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Ration Balancer PelletsBy Dr. Kathleen Crandell · October 22, 2010

A ration balancer pellet is a useful yet little understood type of horse feed. Though the pellet might look no different than other pelleted feeds, it can be a dynamic addition to any feeding program and a surefire solution to many feeding dilemmas.

What is a ration balancer pellet?

Concentrates (sweet or textured feeds) are formulated to provide horses with nutrients that are missing in whatever forage is offered. If the forage supplies adequate energy, horses will either maintain their weight or gain weight, and this may seem as though all of the other nutrient requirements are being met. Unfortunately, with today's forages this may be a false assumption. Many times there are inadequate amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals in the forage required for the work asked of the horse, whether it is performance, growth, or reproduction.

The primary goal of commercial feed formulation is to supply three general nutrients: energy (calories), protein (essential amino acids), and vitamin/mineral fortification. Ingredients that supply energy are usually cereal grains (oats, corn, and barley) as well as any additional fat (vegetable oil) or fiber (beet pulp) sources. Protein is provided most commonly by soybean meal, distillers or brewers grains, and cottonseed meal. In a typical textured feed, the protein and vitamin/mineral ingredients are combined into a pellet, which is sometimes called a fortification pellet, and then mixed with the energy sources.

 Because modern horse feeds are specially formulated to meet the nutrient needs of horses during the many phases of life—growth, development, performance, reproduction, and old age—the ratio of energy sources to fortification pellet will vary with the type of horse for which the feed is designed. For instance, a feed designed for young growing horses with higher protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements will contain more fortification pellets and less grain than a feed designed for a maintenance horse with much lower requirements. As such, feed manufacturers often use the same fortification pellet in all of the feeds in a product line but use it in varying amounts depending on what type of horse the feed will be fed to. This fortification pellet is commonly referred to as a “balancer pellet” or “ration balancer.”

The most obvious nutritional characteristic of a balancer pellet is its protein content, usually between 25 and 35%. A balancer pellet has a high protein level because of its low feeding rate. The high protein will often scare off potential users because they do not understand that even though the percentage of protein is high, the actual quantity that is fed is so low that it does not amount to an overload. Here is an example: If 1 kg of a 25% protein balancer pellet is fed, it will provide 250 g (0.5 lb) of protein, which supplies about 30% of the protein requirement for a 500-kg (1100-lb) horse in light work.

The remaining protein required by the horse will be derived from the forage in the diet. If the same horse was being fed a 10% protein feed at the recommended feeding rate of 2.5 kg (5.5 lb), the amount of protein supplied would be 250 g, the same as 1 kg (2.2 lb) of a balancer pellet. However, the same amount of protein is offered in two substantially different meal sizes: only 1 kg of a balancer pellet compared to 2.5 kg of a 10% protein feed. A balancer pellet is ideal for horses that do not need the extra calories found in the additional feed, but do need the protein.

Another characteristic of a balancer pellet is the concentrated minerals and vitamins. Here is another example: A typical feed might have 40 mg/kg copper while a balancer pellet would have 160 mg/kg, approximately four times the amount. The same holds true for all of the microminerals and vitamins. Calcium and phosphorus concentration in a balancer pellet may be double that which is normally found in a textured or pelleted feed.

Due to the density of the nutrients in a balancer pellet, the recommended feeding rate is lower, usually between 500 g and 1 kg (1 and 2.2 lb), depending on the size and type of horse. Most typical feeds have recommended feeding rates of 2 to 6 kg (4.4 to 13 lb), so it is easy to see that a balancer pellet delivers exceptional nutritional value in a small package.

How are ration balancer pellets used?

The true advantage of using a balancer pellet is that the horse owner can meet the horse's requirement for protein, vitamins, and minerals and control the amount of energy supplied to the horse without having to worry if the horse is getting too much. A balancer pellet can be used three ways: (1) alone as a low-calorie source of protein, vitamins, and minerals; (2)combined with straight grains for a no-molasses feed; or (3) as a top-dress for a concentrate fed at less than the recommended feeding rate.

