Published: July 2021 | Updated: September 2022
Beet pulp is a common ingredient found in manufactured feeds, but many people choose to feed it plain to their horses as well. If you’re considering adding beet pulp to your horse’s diet, you might be wondering what benefits it will provide and also wondering if there might be any drawbacks? Let’s take a closer look.
What is Beet Pulp?
Beet pulp is often incorrectly considered a concentrate; however, it is actually a forage, or more accurately, a forage alternative. A byproduct of the sugar beet industry, beet pulp is what remains after the sugar has been removed from the plant.
It’s important to note that beet pulp does contain some sugar, but the amount is minimal and therefore, not typically a concern for horses. When packaged as an equine feed product, molasses is often added to increase palatability, but you can also find unmolassed beet pulp.
A few facts about beet pulp:
- It’s high in fiber and calories, but low in protein content (around 8-10% crude protein);
- It’s rich in calcium, low in other minerals, and contains no vitamins; and
- As a feed product, you can buy beet pulp pellets or beet pulp shreds for horses. It’s grayish-brown in color and has a slight but distinctive odor.
The Benefits of Beet Pulp for Horses
High in fermentable fiber, beet pulp is digested in the horse’s hindgut via microbial fermentation. Because of this, it is considered a prebiotic: a beneficial food for the microbes within the horse’s hindgut. Along with probiotics, prebiotics are an important part of the equine diet, helping to support your horse’s overall gut health.
Beet pulp is also considered a good source of “safe” structural carbohydrates because it is so low in sugar content. Even large amounts of beet pulp won’t overwhelm the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients, nor will it disrupt microbial fermentation in the horse’s hindgut, which can occur with large amounts of high starch grains and feeds.
In fact, the unmolassed form of beet pulp is completely safe to feed to horses with insulin resistance (IR) or polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM). Additionally, beet pulp is lower in potassium than most grass hays, making it a good forage substitute for horses with Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis (HYPP). And because beet pulp has excellent digestibility, it is also a great choice for horses recovering from illness, injury, or surgery.
Beet pulp has a good calcium content--higher than most grass hays but lower than alfalfa. This makes it a great ingredient to feed with traditional grains such as oats that are low in calcium but higher in phosphorus.
Another benefit of beet pulp is that it is a useful energy source for many horses such as equine athletes or broodmares.
Byproducts of microbial fermentation of beet pulp in the hindgut include volatile fatty acids (VFAs) which are absorbed and utilized for energy. This energy does not cause a spike in glucose or insulin; instead, it is released slowly for a steady supply, making it a safer form of energy than grains. Beet pulp is often added to commercial feeds because of its energy density and benefit to the horse’s microbiome.
Because beet pulp is high in calories, it is also often used to help horses gain weight or to help hard keepers maintain their weight, as it provides approximately 1,000 kcals per pound. For easy keepers, keep in mind that beet pulp provides more calories per pound than an equal amount of grass hay. Therefore, if you feed beet pulp to easy keepers, you likely won’t need to feed as much forage per day. This is great when you’re needing to extend your hay supply for any reason.
Finally, beet pulp for senior horses can be ideal for those who have trouble chewing or digesting hay. In fact, if you take a look at most senior feeds, you’ll find beet pulp as a leading ingredient.
Common Misconceptions About Feeding Beet Pulp to Horses
There are several common misconceptions surrounding beet pulp: one is that it causes choke in horses. The truth is, however, that any feedstuff can cause choke if a horse doesn’t chew it well enough.
With beet pulp, the greatest choke risk comes with feeding the pellets dry, as they are large and quite hard. Therefore, soaking is a must if feeding the pelleted form of beet pulp.
Another misconception is that, if fed dry, beet pulp will swell in the throat or stomach and possibly lead to colic. This is not true either. Beet pulp shreds can be fed soaked or dry; just take a look at many commercial feed tags and you will find beet pulp in them. All are meant to be fed dry.
How to Feed Beet Pulp
Although beet pulp shreds can be fed soaked or dry, many horse owners choose to soak them to make the product softer (especially for senior horses), to decrease dust, and to increase their horse’s water intake (especially important in cold weather). Just note that shredded beet pulp will swell and absorb water more quickly than pelleted beet pulp.
For horses with metabolic issues, if you can’t find unmolassed beet pulp, one option is soaking and rinsing the product before feeding in order to wash off the molasses.
When soaking beet pulp, place shreds or pellets in a bucket and add twice as much water as beet pulp. You can use cool or warm water, but don’t use extremely hot water as it will essentially “cook” the beet pulp, destroying most of the nutrients it contains.
Allow your bucket to sit for at least a couple of hours before feeding; soaked beet pulp should be light and fluffy in consistency. If using pellets, nothing should be left that resembles a pellet once it is thoroughly soaked. If extra water remains, you can drain it off, if desired.
If feeding soaked beet pulp, it’s best to make it up in small batches–enough to feed in a single day. In hot, summer months, soaked beet pulp left for too long will ferment. If this happens, it’s best to throw it out and make up a new batch.
Soaked beet pulp will keep for about 24 hours in cooler temperatures, however. Never feed soaked beet pulp that smells “off.” Fortunately, beet pulp is a fairly inexpensive ingredient to feed.
If feeding beet pulp alone, or with a grain like oats, also keep in mind that you will still need to provide a vitamin and mineral supplement to ensure that your horse is getting adequate trace minerals and necessary vitamins. To further support your horse’s gut health, consider feeding a high-quality probiotic supplement as well.
Most horses find beet pulp very palatable, but occasionally a horse may need some time to adjust to the taste of it. Mixing in a small amount of grain or commercial feed, if safe for your horse, can help to improve palatability for picky eaters.
As with any feeding changes, start your horse out with a small quantity of beet pulp and gradually increase the amount over a period of 7-10 days.
Cautions with Beet Pulp
Because beet pulp is technically a forage alternative and not a typical forage, it should not be fed at more than 50% of the horse’s overall forage intake.
Likewise, it should never be fed as the horse’s sole fiber source. Your horse will need additional fiber in the form of pasture, hay, hay pellets, or hay cubes, for instance. For example, a 1,200 lb horse should consume no more than 12 pounds of beet pulp per day.
As with every feedstuff, your horse is an individual. But, in general, our answer to the question “is beet pulp good for horses?” is a resounding yes!
Use caution when adding a new feed to your horse’s diet and introduce it slowly. Remember to always use a veterinary-strength equine probiotic during times of diet transition. Contact your equine nutritionist for more tips and personalized recommendations.