Sugar Beet – an unsung hero

Mmmmm.... tasty!

Mmmmm…. tasty!

This should possibly be a ‘How Did I Live Without’ post, but I thought I’d chuck in a wee bit of science too.  Sugar beet is a very versatile feed which is generally underrated and underused.


The sugar beet pellets or shreds we buy for horse/livestock feed are a by-product of the British sugar industry. About 10 million tonnes of raw sugar beet are grown in Britain each year which produces about 1.5 million tonnes of sugar and just under a million tonnes of animal feed. The sugar is extracted from the flesh, leaving the root pulp behind. This is dried and pelleted or shredded and may have molasses added for palatability. compared to cereals.


Adding molasses makes it particularly suitable for competition horses as this then combines the immediate energy release of the sugar with the highly digestible fibre of the sugar beet which is a slow-release energy source.  One study replacing oats in the diet of competition horses with sugar beet pulp, showed higher muscle fuel (glycogen) levels and lowered levels of markers used to indicate intense muscle work. Research has shown that sugar beet can be safely fed up to 25% of the total diet – so an unsoaked weight of 3kg for a 500kg horse in average work.


Unmolassed sugar beet is a non-heating feed due to its high fibre and low starch levels and can be fed to all horses and ponies, including laminitics, as a good fibre source. One unmolassed brand, Speedibeet, carries the Laminitis Trust logo. Sugar beet should be fed alongside a vitamin/mineral supplement because although it has a higher calcium content than most cereals  it is not effective in balancing the mineral shortages in forages. Unmolassed sugar beet is high fibre and low sugar. It is also high in digestible energy – at nearly 13MJ/kg DM it is just lower in energy than oats on a weight for weight pre-soaked comparison. So it has the energy of a cereal but is digested more like a forage. It is extremely easily and quickly digested and decreases the risk of large intestinal upsets compared to cereals.


The raw root as it looks when it comes out of the ground

The raw root as it looks when it comes out of the ground

For all of you pony-clubbers of BHS exam stalwarts out there you’ll have had drummed into you over and over again the importance of soaking sugar beet pellets for a minimum of 24 hours before feeding. Surprisingly this is unneccessary! An American study fed unsoaked sugar beet to horses up to a level of 45% of their total diet showing no side effects at all.  No choke, no colic and no change in the water content of their faeces. It makes sense when you think about it logically. Given the length of time and large quantities of water  it takes to soak sugar beet pellets in a bucket it is highly unlikely that this quantity of fluid will be present in the oesophagus of the horse, and the transit time between the mouth and the oesophagus is measured in seconds anyway – it doesn’t sit around halfway down for a few hours waiting for a bucketful of water to come along and make it expand! Any chokes that I’ve endoscoped where sugar beet pellets have been involved (not actually a huge proportion) have shown the pellets stuck in the oesophagus in their original form, no expansion having taken place. This is usually the result of a horse guzzling its food and is just as likely to occur with any pellet the same size and shape. Most people don’t realise that unsoaked pellets are actually added to a lot of coarse mixes in small quantities.


All that said, I do soak my sugar beet as I like to increase the liquid intake of meals, especially for competition horses, and I do think it makes it more palatable. However I generally only do so for 8-12 hours, and I don’t worry if it turns out to be less than that. All of my horses get a heaped Stubbs scoop of soaked molassed sugar beet added to their feed twice daily. I also take it to competitions when I’m staying away – it has a high palatibility factor, which is useful if horses are stressed by staying away, it adds fluid to the diet and you can use some of the soaking liquid to add to water buckets to increase water intake.


Replacing some or all of a starchy concentrate diet with sugar beet provides a higher fibre, lower starch and overall, healthier meal for horses. And it’s cheap! What’s not to like?


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The Eventing Vet

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