their stable, waiting to be fed out to the expectant herd.
Sugar beet is grown in some parts of the world as a source of sugar. Once the sugar is extracted, it is the remaining byproduct which is converted into a feed for horses.
By this stage, the sweet-tasting component is long gone and what’s left is the basis of an easily digestible, high-fibre, non-heating feed.
Sugar beet is usually marketed to the horse community as beet pulp to avoid any misconception that you could be offering your horses a sugary snack.
Soaked beet pulp is an easily chewed, dust-free feed packed with roughage. It’s not a completely balanced food source, but for some horses it can prove to be a highly desirable adjunct to a feeding programme.
Harvested sugar beet which goes for processing is usually chopped or sliced, and the sugar then extracted. The remaining material is usually dried and shredded to turn it into horse feed.
Depending on where you live, it can be bought in shredded form (mostly in the United States) or in pellets.
About 90 per cent of the beet pulp available as horse feed is now pelletised. Sometimes, dried molasses is added to make it more appealing to horses and to boost the energy content.
Some beet pulp also goes to commercial feed manufacturers for further processing into commercial feeds, most likely to provide the key roughage component. Some is also used in the manufacture of pet food.
Its popularity has increased over the years as growing numbers of horse owners look upon it as a cost-effective source of fibre.
The beauty of beet pulp is that the fibre it supplies is so readily digestible. Not all fibres are created equal and beet pulp is low in lignin, which is hard for horses to digest.
Stalky hay, for example, has a high lignin content – indeed, it is the lignin that allows the long grass stems to stand tall!
The quality of beet pulp has also improved. Unpalatable wood-like pieces of root used to regularly make it through processing and into the final product. Improved processing techniques have seen this problem greatly reduced.
Beet pulp requires soaking before feeding to horses. Depending upon how the pulp has been processed, this can be as little 10 minutes or up to 24 hours.
It is essential that beet pulp gets the soaking it requires. Otherwise, it will continue to soak up moisture and expand in a horse’s gut, running the risk of colic. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions on soaking.
Given it may need 24 hours to soak, only organised horse owners are likely to find it a viable feeding option. Some are known to keep an emergency stash of faster-soaking beet pulp brands in case they head out to feed up, only to discover they forgot to get the soaking under way the day before.
Soaked beet pulp will normally be OK for up to 24 hours (the packaging may offer some guidance). It will start to ferment if left too long. If it looks or smells unusual, don’t feed it.
If you’re ever in doubt as to whether the beet pulp is properly soaked, take a handful and squeeze out as much moisture as you can. Hold it to your ear and listen. If you hear a crackling sound, it’s a sure sign the beet pulp still has some soaking to do.
Interestingly, some commercial feeds actually contain dried beet pulp. However, this will always be in strictly controlled measures and in many cases the pulp will have softened by absorbing moisture from some of the other ingredients, such as molasses. Leave this trick to the professionals. Stick religiously to your soaking regime at home.
So how much nutritional bang for your buck can you expect from beet pulp?
Before soaking, beet pulp isn’t too far behind oats in the amount of energy per kilogram. However, once soaked and expanded, beet pulp is a far bulkier feed than grain.
It is great for horse owners wanting to provide extra palatable calories for a highly strung horse, or one that can tend to get over-heated if their diet is too rich. Beet pulp has an average non-structural carbohydrate content of about 12 per cent, making it a good choice for those trying to lower sugar and starch levels in their horse’s diet.
If you’re feeding beet pulp that has molasses added, you can reduce the sugar level further by draining off excess water after soaking. This water will contain most of the sugar from the dried molasses.
Beet pulp is also an excellent option for horses whose worn teeth mean they struggle with hay, or for horses who don’t much care for the winter hay you’re offering, but need some extra calories to maintain condition. It’s an added bonus when it comes with all that fibre.
Perhaps your hay is too dusty and some of your horses are developing a cough? Beet pulp is a viable alternative if you’re unable to source better quality hay elsewhere.
Remember, however, that any feed change needs to be introduced gradually, even when it’s a lovely fibrous offering like beet pulp.
So what kind of food value can your horse expect from unmolassed beet pulp?
One kilogram of dry beet pulp will deliver between 2400 calories and 2850 calories. Around 65 per cent will be digestible nutrients. Crude protein is likely to be in the 7-8 per cent range (and digestible protein around 5 per cent), while crude fibre is in the 18-22 per cent range. Its calcium levels are good – around 0.8 per cent to 1.1 per cent, but its phosphorus levels are very low – 0.07 to 0.1 per cent.
Let’s see how this compares to some other common feeds. Oats deliver around 3300 calories per kilogram. Total digestible nutrients add up to around 75% and crude protein to around 13.5 per cent (digestible protein is about 10.5 per cent). Crude fibre is nearly half that of beet pulp, at around 12 per cent, and while calcium is low (around 0.07 per cent) it delivers much better on phosphorus (0.37 per cent).
Let’s see how it looks against lucerne (alfalfa) hay: Total digestible nutrients stand at around 52 per cent, with 16 per cent crude protein (and 11.5 per cent digestible protein). Crude fibre is 32 per cent. Lucerne provides 1.5 per cent calcium and 0.25 per cent phosphorus. Even meadow hay is likely to do a better job balancing the calcium-phosphorous equation than beet pulp, providing 0.41 per cent of the former and 0.25 per cent of the latter.
The key message is that while beet pulp provides a wealth of easily digestible fibre and horses enjoy it, it is not a balanced feed and should not be considered a grain substitute. Besides being very low in phosphorous, it is also low in Vitamin A, Vitamin B and selenium.
Its main weakness is the poor balance between calcium and phosphorous. A proper balance is important to ensure healthy bone development in horses, especially with younger stock.
If you’re feeding larger quantities to youngsters, the relatively high calcium level and low phosphorus content could interfere with normal bone development unless you supplement the diet to correct the imbalance.
The high calcium levels also increase the risk of kidney stones in older horses and could set off the development of intestinal stones in horses of any age.
Some equine nutritionists believe beet pulp should not comprise more than a quarter of your horse’s total daily diet, and even less for growing horses in which bone development is so important.
If beet pulp is a part of your horse’s diet, it’s important to ensure you supplement it appropriately to provide a dietary balance.
Provided you’re balancing your horse’s nutritional requirements with a fortified horse feed, the following 1-2-3 rule is a good guide: don’t feed more than ONE kilogram daily ration of beet pulp (that’s dry-weight) to any horse under one year of age; don’t feed more than TWO kilograms of beet pulp to any growing horse between the ages of one and three; and don’t feed more than THREE kilograms to a mature horse (assuming a body weight of around 500kg).
That said, always read the instructions on the packaging carefully and follow the manufacturer’s feeding guidelines.
First published on Horsetalk.co.nz in June, 2010