How to prevent your horse's feed from spoiling

Can you tell when your horse’s feed is no longer suitable for him to eat? Recognizing the signs of spoilage, and taking steps to prevent it, will save you both a lot of grief.

If you’ve ever unearthed a moldy container of gravy or stew at the back of your fridge, then you know how easy it is to tell when food has spoiled. But not all of us know what spoiled horse feed looks or smells like. We may not be aware of proper food storage techniques, what to look for when purchasing feeds (whether forage, grain or supplements) and how to recognize when feeds have gone bad.

Ingesting spoiled feeds can make your horse sick, and may result in exorbitant veterinary costs as well as lost performance. Spoiled grain or hay can cause colic, respiratory illnesses and spontaneous abortions, among other issues.

Spoilage can also result in decreased nutritional value in feeds, particularly with grain products but also with hay. Many vitamins and minerals are leached out of the food when the product hasn’t been put up or stored properly. Malnutrition can result. And finally, there’s the added cost of feed spoilage in your barn. You lose the value of the feed by having to replace it, and you often have to spend even more to dispose of the spoiled feed.

Reduce the risk of spoilage

1. Purchase high quality products from reputable dealers.

The chances of spoilage are decreased when you start with a better product that has been prepared and stored properly. Let’s go back to the leftovers in your fridge for a moment. You probably notice that meals prepared properly and with high quality ingredients last longer in the refrigerator than those from less reputable sources. For example, the steak and potatoes you brought home from a fancy restaurant will likely last longer than the hamburger and fries from a fast food joint.

2. Buy feeds from dealers who use proper storage methods.

If the feeds haven’t been stored properly before you purchase them, the risk of spoilage increases dramatically. Also, be sure you and your feed supplier practice “FIFO” practices – first-in-first-out. Again, think about your own food usage. It’s best to use up the strawberry jam you bought last month before opening the jar you bought yesterday.

3. Be careful not to purchase too much feed at once.

This isn’t as critical with hay, if you store it properly, as it is with grain and supplement products, but the rule of thumb for grain-based feeds is a one to two month supply.

4. Pay attention to expiration dates on feed/supplement bags or labels.

Don’t purchase the feeds if you can’t use them up before the expiration date. You probably wouldn’t purchase a gallon of milk if the expiration date was the following day. Use the same criteria when buying feed for your animals. S

Store feed properly

Feeds should be stored in cool, dry locations with adequate ventilation. The area should be kept clean and free of bugs and varmints. Grains and supplement products should be stored in dry bins with tight-fitting lids. Place the contents of open feed bags into bins.

There is much debate over whether you should use metal or plastic storage containers. Your decision depends on what kind of feed you’re storing, and your environment. Just be sure to understand the advantages and risks of each storage method. Metal containers provide a better barrier to pests — a rat can chew through plastic more easily than metal. And metal containers are typically more difficult to overturn than plastic. Conversely, heavy plastic containers can offer a lower risk of condensation in warmer, more humid environments, and typically have lids that seal more tightly than metal containers, keeping out bugs.

If you are storing unopened sacks of feed, be sure you have a vapor barrier underneath the bags as well good ventilation all around. This is critical with hay storage as well. You must increase air circulation around the feed, and reduce or eliminate the risk of dampness from the floor.

It is also critical to consider the climate in your area. Heat and humidity in the south or during the summer months can increase the risk of spoilage. Sweet feeds that contain molasses can freeze into hard blocks during cold weather. Think about your individual environment when considering feed storage locations and techniques, and consult with your local agricultural agency for assistance and advice.

Open your eyes – and nose!

How can you recognize spoiled hay or grain? What should you look for? Let’s go back to your refrigerator again — some of the techniques will be the same. Visually inspect the feed. You need to look for the following:

• Changes in texture – the hay that once was fluffy is now clumpy or packed together. The grain is clumpy, or a pelleted feed is now dry and breaking down into dust.
• Change in color – molds are often white, blue or green.
• Dust – both hay and grain products can get dusty from mold or age.
• Smell – spoiled grain may smell rancid. Spoiled hay will smell moldy. Sometimes spoiled food has a fruity odor – think how fragrant rotten apples become!
• Bugs – look for signs of bugs in your grain, such as droppings.
• Animal droppings – both hay and grain can become infested with varmints (rats, mice, opossums, etc.) that carry diseases. Be sure to watch for signs of pests in feed storage areas as well as in the feeds themselves. Consider enlisting he assistance of barn predators (both cats and dogs) for pest control. Be careful when using chemical deterrents, as the poisons you utilize to eradicate the pests may contaminate the feed.

Another sign of spoiled feed is a horse’s refusal to consume it. While this behavior can have many causes, if your horse is off his feed then you need to check for spoilage. And keep in mind that molasses in feeds can cover many ills, even before the product reaches your barn. Moldy or rancid grains can be used by disreputable manufacturers and made more palatable by adding molasses.

When in doubt, throw it out!

Back to the leftovers in the fridge — if they’re suspect, I’m sure you’d throw them out rather than risk illness. The same rule applies to your horse’s feed. If you see any signs of trouble, you’re better off not taking any risks and simply disposing of the feed.

Remember that grain products attract rodents and bugs, so don’t keep spoiled feeds sitting around. Get them out of the barn and away from your horses – dispose of them off the property. I am often asked if spoiled horse grain can be fed to cows or other ruminants, but mold and other toxins in spoiled feeds can also harm livestock.

Be aware that the mold can quickly spread from one hay bale to another. When you find moldy hay, get it out of your storage area right away. Many gardeners and landscapers are eager to have spoiled hay for weed block, compost material, erosion control, mulch, etc. If you can’t use the hay yourself, you might be able to find a local landscaper or even a neighbor who can make use of it.

You make the decision whether or not to eat something that’s been in your fridge too long, but your horse cannot make that choice. He’ll either consume spoiled feed or refuse to eat. Both can cause serious problems. It’s up to you to be a good pantry steward for your horse. Pay attention to your buying and storage methods, and keep an eye open for spoilage and signs of infestation. Both you and your horse will be healthier for it!


Sandy Siegrist is a lifelong horsewoman who practices natural horsemanship, healing and horse care techniques. She works with clients throughout the U.S. to evaluate their feeding and horsekeeping programs based on their horses’ specific needs. She also does energy work and overall health analyses, often taking in horses for more extensive rehabilitation. Sandy’s approach to horse care is based on natural and alternative therapy techniques and incorporates bio-energy testing, cranio-sacral therapy, acupressure, kinetics, herbs and flower essences, among others. Her lectures and articles address nutrition, hoof care, bodywork, worming, vaccinations, and emotional wellbeing, grounded in maintaining a more natural environment and healthcare practices .