Sugar Beet (Beta vulgaris)
What is sugar beet?
Sugar beet is a traditional and popular feed ingredient for horses and is a byproduct of the extraction of sugar from the root of the plant or the “beet”. The pulp that is left over when the sugar has been extracted forms the basis for the “sugar beet” products fed to horses and ponies and many farm animals. However, not all sugar beet products are produced in the same way, and how they are produced can have a significant effect on quality. The pulp remaining after the sugar has been extracted is dried, but it may then be left raw or cooked and converted into pellets, flakes or “shreds”.
How is sugar beet processed?
During sugar production, the beets are cleaned and shredded into “cossettes” and the juice is extracted by using hot water (60-70°C) and the sugar extracted from the juice. After juice extraction, the extracted fibrous material, which mostly consists of the sugar beet cell wall and about 2-4% sugar, is the sugar beet pulp. To produce dehydrated sugar beet pulp, the pulp is first pressed to remove as much remaining sugar and water as possible and then dehydrated in a drum dryer to around 10% moisture and pelletized. Molasses can be added which actually helps preserve the product longer.
1000kg of sugar beet produces 150kg of sugar and 50kg of dried pulp. The reason the yield is so low is that of course the sugar beet root is around 75% water!
Some of the reasons Sugar Beet is viewed or promoted as a good feed for horses and ponies include:
- High fibre
- Low in sugar and starch (unless molassed)
- Can increase fibre digestibility
- Viewed as “safe” and “non-heating”
- Aids hydration when fed wet
- Sugar beet water can promote drinking
- Good base for feeding supplements and/or medicines
- Relatively inexpensive
- Good for older horses or horses with poor dental health
Sugar beet nutritional values
In the figure below we can see the typical range in nutritional values for dried, unmolassed sugar beet (Source: Feedipedia). For example, starch may be as low as nearly 0 but could be as high as nearly 5%, depending on when the sugar beet was harvested, how it was processed, etc. It’s therefore always essential to look at the label on any sugar beet product before making a decision as to whether it’s suitable for your horse or pony.
As for the previous figure, the lowest and highest expected values are shown for the main minerals in the figure below. Sugar beet is often referred to as a good source of calcium, but this may vary from as little as 6g/kg to 23g/kg. Considering that dried sugar beet takes up around 5 times its own volume in water when soaked before feeding, a Stubbs scoop of 2.5l of soaked Sugar Beet would equate to 1/6th Sugar Beet (1 part Sugar Beet + 5 parts Water). So 500ml of the scoop would be dried Sugar Beet. 500ml of a typical dried Sugar Beet product weighs 290g.
So how much calcium would a Stubbs scoop of soaked Sugar Beet provide? Actually only as little as 1.8g or as much as 6.7g, with an average of 4.2g. Not very much. Especially when considering that a 500kg adult horse not in work (maintenance) requires at least 20g of calcium a day and a 500kg adult horse in exercise requires 40g/day.
Sugar Beet also looks to be high in Manganese and zinc, but low in Copper. But again, when we look at the actual amount of soaked Sugar Beet fed in terms of a Stubbs scoop, the Zinc would not be very high. If we take an average value of 22mg Zinc/kg, this only equates to 6.4mg in a Stubbs scoop of soaked Sugar Beet. Nothing at all when you consider the amount a 500kg adult horse not in work needs per day is 400mg!
As you can see from the graph, iron has to be shown as a separate bar (in green) as the values are very high. Much of this may be due to soil contamination, and how well the beets are washed before processing can have an impact on the iron level in the finished product. To what extent this iron is absorbed from the gut of the horse is open to debate and there are very few if any studies on this, with companies making and selling Sugar Beet products claiming that the iron is “not available” and “is not absorbed”. Further research is needed here as excess iron is not an energy booster, does not increase red blood cell numbers, does not boost the immune system and can be highly detrimental due to its role in generating free radicals or oxidants, which lead to tissue damage and inflammation.
We have various articles on Iron – to learn more about Iron follow the links below:
The figure below shows the main nutritional values for Sugar Beet in comparison with a number of common forage or fibre alternatives. We can see that Soybean Hulls, which are becoming increasingly popular, are higher in fibre, but have a similar protein, oil and energy content to Sugar Beet. Soybean hulls are higher in starch than Sugar Beet but lower in sugar, so the sum of starch+sugar is similar for both. You can also see that wheat bran is not a great choice for many horses. Low in fibre and high in starch and sugar. Grass pellets (Dengie) and Alfalfa pellets are also a good alternative.
The hygienic quality of pressed and wet pulp is a concern when considering feeding to horses and ponies, but dried and pelleted beet pulp products generally have a very low level of microbial contamination.
Nutritional values of common sugar beet products
The graphs below allow owners to directly compare 9 of the most commonly fed pure sugar beet or mainly sugar beet products on the market. For example, if you are looking for a high fibre product then Fast Fibre by Allen & Page is the highest of this group at 26%. On the other hand, if you are looking for the lowest combined sugar and starch content, then Kwikbeet (Dodson and Horrell), 10 Minute Beet (Equiglo) and Speed-Beet (British Horse Feeds) are the lowest at around 6%.
