Myth: "Beet Pulp is Just A Filler."

Most old-timers will tell you beet pulp has no nutrition, "it's just a filler." Again, science has proved otherwise. Beet pulp is the fibrous material left over after the sugar is extracted from sugar beets. It's an excellent source of digestible fibre for the horse and can be fed in addition to, or instead of, hay. Recent research has shown that the fibre in beet pulp is easier to digest than the fibre in hays. In fact, horses may derive as much energy from beet pulp as they do from oats. In other words, a pound of (dry) beet pulp has almost the same amount of calories as a pound of oats. Because beet pulp provides these calories as fibre (as opposed to the starch in grains), it can be safely fed in larger amounts without the risk of colic or laminitis associated with feeding a large amount of grain. Furthermore, the protein content of beet pulp (averaging 8 to 12%) is comparable to most grains and good-quality grass hays. And, beet pulp also provides a reasonable source of calcium, intermediate between the high calcium in alfalfa and the lower calcium content of grass hays, but much higher than grains.

Whether used as a source of forage or as a replacement for oats, beet pulp is a useful addition to the diet of many types of horses. Beet pulp has been successfully fed at levels up to 50% of the horse's total ration (approximately 10 lbs for a 1000 lbs horse). More commonly, owners choose to feed 2 to 5 lbs of beet pulp per day. The high digestibility of beet pulp makes it a good choice for horses that are "hard keepers" (it's very good for encouraging weight gain), as well as horses with dental problems, or older horses who have trouble chewing or digesting other types of forage. Beet pulp is also used as a grain replacement in the diets of horses that suffer from tying up (providing calories as fibre rather than starch). And the low potassium content of beet pulp makes it an ideal forage replacement for horses with HYPP. Finally, endurance riders favour beet pulp because its high water holding capacity provides the horse with a larger reservoir of fluid in the digestive tract that can be used to help prevent dehydration.

Myth: "Beet Pulp Must be Soaked Before You Feed It."

"If you don't soak beet pulp before feeding it, it'll swell up and rupture the horse's stomach." "Beet pulp will swell up in your horse's esophagus and cause choke if you don't soak it first." These are just a couple of the diabolical warnings surrounding the feeding of beet pulp. Because beet pulp seems to "grow" when water is added, somebody surmised that it could be a hazard if fed dry because it would absorb saliva and gastric juices, swell up, and block the esophagus or cause the stomach to burst. Although inaccurate, these evil predictions deter many horse owners from even trying beet pulp.

Beet pulp may soak up water like a sponge, but it cannot soak up saliva quickly enough to expand in the esophagus and cause choke. Instead, choke associated with beet pulp (particularly the pelleted form) is often in response to the particle size and the horse's aggressive feeding behaviour, rather than the actual feed itself. Horses that bolt their feed without sufficient chewing, or do not have adequate access to water, are far more likely to choke, regardless of the type of feed, compared to horses that eat at a more leisurely rate.

Nor is it likely that dry beet pulp will rupture the horse's stomach. The equine stomach holds 2 to 4 gallons. This volume is equivalent to 4.5 to 9.5 pounds of dry beet pulp, which is more than most horses receive in a single meal. Likewise, most food that enters the stomach passes on to the small intestine within 15 minutes or less—and for those of you who have timed how long it takes beet pulp to expand, it's longer than 15 minutes. Assuming free access to water, horses will voluntarily drink enough water to adequately process any amount of beet pulp consumed (1.5 to 2 litres per pound of beet pulp). Along with this drinking water, fluid is constantly entering the digestive tract, so beet pulp will not "suck the horse dry." Ultimately, the 40 to 50 gallon capacity of the equine digestive tract is more than sufficient to contain even a very large meal of beet pulp. The only horse in danger of a gastric rupture is one suffering from impaction or other severe lack of normal peristaltic movement.

So, contrary to popular belief, you don't have to soak beet pulp (either the pelleted or shredded form) in water to feed it safely to horses. Research at several universities, including some of my own studies, have fed dry beet pulp in amounts up to 50% of the total diet without choke or other adverse reactions. Likewise, many, many tons of dry beet pulp-based feeds are fed annually without incidence. For example, most commercial feeds designed for geriatric horses contain large amounts of beet pulp and are fed straight out of the bag without being soaked first. If you choose not to soak the beet pulp before feeding it, make sure your horse has access to as much good, clean water as he wants (which should be the case no matter what you feed).

Although soaking beet pulp is not necessary, there are several good reasons for wetting it down before you feed it. Soaking beet pulp may make the feed easier to chew, particularly for older horses with bad teeth. Soaked beet pulp may also be more tasty and it provides a useful method for hiding minerals or medications. If your horse gobbles down his feed or is prone to choke, it might be a good idea to soak your beet pulp. And while horses will drink water on their own, pre-soaked beet pulp is a good way to get some water into your horses, particularly in the winter when they may not be as inclined to drink what they need. So, if soaking beet pulp fits into your feeding management, by all means, do it. You don't have to soak beet pulp overnight-most of the expansion takes place within the first 3 to 4 hours.

About the Author

Author Lori K. Warren, Ph.D., P.A.S., joined Alberta Agriculture, Food & Rural Development as Provincial Horse Specialist in May 2000. She received her M.S. and Ph.D. in Equine Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses on the nutrition of performance horses and forage utilization by young growing horses.

This information was presented at, and appears in the Proceedings of, the 2002 Alberta Horse Breeders and Owners Conference.

This information is maintained by of the Horse Industry Section of Alberta Agriculture

Lori K. Warren, Ph.D., P.A.S.
Provincial Horse Specialist
Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development