In times of severe heat and drought, hay is hard to find and expensive. Lots of clients call our office about options for feeding their horses using different types of hay or buying complete feeds that require no hay at all. Dr. Randel Raub at Purina Mills indicates in The Horse Magazine that a complete feed is one that can be fed without hay; it provides adequate amounts and types of fiber because the forage or hay component is built in. The complete feed should also supply all the protein, vitamins, and minerals required in the diet with no other supplementation.
You cannot determine what is a complete feed and what is not by looking at fiber amounts on the bag. The fiber in complete feeds must be less digestible so the feed can be fed at a higher rate. The lesser digestible forage might be a concern when you hear this term but it is necessary to mimic a more natural forage as if the horse was out grazing. A complete feed is needed when a horse is unable to graze or chew, hay is unavailable, or if a horse has respiratory disease and reacts to dust or pollen in hay. Complete feeds are to be fed in large quantities. You should not give a horse more than 5 pounds of feed per feeding, so it is recommended to provide complete feeds three to four times daily. You may find a complete feed is just as economical as feeding hay and grain but it is important to do the math and determine the least expensive feeding plan. Personally, I feel it is better to feed hay if at all possible and avoid complete feeds. Feeding small amounts of hay every few hours is better for digestion and keeps the horse from getting bored.