What is a Quality Protein and why is it so important for your horse? ~Part 2
The quality of a protein is defined by whether the protein has good availability of all the essential amino acids. The equine system is dependent on the presence of adequate quantity and quality of protein in the diet.
I was watching Marvel’s new series, “Daredevil” last night and in one scene a character noted how difficult it is to put a puzzle together when you don’t have all of the pieces. Yes, and nutrition works the same way. If amino acids are puzzle pieces and a horse does not receive all or enough of the puzzle pieces, the result is that some of the proteins necessary for correct functioning of the body cannot be made. Their health puzzle is incomplete. Muscle growth and repair, tissue regeneration and repair, keratin metabolism for healthy hair, skin and hoof, bone density and repair, etc. etc. all depend on the availability of quality protein. Over the long term, when a horse does not have its essential amino acid needs met it cannot make the proteins it needs to maintain health. Another complication in this scenario is that the amount of each essential amino acid contained in your horse’s diet affects the absorption and utilization of all the other essential amino acids. This means that if just one essential amino acid is low all of the other amino acids will be absorbed at a lower rate. This creates innate weaknesses in your horse that will show up over time. How this shows up depends on where the weakness in the amino acid profile was and how your horse's body reacts to the deficiency.
I sometimes visit a popular website where people input data to balance minerals to grass, hay and various feed products. Despite correct values on their dietary spreadsheets many of these individuals come back to ask for help because their carefully constructed diet isn’t working and their horses still have health issues. The most common concerns are lameness, gastrointestinal inflammation, poor top line, poor quality hair/skin, poor quality hoof horn, and a predisposition to being overweight or underweight. The advice runs the gamut but I have yet to read someone suggest improvements to the quality of protein. Instead, it is assumed that the number value assigned to the amount of protein tells the whole story.
WHAT SHOULD YOU FEED FOR GOOD QUALITY PROTEIN?
Forage, hay or pasture, should be the primary source of protein for your horse so it is crucial that you know whether your hay or pasture is poor or high quality. A simple test (EquiAnalytical ($25-35.00)) costs less than a bag of feed and it can save you thousands of dollars in veterinary costs when you learn how to read the information this provides. If you have your pasture or hay tested and the quality of protein is low you can add in extra protein with foods like sainfoin, alfalfa, or beet pulp. Whey, organic soybean meal, copra, oats, stabilized flax or rice bran are other ways to bring good quality protein to the diet of your horse. Will protein make your horse “hot”? A surge in protein can cause a horse to have more energy but the effects typically only last about a week as the horse's body adapts to getting the added nutrition.
WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF POOR QUALITY PROTEIN FOR HORSES?
There are a number of reasons why you may not have good quality hay or pasture for your horse. Quality varies by geographical location, season, and historic land use. While we would all love to own perfect acreage for our equine companions, the perfect setting for our horse is out of reach of most of today’s horse owners. We just have to do our best. Regardless of where you live, proper care of the land is important.
SOIL VS DIRT
There is a difference between soil and dirt. A handful of properly tended soil contains trillions of microbes that work symbiotically to maintain life. Grazing animals eat these microscopic enzymes and bacteria. This is one way they repopulate their hind gut and naturally shift the microbiome during changing seasons.
Soil that is left uncovered during the winter is likely to erode. Erosion of the land releases CO2, puts the enzymes and bacteria that rely on vegetation at risk, and is not good for long term maintenance of land. Plant a cover crop. Overgrazing of pastures can cause poor quality protein and causes compaction of the soil. Compaction makes it impossible for seeds to germinate and sprout, which means the creatures living under and on top of the soil and on the vegetation do not get the nutrients they need to survive. If the situation is not remedied the soil becomes dirt. Dirt is dead soil, soil that is devoid of the enzymes and bacteria necessary to support life. It is possible to rejuvenate “dead” soil but it can take many years to bring it back to health. It’s far easier to take the time to thoughtfully maintain it.
Application of fertilizers without first testing the soil to see what is needed, or application of fertilizers to boost cash crop production without reference to what is needed may lead to poor quality protein that has high levels of nitrates in the soil/crop. High levels of nitrates in forage for animals can lead to health issues including immune dysregulation and undue stress on the liver and kidneys. This is less of a problem for horses than it is for ruminants, but it is not healthy for the land. Test. Buy. Read the label and follow the instructions. Misuse or over use of herbicides and pesticides can cause land to become barren for generations.