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Pros and cons of feeding sugar beet to your horse

Peer-reviewed research carried out at Liverpool University (Joanna Mary Suthers: September 2012) highlighted a surprising relationship between feeding sugar beet and the likelihood of a horse suffering from large colon torsion (twisted gut).

The research, which caused concern among some H&H readers, revealed a statistically significantly increased risk of large colon torsion associated with feeding all types of sugar beet products — both molassed and unmolassed — and preparations.

Further research is needed to determine whether unmolassed sugar beet is less of a risk factor for colic than the molassed product.

It is worth noting that sugar beet was one of several factors highlighted in the research, including forage management and horse height.

There are still good reasons to feed sugar beet. Known as a “superfibre” by nutritionists, it is a well regarded ingredient that has many benefits:

  • As a high-energy feed, it has a digestible energy content that is more akin to cereal than fibre feeds, but remember this is greatly diluted when feeding soaked sugar beet.
  • It is low in starch and sugars (when unmolassed).
  • It is a rich and readily available source of calcium.
  • It improves the horse’s ability to digest fibre feeds. Research shows that digestibility of hay and alfalfa is improved when fed in combination with sugar beet, possibly due to increased delivery of readily fermentable fibre and protein, as a nutrient source for hindgut microflora.
  • It’s good for hydration. Sloppy sugar beet can help maintain overall water intake and sugar beet water encourages drinking in competitive horses.

Who should it be fed to?
When fed correctly, sugar beet can offer a good addition to the overall diet.
It is particularly benefical as:

  • An economical feed in times of economic downturn.
  • Unmolassed products are suitable for those at risk of laminitis or tying up.
  • A good feed for older horses with poor teeth.
  • A useful way to disguise powdered supplements or medication.

The name sugar beet is something of a misnomer — in the unadulterated form it is very low in sugar, as it is produced during the process of sugar extraction from beet pulp.

Sugar beet is available unmolassed or molassed as pellets, shreds and even micronized flakes. Note that the sugar content increases quite dramatically if molassed.

Usually it is fed soaked in water, although some progressive concentrate feeds may feature dry sugar beet shreds in a small quantity.

Sugar beet is a great source of highly digestible fibre. It contains easily fermented fibre, including pectins and hemicellulose. Pectin is so fermentable that some may be degraded before reaching the hindgut.

Read the full competition feed special in this week’s issue of H&H (14 February 2013)

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