Morgan Murphy

Pellet Grains vs. Traditional Grain Feeds: What's the Difference?

You know the scene: you are at the tack store, faced with a wide variety of brands of sweet smelling horse grain formulas. You quickly realize there are countless variations, all claiming to be the very best feed available for your horse. From brand to brand, you'll notice big differences in formulations: some are uniform, one color pellets while others are a mixture of colorful grains, varying in texture and type. But why are there these two types and what are the differences?

In one recent article, we discussed the various grain types used in horse feeds. These can include corn, oats and barley. Sometimes they also include grass pellets for additional vitamin, mineral and forage supplementation. More often than not, the mixture is coated with a sweet smelling molasses which creates the appealing aroma we associate with horse food.
In comparison, a pellet appears as a single type of cylindrical morsel. The bag is filled with a single color, single sized ration. The aroma is typically not as strong as there is usually no molasses coating. Pellets are dryer to the touch than traditional grain feeds. There are pros and cons to each grain formulation and the final choice rests with you and your horse.


Traditional Grain Horse Feeds: Pros & Cons

Grain mixtures offer a formulated feed for all stages of a horse’s life. They are available in mixes such as mare and foal mix, senior mixes and standard maintenance mixes.

Advantages:

- Formulated to the needs of the horse

- Particularly useful with horses who are convalescing or senior horses with selective appetites. The molasses coating gives off an appetizing smell that can entice even the fussiest feeder.

- Grain feeds require less processing and tend to be slightly less expensive than pellets.

Disadvantages:

- It is very easy for horses to become selective, they can learn to pick out the bits they like and leave the less tasty parts (often the most nutritional bits, of course!)
- Grain mixtures are much higher in sugar and starch than pellets. For this reason, they are not recommended for horses who are prone to heat up on feed, laminitics, horses prone to weight gain or young horses. Excess sugar and starch can lead not only to obesity but to the horse becoming excitable.
- Grain mixtures can be difficult to digest resulting in undigested particles in the droppings and missing nutrients from the diet.

Grain Pellet Feeds: Pros & Cons

Pellets are made by grinding up a mixture of grains similar to that included in the grain feeds. The mixture is ground down to uniformed size where it is mixed with a binding agent (an ingredient that holds the rest together,) normally a natural binder such as wheat. They are combined and compacted in a mixing chamber before being steam heated to a temperature of 180 to 190 degrees. This causes the contents to stick together, and prepares them to be pushed through a metal plate with holes (called a die) that create the pellet shape.

The feed mixture is pushed through the die at low pressure. The size of the holes determines the size of the resulting pellet, (For example, pellets for foals are normally finer than those made for adult horses.) Once shaped, the pellets are cooled in a pellet mill cooler where excess moisture is drawn out in order to protect the product from mold growth. The final product contains less than 16% moisture. Before bagging, the pellets are sifted to ensure small particles and broken pellets are eliminated.

Pellet Feed Advantages Include:

- Far less dusty than traditional grain feed, due to the extruding process. This is very important if you are feeding a horse with a respiratory condition.

- They are not coated in molasses so are safer for the laminitic, horses prone to getting high and those prone to weight gain.

-  The horse cannot pick and choose between the ingredients so he consumes all the nutrients.

- Pellets are more digestible for horses. As they are ground during the preparation process, this aids with digestion, making them a good choice for older horses or those with dental problems. They can often be soaked in hot water to make a mash for horses who are struggling to eat, such as horses who have had surgery.

Disadvantages:

- Horses can bolt pellets when eating and may be more likely to suffer from a blocked esophagus (link to article). The easiest way to deal with this is to combine the pellets with a mixture of chaff or chopped hay and to add a couple of LARGE smooth stones to his feed bowl to help stop him eating so quickly.

- As all pellets look fairly similiar, it can be difficult to assess a specific brand's quality.  Always purchase horse feed from a highly reputable manufacturer. Inspect the pellets to be sure they are dry, free from mold and look consistent in color and shape.

Nutrition is absolutely critical for good equine health. Understanding the difference between traditional grains and grain pellets can help you make a more informed decision on the right product for your horse.