All the products are 100% sugar beet with the exception of Fibre-Beet (British Horse Feeds), Fast Fibre (Allen and Page) and Veteran Vitality (Allen & Page). British Horse Feeds and Allen and Page were approached to ask if they would indicate what % of their products were sugar beet, but both declined to provide this information on the basis that it was intellectual property/commercially sensitive/confidential. Both companies do provide the information on their packaging required by UK feed regulations and they are not under any obligation to provide the information I requested.
With respect to Speedi-Beet (British Horse Feeds)*, the ingredients are listed “in descending order” as: Speedi-Beet Flakes, Alfalfa Nuts, Oatfeed Pellets, Cane Molasses, Vegetable Fat, Biotin, Peppermint. This means that Speedi-Beet is either the main ingredient or in the same proportion as Alfalfa nuts and oatfeed pellets e.g. Speedi-Beet Flakes (30%), Alfalfa Nuts (30%), Oatfeed Pellets (30%). The consumer has no way of knowing and this may affect the decision to purchase.
For Fast-Fibre (Allen and Page)*, the composition is given as: Nutritionally Improved Straw Pellets, Molasses Free Beet Pulp, Oat Feed, Linseed Expeller (6.7%), Di-calcium Phosphate, Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Mint, Fenugreek, Organic Soya Oil, Yeast, Fructo-oligosaccharides. So either the main ingredient is nutritionally improved straw pellets and molasses-free beet pulp is the second ingredient by % or it could be that nutritionally improved straw pellets and sugar beet make up 40% each. Again, the consumer has no way of knowing.
Similarly, with Veteran Vitality (Allen and Page), the composition is given as: Molasses Free Beet Pulp, Wheat Feed, Nutritionally Improved Straw Pellets, Linseed (10%), Field Beans, Calcium Carbonate, Salt, Mint, Di-calcium Phosphate, Yeast, Organic Soya Oil, Nettle, Dandelion, Garlic, Fenugreek, Cloves, Fructo-oligosaccharides, Mannan-oligosaccharides. So molasses-free beet pulp MAY be the main ingredient, but it could be 80% or 20%. Or molasses-free beet pulp could be 13%, wheat feed could be 12%, nutritionally improved straw pellets could be 11% and linseed 10%. We really can’t tell very much from the composition.
*This information was taken from manufacturers’ websites on 21/09/23.
Considerations for feeding Sugar Beet
There are a number of things to bear in mind when feeding sugar beet.
- Introduce slowly. If you are going to start feeding sugar beet, even if you have previously fed your horse on sugar beet say over winter and are starting again in the autumn, you should introduce it slowly in order to reduce the risk of hindgut disturbance/colic. This applies to any feed and even when changing from one type of forage to another.
- Feed regularly. Many owners feed Sugar Beet as a “treat” or after hard work, however, it is preferable to feed a smaller amount daily and avoid the sudden introduction of Sugar Beet or any other feed (e.g. bran mash) as this has a high possibility of causing hindgut disturbance.
- Select an appropriate product. Not all sugar beet products are the same as you can see from the figures. Be careful in your choice, especially if you are trying to manage weight or have a laminitis-prone horse or pony. If you have an older horse or pony or one that struggles to maintain condition, especially over the winter then a higher energy product may be more suitable.
- Water volume for soaking. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for how much water to add to how much sugar beet and how long to leave it. We will be checking out these recommendations and posting the results.
- Hygienic quality after soaking or storing. Sugar beet products which are low in moisture and stored well are likely to have low bacterial and/or mould counts unless they were poorly harvested and processed. Once water is added, this can change rapidly, and the problem is worse in warm weather. This is another aspect we will be looking into in some forthcoming testing.
- Iron content. Sugar beet products can be high in iron. Manufacturers usually claim this isn’t “available” to the horse and so it’s not an issue but the jury is still out on this one. If your horse has a condition linked to high iron intake then it may be wise to take this into consideration.
- Sugar Beet as a Source of Calcium. Whilst often promoted as a great source of calcium, the calcium content of sugar beet is actually quite low. Don’t rely on sugar beet to supply your horses’ calcium needs.
- Colic. A study published in 2013 from the University Liverpool Veterinary School by Suthers et al. (Suthers JM, Pinchbeck GL, Proudman CJ, Archer DC. Risk factors for large colon volvulus in the UK. Equine Vet J. 2013 Sep;45(5):558-63.) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23414461/ found that horses that had been fed Sugar Beet within the past 28 days were twice as likely to develop large colon volvulus (a form of colic involving twisting of the colon). Large colon volvulus is extremely painful, progresses rapidly and is often fatal and has been estimated to represent around 10-20% of colic cases admitted to veterinary hospitals. No other studies have reported similar findings but it may be worth considering whether to feed sugar beet in horses with a previous history on large colon-related colic.
- Vitamins and Minerals. Processed sugar beet is generally poor in vitamins and minerals so you may need to consider adding a vitamin and mineral balancer if it makes up a significant part of your horse’s diet.
- Can you feed sugar beet dry? If you are feeding small amounts of processed, dried sugar beat in the form of pellets or flakes then it’s not necessary to soak it before feeding. For small amount we are talking less than a cupful – around 250ml of processed sugar beet or 145g. However, if you have a horse or pony that is prone to impaction colic or choke then it would be advisable to always soak sugar beet before feeding any amount.
Video – Sugar Beet Survey, The Results
Now watch our video sharing the results from our Sugar Beet Survey!