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. Today we are talking about my favorite category- the ration balancers! They are the most useful, efficient, affordable tools in my nutritional toolbox.
Are you overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of products and opinions in our equestrian spaces without a sound base of education to sift through them well. I'm going to help you organize, categorize, and sift through the massive amount of products for better clarity and confidence in a four part series called "The Fortified Four". I make sense of the feed store and online supplement pages by putting products into categories. The majority of products on the market will fall into what I call the "Fortified Four". Read on to learn more!
The ration balancer is a VERY specific type of product without much variation within the category. Every major feed company has one. They are defined by small feeding rates (1-2 lb per day), are high in protein (25-35% with a few exceptions), and contain a significant amount of major and trace minerals. Think of them like your own person protein rich multi-vitamin rather than an entire meal.
They are NOT calorie sources. At 1.2-1.5 Megacalories per pound, they are great for horses that get all of their necessary calories from forage. That's pretty ideal, right! They actually evolved as a feed category from concentrated pellets that formed the base of other products. It's common in livestock nutrition to have a ration balancer, rich with protein, vitamins, minerals and digestive aids, that then gets blended with calorie rich ingredients to make other products. You can actually make a wide range of the products yourself, by starting with a ration balancer and then adding your own favorite calorie rich commodity like oats, alfalfa pellets, rice bran or even top dress with oil. I just LOVE how flexible ration balancers allow you to be in a very safe and efficient way!
Ration balancers are neat! When a nutritionist sits down to create a ration balancer, they are considering the most common ways in which forages can be lacking; namely protein, vitamins and minerals. When you evaluate hundreds of forage analyses annually from around the country, you're going to see a common theme of strengths and weaknesses repeat over and over again. Many different species and cutting of grass hay will have questionable quantity and quality of protein and will definitely be low in trace minerals. Consider the forage analysis below. You'll see crude protein at 7.4% and copper at a dismal 4 ppm. These numbers indicate that this forage will not sustain any horse at any level or work well, but a ration balancer will perfectly compliment it!
A common mistake made with ration balancers is either feeding too much or too little. They come in a 50 lb bag and look like a complete or performance feed, but they are supplements. Because of the concentration, you must NEVER feed these products at higher than recommended levels. If your horse needs "more" than you need to bump up to a performance or complete feed. On the flip side, don't underfeed your ration balancer either. Read the feeding directions carefully- they are often quite detailed. I often see owners of young horses underfeeding this product, because they assume that size is the major factor. Lifestage and forage quality are the major factors affecting how much to feed.
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HOW TO SPOT A RATION BALANCER AT YOUR FEED STORE
If you're tracking with "The Fortified Four" articles, you're starting to notice a theme. Each category of feeds can be defined, explained and spotted in the feeding directions. Some companies will outline line it in a paragraph, some will show you a chart, others a percentage of body weight, but the end results will always be 1-2 pounds per day for a 1,000 lb horse in moderate work. Talk to a nutritionist about exact amounts necessary for your horses' life stage, activity level and forage quality.
WHY USE A RATION BALANCER?
There are so many reasons to feed a ration balancer! It's by far the most common product recommended by equine nutritionists everywhere including myself. Remember that the primary reason to feed a ration balancer is because your horse is already getting all the calories he needs from hay or pasture. Therefore, the important nutritional components to supplement are the protein/amino acids, vitamins and minerals that are known to be lacking in your horse's forage. There are an infinite number of situations that could fall into this category, so I'll refrain from listing. Literally every life stage could benefit from a ration balancer from young growing horses to performance horses, broodmares, and even geriatric horses that can still chew hay and pasture. The only exception is when protein quality and quantity are being met from forage, then you can feed a simple trace mineral which is what we'll be talking about next!
Have you picked up on my passion for ration balancer yet? My feed room will NEVER be without one. I love them! I've been punching the numbers for nutrients and cost for 17 years, and most times the ration balancer wins out for value and efficiency. If you decide that a ration balancer is best for you, be sure to check the ingredients list for added value such as digestive aids, immune support, and other supplements that will negate the need for more supplements. You can fit a lot more value into a 1-2 pound supplement than you can a 2-4 ounce trace minerals supplement. Stay tuned for more on the final category of the Fortified Four!