The Mighty Oat

Why feed oats?

Mares eat oats and does eat oats. and it's no wonder why. That little kernel is packed with enough nutrition to power the biggest and the best of oat eaters. As oat eaters go, wild horses, in their natural environment, rarely eat much grain. Grasses and other forage make up the equine diet, with occasional grains that may be found growing sparsely in meadows, in certain seasons. Oats and other grains, though not always necessary, do, however, have a place in many horses' diets.

Yummy OatsWholesome, hearty, and healthy, oats should be dry, clean, free from large amounts of dust and fines, and free from insects.

A properly harvested oat carries approximately 11.5% crude protein, 5% fat, 0.1% calcium, 0.35% phosphorus, 6ppm copper, potassium, vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and more, with about 1300 calories per pound in digestible energy (the sum of the digestible carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber, or total digestible nutrients, TDN).

And why is that important? A horse's nutrient and energy needs can usually be met by forage alone, but when extra physical demands are placed on him, he needs more. For instance, horses that are performing heavy work, are growing, or are ill, have higher energy requirements than the mature, idle horse. These concentrated carbohydrates and proteins in grains, as well as additional nutrients and micronutrients, are then necessary for proper functioning.

Grains, especially oats, are a concentrated source of energy, carbohydrates, and nutrients that nicely fit the bill, when fed as part of a balanced nutrition plan designed for your horse and his needs. Although oats have a valuable place in the equine diet, no single grain provides all the essential nutrients. Oats and other grains do not generally provide an adequate amount of vitamins, which is why feed companies supplement them. They do, however, provide important minerals. Phosphorus, for one, helps to maintain the crucial balance with calcium, which can be abundant in hay and forage. Oats, compared to the other grains commonly fed to horses, are considered to be the closest to the "perfect" feed. And what horse doesn't love them?

The oat, botanically known as Avena Sativa, is one of the world's most nutritious grains, and the one that grows better than any other in cold, wet climates. One-third of the farmland in Scotland is devoted to oats, and half of it in Ireland. But the United States is the world's largest producer of oats, with the majority of them coming from Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. More than 90% of the oats grown in the United States are fed to livestock.

What's in a grain?

There are four main parts of a grain: the husk, the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. The husk, merely a protective covering, has little or no nutritional value, but is fiber, and helps prevent impaction and founder. The bran consists primarily of cellulose, an insoluble fiber, and contains small amounts of the B-complex vitamins, iron and other minerals, and protein. The endosperm is the largest part of the grain, and it contains the starch that is converted to glucose for energy. It also contains protein, amino acids, and trace amounts of other nutrients. The germ, or embryo, is the center of the grain, and is especially high in B vitamins, vitamin E, protein, unsaturated fat, minerals, and carbohydrates.

Grains with hulls, such as oats, have a significant fiber content, which makes them less likely to cause digestive problems. However, they are also less energy-dense than starchy grains with no hulls, such as corn.

Oats and other grains must be fed with care. Any feed additions or changes must be done gradually, to allow the delicate digestive system of the horse to adjust. The horse's weight, workload, energy requirements, and the other feeds given, are all factors to be considered when calculating a horse's diet.

To crimp or not to crimp.

Because oats are a soft kernel, horses generally have no problem chewing and digesting them. Some people feed whole oats, which are natural, and more economical, and some prefer crimped (lightly flattened) oats. Whole oats are intact, and retain their protective covering, thus protecting the nutrient content from the elements and handling. And, because they are still whole, it is easy to assess the quality of the grains.

Whole oats may also be sprouted, if desired. The whole oat is actually the seed of the plant, and in it is the nutrient store for the germ, or embryo, from which a new plant develops. (More information on sprouting grains will be available in the October issue).

But whole also means it is protected somewhat from the digestive process if not chewed, and the oat may remain nearly whole passing through the digestive system with less absorption of nutrients. (Check the teeth and the manure regularly.) Crimping oats seems to increase digestibility, because the grain is broken down mechanically, exposing it to the saliva and digestive process, even if it doesn't get chewed. In the case of oats, however, no increase in feeding value is evident for crimped, rolled, or steam flaked oats compared with whole oats.

The crimping process, especially if there is heat involved, destroys nutrients, and destroys enzymes necessary for proper digestion and pancreatic function. Due to the breakdown of the protective hull, processing consequently renders the oat vulnerable to invasion from insects, microorganisms, and molds. It also allows for nutrient breakdown, and oxidation, from exposure to the elements, decreasing its flavor and reducing its storage life. And one more thing - crimped oats cannot be sprouted.

