Chances are you’re pretty familiar with beet pulp. Most of us have scooped and soaked our fair share of this sugar-industry-byproduct-turned-equine-feed. The remains of sugar beets used in the manufacture of sugar, beet pulp is high in digestible fiber and a good source of “safe” structural carbohydrate-based calories, making it a popular horse feed throughout the country and around the world.
Straight from the bag, beet pulp is dried and shredded—almost resembling tobacco—or pressed into solid pellets. Soak either form in water for about a half-hour, and you’ll have a soft, soggy mash.
Yet as simple and easy as beet pulp is to feed, it has long been the subject of myths and misunderstandings in the horse world. Some of these misconceptions are harmless, but others could lead owners to needlessly rule out beet pulp as part of a horse’s diet or, conversely, rely on it too heavily and for the wrong reasons.
To make sure that doesn’t happen at your barn, we’ve compiled a list of three important facts about beet pulp. Read through them so you can make sure your horse gets the greatest benefit from this versatile feed.
Fact 1: Beet pulp provides a type of fiber that offers unique nutritional advantages.
“The main role of beet pulp in a horse’s diet is fiber, just as with hay,” says Pennsylvania State University equine nutritionist Burt Staniar, PhD. “But the beet pulp fiber is not the same as the fiber in hay. It’s much more easily digested, so it’s processed faster. We don’t think of fiber as providing much energy—and in the human diet it doesn’t—but in horses it’s a significant source of energy. Because the fiber in beet pulp is digested quickly, the energy and the calories it provides are available to a horse much faster than those that would come from hay.”
This, says Staniar, makes beet pulp a useful source of energy for horses who need a boost for athletic efforts or to support other functions, such as lactation. “It’s going to have more benefit for [equine athletes or broodmares] than, say, an easy-keeper gelding who spends most of his day in the field,” he says. “And in cases where horses need more calories, adding beet pulp to a diet may be a better option than adding more hay because of the difference in fiber type.”
For the same reasons, beet pulp is often a good choice for older horses who have trouble chewing or digesting hay. “It can be very beneficial for older horses whose teeth or digestive tracts can’t handle other types of fiber,” says Coverdale. “In fact, many of the senior feeds that are formulated as ‘complete feed’—meaning they include fiber—are beet pulp based.”
Beet pulp fiber provides another advantage: promoting healthy gut flora. “A horse extracts energy from fiber via fermentation in the hindgut,” says Staniar. “That fermentation is done by bacteria, and different types of bacteria ferment at different rates.” A gut that is accustomed to only slow-digesting forage may be overpopulated with that type of bacteria, an imbalance that can lead to digestive upset.
“You want to support all those microbial populations,” says Staniar. “So when your horse has to make a transition in diet or location, he is going to be better able to adapt digestively. A little bit of beet pulp in every diet can help keep the population of fiber-digesting bacteria in the gut balanced so those changes won’t be as disruptive.”
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Fact 2: Beet pulp contains very little sugar.
“Plain beet pulp is very, very low in sugar; it isn’t sweet at all,” says Coverdale. “If you pop some in your mouth expecting it to be, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s pretty boring and tasteless.”
In part, beet pulp’s unearned reputation as a high-sugar feed comes from its origins. “The name ‘sugar beet pulp’ is very misleading,” says Staniar. “Remember that this is a byproduct of the sugar industry. By the time it makes it to the feed store, all the sugar has been extracted. That’s what the sugar industry wants, and they just pass along the rest to us.”
In fact, molasses is often added to beet pulp to make it more palatable to horses. But even then, the amount of sugar isn’t enough to worry about unless your horse has a specific sensitivity to sugars. “There’s only about 3 percent molasses in those formulations,” says Wagner, “which doesn’t make a huge difference in terms of energy content, but it does make it tastier. If you have a horse with a history of insulin resistance or metabolic issues, you’ll want to eliminate the molasses because you’re cutting back on all sugars. And horses with hyperkalemic periodic paralysis [HYPP] need to avoid molasses for other reasons [see “For HYPP Horses, Hold the Molasses,” page 48]. But if your horse doesn’t have any of those issues, there’s not enough molasses in the sweetened beet pulpto trigger anything.”
