Poison Prevention Week: Mind Your Feed

This week is National Poison Prevention week.

With horses it seems there are MANY topics I could talk about on this subject alone.  Fruits, vegetables, medications, plants.  Unfortunately horses can be quite delicate compared to other livestock.  We sometimes joke about these lovable creatures but it is extremely scary when a horse gets into something he shouldn’t…it’s scary to think about, too.


As good horsemen and women we must always be on the lookout for hazards.  I find myself subconsciously scanning the ground for sharp objects, nails (left from the farrier or otherwise).  When I’m in my horses stall I pay attention to the direction of the clips on the water buckets, the walls for any nails or loose boards.  In the paddocks if I see any plants that I know are poisonous (though I still need to learn more about recognizing these) I will make attempts to rip them out by the root…though they rarely touch the bad plants in my experience; our barn is infested with buttercups and the horses have enough sense to leave them alone.

Sometimes, however, you can’t see the danger.20180313_1637211778636913.jpg

We trust our feed suppliers to provide safe, nutritious food for our horses.  Whether we are feeding a ration balancer, a textured feed, or a pelleted feed we rely on the safety of that feed for our equines.

What happens when that trust is broken?

Most feed companies offer feed for many different species of animal.  Cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and ducks all require different nutrients.  They all require different medications as well.  These manufacturers don’t always use separate equipment for each formulation, that would require too much equipment and be wasteful.

The problem arises when medication is added to the feed for one species and the next batch is intended for another species.  These factories pump out thousands of pounds of feed, so some contamination is bound to happen.  Some pieces are bound to get caught in the cracks and crevices through the stages of mixing and milling.

Sadly, mistakes happen despite the best efforts of some companies and when this happens animals suffer.  Horses die.

Bovine and poultry feeds are often mixed with a chemical called monensin.  This is an ionophore that is used “medicate” cows and chickens as protection against harmful illness like coccidiosis.

For a reason that still evades me through my research, horses are exceptionally more sensitive to this compound than the other barnyard animals.  They can be 20x more sensitive than cows and 200x than chickens.  If horses get only a small amount of monensin they could suffer the consequences, of which there is no cure.

There are two memorable examples of things going horrifically wrong that come to mind.  One of these was Western Milling poisoned 50 horses and killed 13 on a farm in California.  Thirteen beloved horses tragically passed and the video is enough to haunt your memories for life.  I’ve embedded the video here in order to drive the importance of minding your feed manufacturer.  Please don’t watch if you don’t think you’re ready.  Although it’s an ugly truth we can rise and become more educated on how to prevent such horrors.

The other example I think about took 12 horses in Florida back in 2014.  Lakeland Animal Nutrition was responsible for this event.

A third almost catastrophe was a farm in California last April (2017).  Two horses died on this farm with unknown causes.  There were traces of monensin in their systems, but they could not confirm the source.  Nutrena SafeChoice had been pointed at and it caused widespread panic on Facebook.  Many people I know including myself and vets feed Nutrena’s SafeChoice so it was concerning to hear about.  In June 2017 Nutrena released a statement stating multiple tests of the feed from third party laboratories were proven to be negative for monensin.

What do you need to Know?

Monensin is one of seven ionophores used in feed; it is the most popular and common.  The other six include lasalocid, salinomycin, narasin, maduramicin, laidlomycin, and semduramicin.  Each has its own level of toxicity.  For monensin a lethal dose can be as little as 1.4mg/kg (compared to 214.0 in chickens and 26.4 in cattle).

Ionophores attack cardiac, skeletal, and neurological processes.  The compound itself affects how materials pass through lipid membranes in the cell walls.  A horse who has been poisoned with ionophores may suffer heart failure and sudden death but can also appear weak or unsteady.  The horse may appear depressed or go off its feed. It may colic, have diarrhea, and tests will show elevated muscle enzymes.

There is no cure once a horse has ingested ionophores.

Horses suffering can be supported with electrolytes and fluids.  Vets can administer an IV and drugs to aid the heart.