Low-calorie feed

 Several of the modern horse breeds were developed to maintain weight on limited calories, even when they were asked to perform hard work. Therefore, many horses are easy keepers, which means they can survive on fewer calories than their counterparts. Some of the horses with the easy-keeper gene are also metabolically challenged. For these horses, not only the calories but the starch found in energy sources can be detrimental to their health, particularly those that suffer from equine metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance. To complicate matters, the forages are often not able to provide all of the nutrient needs. Because of the concentrated nature and low feeding rate, a balancer pellet can meet all the protein, vitamin, and mineral needs of the horse without adding excessive calories or starch to the diet.

The amount of balancer pellet needed to complement the forage and fulfill the horse's requirements will be more than a typical vitamin and mineral supplement (generally 1 kg versus 100 g or 2.2 lb versus 0.2 lb). The balancer pellet supplies protein and adequate amounts of the macrominerals calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium, something that is not possible in a 100-g feeding of a vitamin and mineral supplement. These supplements generally supply microminerals and vitamins but not protein or macro minerals.

Therefore, a balancer pellet is a truly complete supplement for the horse. The carrier for a balancer pellet may have a few calories but is not calorie-dense like most other feeds formulated at a higher feeding rate and designed to add calories to the diet.

Low-molasses feed or homemade sweet feed

When there are several horses in the barn with different energy requirements, it is often difficult to find one bag of feed that will be appropriate for all of them. Combining a balancer pellet with grains provides a custom feed for each horse.

Or perhaps the farm grows oats, corn, or barley for horses but requires that protein, vitamins, and minerals be added to the homegrown harvest. Maybe it is the farm's preference to feed only a straight grain like oats. Whatever the scenario, a balancer pellet can provide the nutrients necessary to fill in the gaps left by the forage. each horse would be fed the amount of balancer pellet appropriate for its weight and age in addition to the amount of grain that will maintain the ideal weight of the horse. Other energy sources such as beet pulp, vegetable oil, or rice bran can also be added if more calories are needed. Molasses can be mixed in for a homemade sweet feed. Below is a table of suggested feeding rates of a balancer pellet for a 500-kg horse in different stages of life.

Top-dress for commercial horse feed

Commercial concentrates are formulated to be fed at a certain feeding rate. Many horses do not receive the recommended feeding rate because it provides too many calories for the metabolism of that horse, often leading to obesity. When fed below the recommended feeding rate, the horse does not receive the appropriate levels of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Most concentrates, whether they are textured or pelleted feeds, have feeding rates of over 3 kg (6.6 lb) per day. on a farm with adequate pasture or quality hay, feeding as little as 3 kg a day may be too much for some horses, so they are often fed much less. Here is an example of how feeding less than the recommended feeding rate can shortchange a horse: If 2 kg (4.4 lb) of feed is supplying 2 mg of selenium, then 0.5 kg (1 lb) of feed would supply only 0.5 mg of selenium, which is well below the horse's selenium requirement.

Using a balancer pellet as a top-dressing is simple. For every kilogram under the recommended feeding rate, top-dress with 250 g (0.5 lb) of balancer pellet. For example, if a feed has a recommended feeding rate of 2 kg (4.4 lb) per day, but the horse is only getting 1 kg per day and maintaining weight well, then adding 250 g of a balancer pellet to the diet will raise the vitamin, mineral, and protein fortification to meet the horse's requirements. Sometimes feed recommendations come in kg per kg body weight. If the recommended feeding rate is 0.5% of body weight, then the actual amount for a 500-kg horse would be 2.5 kg of feed. If only 1.5 kg of feed is being fed, then 250 g of a balancer pellet would compensate for any nutritional slights.

A word of caution when using a balancer pellet: Care should be taken not to confuse a balancer pellet with other pellets that have much higher feeding rates. Feeding too much of a balancer pellet will supply excessive amounts of nutrients. Consequently, make sure bags or bins of a balancer product are well-marked, especially if there are other pelleted products in the same feed room.

The beauty of using a balancer pellet is the flexibility it provides in customizing the nutritional management of individual horses. If fed properly, a balancer pellet can give peace of mind that all of the horses on a farm receive the nutrients needed to grow, perform, or reproduce.