If sugar or molasses in your horse’s diet is a concern, look for “plain” beet pulp, which most feed companies sell in addition to formulations with molasses added. Just check the label. But even if you can’t find unsweetened beet pulp, there’s still a fix: “If you soak, then squeeze beet pulp and drain off the water, you’ll remove most of the molasses,” says Staniar. “That’s an easy way to reduce the sugar content if you can’t find plain beet pulp.”
Fact 3: Beet pulp can help you stretch your hay supply.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may find your hay supply running low, which is obviously a cause for concern. Without a source of roughage, a horse’s digestive system can’t function properly. That’s where beet pulp comes in: It can take the place of hay—at least partially—helping you stretch your supply until you can restock.
“In this area of the country, we go through a drought every so often, and people get very interested in alternative sources of fiber and roughage,” says Coverdale. “Beet pulp is a good option.” The conversion rate is straightforward—for every pound of forage you take out of the diet, add in a pound of beet pulp. Start this when you know your hay supply might be getting low and you may be able to make it last long enough until you can refill the hay shed. There is a limit to how much substitution you can safely do, however.
“I wouldn’t recommend replacing all the hay in your horse’s diet with beet pulp,” says Coverdale. “Although the fiber content is similar, the vitamin and mineral content of beet pulp is very different than that of hay. When you rely on it too much, you can create some significant nutritional imbalances in a horse’s diet.”
Beet pulp, for instance is low in phosphorus compared to its calcium content. “The calcium/phosphorus ratio is about 10 to 1, which in small amounts isn’t a problem for a mature horse,” says Coverdale. “But in large amounts or in a growing horse or a lactating mare, that could cause issues with bone development.” To prevent such imbalances, she says, the general limit for feeding beet pulp is no more than 10 percent of a horse’s diet by weight, which works out to no more than two to three pounds a day for an average-size horse.”
Wagner cautions against trying to “eyeball” the correct amount of beet pulp to feed a horse. “You’ve got to remember it’s 10 percent by its dry, unsoaked weight,” she says. “You have to weigh the feed, not just consider scoop size. Beet pulp is light and fluffy. A pound of beet pulp is going to look like a lot more than a pound of alfalfa pellets, for instance.” Wagner adds that she keeps a fish scale in her feed room so she can hang a bucket to weigh out rations quickly and accurately.
Coverdale adds that the “scratch factor” of beet pulp may not be high enough to safely replace all the hay in a horse’s diet. “You need to take into account the physical attributes of long-stem roughage,” she says—“the fact that a horse has to chew it and that it provides bulk in the gut. We know this is all-important in ruminant digestion. We need more research into that in horses, but it stands to reason it would be.”
Of course, says Coverdale, there are always exceptions. “In many older horses, particularly those with dental problems, hay isn’t even an option anymore,” she says. “In those cases, the rules go out the window and you do whatever you can. Beet pulp might be the only source of fiber an older horse can get. In those cases, I’d recommend a senior feed containing beet pulp that’s designed to be a ‘complete’ feed and replace hay. The nutritionists at those companies will have created a balanced diet, so you don’t need to worry about vitamin and mineral deficits. Trying to come up with your own formulation by mixing beet pulp with regular feeds can be very difficult and is unnecessary these days; the calculations have already been done for you with a commercial feed.”
If all this information has you thinking that you want to add beet pulp to your horse’s diet, check to make sure it isn’t there already. “Beet pulp is already in a ton of commercial grain mixes,” says Staniar. “It’s gotten increasingly popular as we’ve realized its nutritional benefits, and it shows up in all sort of places.”
Specialty feeds are particularly reliant on beet pulp. “Beet pulp is a major component of the high-fiber, low-sugar feeds that are so popular right now,” says Wagner. “It’s really the perfect ingredient for those—a good source of ‘cool’ energy. And if you look at senior feeds, you’ll see it’s a primary ingredient; that’s the reason those feeds soak up water so well. I think there are plenty of people out there who don’t realize they are already feeding beet pulp. And there are probably people thinking they’d never feed beet pulp, for whatever reason, but their horses are already thriving on it.”
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #449, February 2015.