Mind Your Feed Manufacturer!

Because there’s no cure, you must be diligent in paying attention to your feed.  Don’t store your horse feed with cattle or poultry feeds.

Contact your feed manufacturer and find a knowledgeable representative who can answer your questions.  Some things that you might ask:

  • Which mill does my feed get mixed?
  • Does this mill mix feed for other species?  Are the other feeds medicated with ionophores?
  • Are you an FDA approved mill?
  • What clean-out procedures do you use to ensure that my horse feed does not get contaminated?

The Paulick Report has an excellent list of questions to consider as well.  The link is below!

In New York I use Nutrena SafeChoice.  I have personally spoken to representatives from Nutrena, Poulin, Blue Seal, and Triple Crown over the years.  What I’ve learned is that these three feed companies are safe and trustworthy.  Unfortunately, none of the websites address these concerns.  As a horse owner I would be more likely to purchase my feed from a company who is 100% transparent about where the feed is mixed.

The information I have below is what I have been told within the last year.  I certainly hope I’ve been told accurate information but without evidence I’m unable to verify.  I have been told conflicting information in the past by sneaky representatives who want to downplay the competition.  Such inaccuracies make me question the source of the information, and I rule that company out completely when their representatives start talking poorly of others.

  • Cargill/Nutrena’s mill for the northeast is located in Albany, NY.  They mix horsefeed and NON-MEDICATED feeds.  The medicated feeds are mixed in an entirely separate location.
  • Blue Seal also mixes their feed separate from medicated in the Arcade, NY location.
  • Poulin is a smaller company in Vermont but it’s also an excellent choice for Northeastern horse-people.  As with the larger companies the website is difficult to peruse when looking for this information but the customer representatives are very friendly and responsive.
  • Triple Crown does not manufacture its own feed.  Instead it contracts other mills to do it for them.  This is a common option for any industry, and can be very beneficial.  What I don’t like, however, is the constant switching of contracts.  A few years ago Cargill (Nutrena) was mixing Triple Crown’s feed in Albany, then a few months later I learned it had switched to Blue Seal.  At Equine Affaire I heard again that the contract went to Purina.  Although it’s most likely to be safe (and it’s a high quality feed) I chose not to continue purchasing Triple Crown for this reason.  I’m sure Triple Crown has high standards each mill must meet to obtain the contract, but I’m particular in that I want to know exactly where that feed has come from.

I’ve met a few of Nutrena’s reps over the years at various education seminars, and met many reps from all the companies at Equine Affaire in November.  My top three of course are Nutrena, Blue Seal, and Poulin.  The representatives were friendly, available, and informed.  There were other feed companies (including Triple Crown) that were not so friendly.

I live in the Northeast so if you live elsewhere your feed companies are going to differ greatly.  Even the Nutrena plants aren’t entirely uniform across the states.  Make sure to find your rep and get the information you need!

!TIP! Your feed bags have a tag on the outside sewn into the bottom.  This usually shows the guaranteed analysis and can point you to the location of where that bag was manufactured.

This was a long one today, and I could go on.  Tell me, now, did I miss anything?

Is there anything you’d like to know more about on this subject?

Don’t forget to check out some of the links below.  These are great references and resources for further reading.

Past Events

DVM360 on the 2014 Tragedy in Florida

The Horseaholic on the 2016 California Tragedy of 50 Horses

Horse Nation on the April 2017 Monensin Scare

Nutrena’s Statement Regarding the 2017 Equine Deaths in CA

Further Reading

FDA Feed Manufacturing Protocol

EquiNews – Don’t Risk Poisoning Your Horses with Cattle Feed

EquiNews – Ionophore Toxicity in Horses

Equus – Don’t Poison Your Horse with Cattle Feed

Institute of Agriculture University of Tennessee – Monensin Toxicity in Horses

Nutrena – Tech Talk: Ionophore Toxicity in Horses

Paulick Report – What Happened Here? Causes of Feed Contamination

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