When feeding grains, whether crimped or whole, measuring the amount fed by weight is more accurate than by volume or scoop measure. This is especially true if switching from crimped grains to whole grains. The whole grain is denser and weighs more than the fluffier, crimped version.

Choose the best!

Wholesome, hearty, and healthy, oats should be dry, clean, free from large amounts of dust and fines, and free from insects. The oats should be plump, light blonde in color, and the heavier the weight, the better the oat. The aroma should be fresh and sweet. Oats should be free from any signs of mold; mold indicates that the grains were either harvested too green, got damp, or were improperly stored after harvesting. Moldy grains have musty smell, a grayish color, and may be clumped together.

Because of the horse's delicate system, horse owners must avoid feeding any type of moldy feed to their horses. Hay or grain can contain a dangerous degree of fungus or mold, so a watchful eye and nose are necessary to avoid trouble. Problems that may result are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or heaves, which results in a chronic cough and decreased physical performance ability. Molds can also cause liver damage, botulism, colic, abortions, and death.

If mold is suspected, the feed should be discarded, or, if just purchased, returned. However troublesome this may be, it is less troublesome, and less costly, than a sick horse. When in doubt, throw it out.

It is important to remove and return poor quality or insect-infested grains immediately. If you notify your feed dealer of any problems as quickly as possible, they are more likely to realize that the problem began at their warehouse rather than at your farm. They will appreciate your promptness as it may also help prevent further contamination of their warehouse.

Organic or non-organic oats?

Aside from being untreated and untainted chemically, the organic grains typically have a higher nutrient content. Soil nutrient depletion is less likely when grains are grown organically. Organic standards require that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides have been applied for at least three years. Farming organically costs more, due to labor needs, the process of certification, and the constant rotation of crops, and this usually makes most organic crops a little more costly, but not always.

Though overused and chemically-damaged soils can be fertilized and supplemented with certain minerals, the supplementation is not complete in returning all the vitals to the soil. Organic growing, with proper rotation of crops, rebalances the vital nutrients and enhances the growth of beneficial organisms, such as earthworms, and microorganisms. The crops are only as good as the soil. Feed the soil, not the plant.

Many feed stores are starting to carry various organic grains when available. It makes sense to purchase them when you can. If stored properly, they will keep.

Fancy oats

Have you ever seen a naked oat? That is not to be confused with a regular, hulled oat; rather, it's a hulless oat! The hull is not there, as the oat falls away from it during harvesting. The result is less hull and more plump, clean oat, yielding much more substance per pound. It averages a higher digestible energy (1.7) than regular oats (1.3), a higher amount of protein (18%) than regular oats (11.5%), and much less fiber (3%) than regular oats (11%). The feed volume, because of the lack of hull fiber, is nearly double that of regular oats, so they must be fed with extreme care.

Specially bred for more guts and less waste, they are being grown in the United States, and in other countries. The advantages are more oat per pound and dollar, no need to hull, and less loss. There is a clear disadvantage, though, in its safety as a feed, due to its high-octane density and its low fiber content. It also lacks durability, if handled excessively, and may have a reduced storage life without the protective hull. Hulless oats are, however, produced by natural breeding, and are sproutable.


Grain must be stored in a special area with adequate ventilation, and must be protected from moisture, sunlight, insects, and rodents. A well-maintained and tidy feed room will greatly reduce feed contamination and loss of feed. Cleanliness must be maintained, and bins should be totally emptied and cleaned, before adding new grain.

Guidelines for grains:

* Keep all grains in a dry, tightly covered container to keep out moisture and insects and to protect nutrients.

* When in doubt, throw it out (or better yet, return it to dealer)

* Feed by weight rather than volume.

* Feed grains in smaller portions, in two or more feedings.

* Purchase only the best you can buy. Supplementing with vitamins and minerals does not always make up for lack of grain nutrients, and is more costly.

* Buy small quantities more often, if possible, to ensure freshness.

* Use as part of a total nutrition program.

* Keep out of reach of horses!

Though metal bins are durable and rodent-proof, temperature changes can create condensation inside metal bins, greatly increasing the chances of mold and spoilage. If possible, a constant, cool temperature should be maintained.

Because horses do not have the sense to know how much grain is too much, but have a keen sense for opening the unopenable, the feed area must be secured from the horses as well.


Given the proper assistance, owners can formulate their own grain mixes. Depending on the locality, the availability of straight grains, the number of horses to be fed grain, and the storage facilities, this may be a sensible option. For information on preparing your own feed, consult your veterinarian, equine feed specialist, or county and state agricultural extension offices.

While hay and forage make up the primary diet for horses, whole oats are a natural, palatable staple for many horses' grain formulas. Whole grains, when properly combined, can be an important supplement to the equine diet.