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What is a Complete Feed?

This week I'll be breaking down what I call the "Fortified Four" into a series of short articles. The OCEN Fortified Four include complete feeds, performance feeds, ration balancers, and trace mineral supplements. We're starting today with COMPLETE feeds! It's a phrase with a lot of connotations, but only one specific meaning in the feed industry.

The number one reason that people call me is because they are overwhelmed; overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of products and opinions in our equestrian spaces without a sound base of education to sift through them well. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the feed store and/or shopping online than this series is for you. I'm going to help you organize, categorize, and sift through the massive amount of products for better clarity and confidence. I make sense of the feed store and online supplement pages by putting products into one of 6 categories. The majority of products on the market will fall into what I call the "Fortified Four". Read on to learn more!


The word complete actually has a very specific definition in the animal nutrition industry. Whenever an animal nutritionist- horse, chicken, swine or beef- speaks to a colleague about a complete feed there is an understanding that the product was designed to be the animal's entire balanced diet. Examples of complete feeds that you might come across regularly include layer feed for chickens, kibble for dogs/cats, 4H project feeds, or a bag of Mountain House lasagna for your backpacking trip. The only ingredient missing is water! In the horse world, the most common example of complete feeds is the senior feeds that maintains your old toothless who quids hay and has no access to pasture. The only other nutrient needed in these situations is water...ok and lots of love. Let me repeat this again, because this is the ONLY definition. A complete feed is a product designed to sustain the animal being fed with only water added (some exceptions on species basis). For a horse, that means it can replace the entire hay, pasture, and feed diet.

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You will always know a complete feed is a complete feed by the feeding instructions. When an equine nutritionist sits down to create a new complete feed they are assuming that the horse eating this product can not eat hay for some reason; *see list below, but the most common reason is an old horse that can no longer chew hay efficiently to maintain weight. Because the nutritionist is making this assumption, the feeding instructions will have large quantities listed for the size of horse. For the example in the image above, you'll notice a "With Hay" and "No Hay" options. When this product is used as a complete feed (no hay), the nutritionist is suggesting 1.8-2% of the horse's body weight. For a 1,000 lb horse, that is 18-20 lbs per day! Mind blown yet? I will say that complete feeds are, by far, the most commonly misunderstood and misused of the fortified four!

The feeding instructions from Equis Complete by CHS, Inc.

Sometimes I will use the phrase "forage replacer" when talking about complete feeds. However, "complete feeds" and "forage replacers" are not the exact same thing. Some forage replacers are fortified with vitamins and minerals and some are not. If they are not fully fortified, then they are not true complete feeds. Stay with me! Consider the difference between these three products; Triple Crown Complete, Triple Crown Safe Starch Forage, and Triple Crown Premium Grass Forage. They are all fiber rich and capable of replacing 100% of your horse's diet. If you read each of their feeding instructions, you'll see that the nutritionist designed all three to replace some or all hay/pasture. However, only two of the three products are fortified; the Triple Crown Complete and Triple Crown Safe Starch Forage. Therefore, they are complete feeds. Think of it as a complete compliment of calories, protein, fat, carbs, vitamins and minerals. The Triple Crown Premium Grass Forage is NOT a complete feed because you'd have to add vitamins and minerals to it. Phew...

This chopped hay product, the Triple Crown Safe Starch Forage, is fortified with vitamins and minerals (notice the long ingredients list) so it is considered a complete feed. When fed as directed, no additional fortified product is necessary.

This product represented below, the Triple Crown Premium Grass Forage, is NOT fortified with vitamins or minerals (notice the very short ingredients list), so it is not a complete feed. You have to add another fortified product to it in order for the diet to be "complete".



The vast amount of senior feeds on the market today are complete feeds. However, this has been changing over the years as feed companies realize that most people don't feed them correctly (i.e. people don't feed enough to get the full spectrum of benefits). So, what many companies have done is take their complete feeds and condense the fortification into a smaller feeding rate. Here's a good example for you. The Purina Senior has been around for decades, and was most certainly designed as a complete feed. But more recently, the company designed the Purina Senior Active which is NOT a complete feed. When you read the feeding directions on the Purina Senior Active, you will NOT see an option to feed without hay. It can not and should not replace 100% of the horse's forage diet. This is what I would call a Performance feed and we'll cover that tomorrow.



Here is a non exhaustive list of reasons that I've had to recommend complete feeds over the years...

  1. Senior horses who can no longer chew hay due to dentition. Most, but not all, senior feeds are complete feeds.

  2. Hunters or backcountry riders who must bring certified weed free hay into national forests. Packer pellets are normally compete feeds.

  3. Horses that are allergic to all the other long stem forages available to them might need a complete feed.

  4. When consistent low-carb forages can not be sourced for a severely laminitic horse.

  5. A young horse with a broken jaw.

  6. A horse with physical abnormalities in it's digestive tract that make it colic every time it eats long-stem forage.

  7. When the hay available at a boarding facility is not appropriate for the horse.

  8. A competitive horse that travels the country, but is sensitive to forage changes might benefit from the consistency of a complete feed.

  9. Post colic surgery when the gut needs time to heal.



If you own enough horses long enough, you'll eventually need a complete feed in your nutritional toolbox. The word complete in the equine feed industry implies "complete diet" with fiber, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals built in and not just a scoopey vitamins and minerals supplement. It's that too plus the fiber built in. That's really the trick to making a good complete feed; enough fiber to keep the digestive system functioning well and meet all the horse's nutritional needs. Remember that not all forage replacers are fortified, and that not all senior feeds are complete feeds. Also, that you can have fortified products that aren't complete feeds, but all complete feeds are fortified. (If you understood all that, then I'm super impressed!) Look for a full list of vitamins and major and minor/trace minerals in the ingredients list along with fiber-full primary ingredients such as alfalfa meal, grass hay, beet pulp or soybean hulls. The feeding directions define a complete feed and the ingredients list confirms it!

Finally, if you are currently feeding a complete feed product, but just realized that maybe you're not feeding it correctly, then well done! You've realized the most common problem with complete feeds. If you are not feeding a complete feed to recommended levels than your horse isn't getting the full compliment of nutrients and you're not being efficient with your diet plan. Check those feeding instructions now! More than likely you need to feed a different "fortified four", so stay tuned for the next three articles!

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