Beet Pulp Fiction… and the Facts

Beet pulp, horse feed, horse nutrition, Dr. Wendy Pearson, Herbs for Horses, Ontario Veterinary College

Beet pulp, horse feed, horse nutrition, Dr. Wendy Pearson, Herbs for Horses, Ontario Veterinary College

Dr. Wendy Pearson, PhD (Dr. of Veterinary Toxicology)

I’ve been told beet pulp could choke my horse to death – is this true?

Unfortunately, this is one of those old horsemen’s myths that refuses to die, even after many studies around the world have debunked this fallacy. Here’s the scoop on feeding beet pulp:
Beet pulp is a popular additive to the horse’s diet, most often in an attempt to put weight on a “hard keeper.” Oddly, however, there is a prevailing misunderstanding about when or why this feed ingredient might be useful.
 
Beet pulp is a by-product from the manufacture of table sugar and, contrary to popular belief, is actually quite low in calories having barely more digestible energy than typical hay. It is also usually quite low in protein, with ranges of around two to six percent, and very low in vitamin A. It is, however, an excellent source of fermentable fibre and can be very useful for supporting optimal hindgut health. If you are feeding significant amounts of beet pulp (i.e. 20-25 percent of the total fermentable carbohydrate fraction) you need to ensure that the diet is balanced to account for the lower protein, vitamin A, and other micronutrients that may be missing or unbalanced in a diet based on beet pulp.
 
Beet pulp can be a very useful feed for horses needing an increase in fermentable fibre. Some examples may be horses that do not have sufficient access to hay, or horses that are not able to chew hay properly, such as old horses, or horses with dental problems. It can also be very useful, in conjunction with a good probiotic supplement, in horses undergoing antibiotic treatment, as it can stabilize the microbial population in the hindgut. Beet pulp feeding results in a low post-prandial insulin spike, making it a very useful feed for horses with insulin resistance.
 
Including beet pulp in the diet of horses to a level of 25 percent significantly reduces digestibility of crude fat and non-structural carbohydrate, and increases activity of an enzyme that breaks down fat complexes in the body (lipoprotein lipase). The implications of these data are unclear, but suggest caution in feeding high amounts of beet pulp in diets with added fat. Indeed, these data may suggest that beet pulp can increase fermentable fibre in overweight horses, while accelerating breakdown of stored fat. Exercising horses fed a diet high in beet pulp had higher resting muscle levels of glycogen (the storage form for glucose in mammals) than horses receiving oats, which suggests that beet pulp can have benefit in exercise performance. 
 
Owing to its very high content of fibre, beet pulp is extremely hygroscopic, or capable of absorbing moisture. Beet pulp pellets can absorb more than five times their weight in water, and can take as long as four hours to completely hydrate. If water is not offered with the pellets – if the pellets are not soaked – then fluid will come first from saliva and then, if the pellets are still not fully hydrated, they will draw fluid from the body compartment into the gastrointestinal tract. In a normally hydrated horse that does not bolt its feed and has access to sufficient water, sufficient saliva is usually produced to adequately moisten the pellets to avoid choke. However, it is generally recommended that beet pulp be soaked prior to feeding. This can encourage water intake, especially in the winter when horses typically consume less water, as well as improve diet palatability and mask medications or supplements that may have a bitter taste.
 
In general, beet pulp can be a very useful feed ingredient to promote optimum hind gut health in horses, a characteristic which may account, at least in part, for its traditional application in putting weight on “hard keeper” horses. However, its tendency to reduce fat digestibility and accelerate breakdown of stored fat suggests that care should be taken when increasing fat content in the diets in hard keeper horses receiving significant amounts of beet pulp.
 
Reprinted with permission from www.horseherbs.com.
 
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Canadian Horse Journal. 
 
Main article photo: Shutterstock/Sari ONeal

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