A research partnership between the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) and a Rochester, Minn.-based horse feed manufacturer has produced a nutrient-dense equine “super feed.” The product is drawing rave reviews, and surging demand, from horse owners across the country— even before it is available for purchase.
Mary Hartman is the founder and owner of Fundamental Feeds, a company that sells chia-based horse supplements and other products. Hartman has loved horses since she was a young girl. In grade school she received special permission to check out books on horses from the high school library after she exhausted the inventory at her own school library. She bought her first dressage horse about 10 years ago and hoped to ride it for many years. Unfortunately, the animal developed health problems after working with a trainer.
Wary of starting the animal on medication, Hartman began to examine the horse’s diet. She started feeding the horse chia-based products to treat her stomach ulcers and other maladies. She immediately noticed an improvement in the horse’s health and appearance. The chia-based diet improved the animal’s immune function and the quality of the hooves, skin and hair. The chia product also benefited the animal’s gastric health in the stomach and hindgut.
“So, the more I read and the more I gave my products to other horses the more I realized that there is a significant connection between some of the health problems these animals have and what we are and are not feeding them.”
Hartman eventually turned those homemade supplements into a business. Fundamental Feeds produces more than 3,000 chia biscuits a week and routinely has to decline orders around the world because the company simply does not have the inventory.
After the success of the chia products, Hartman developed an idea for a new horse feed product. She wanted the product to closely mimic the kind of diet horses would have if foraging for food in the wild. Wild horses eat as many as 25 different kinds of protein in a day, Hartman says. Traditional store-bought feeds offer much less variety.
“A large part of the problem is we feed horses based on what is cheap and easily available for us. As a result, we are not providing much diversity for the animals in their diet,” she says. “With this product I really wanted to create something that would be similar to what horses would see in the wild when they are out foraging. It would change seasonally, too, based on the growing season.”
Armed with an idea, Hartman needed technical assistance and lab equipment to begin development. Then, a business associate referred her to AURI. She successfully applied for a grant, and in 2018 started work on developing her equine feed at AURI’s Waseca Pilot Lab. There, she partnered with a team led by Alan Doering, AURI’s coproducts senior scientist. Associate Scientist Abel Tekeste, Engineer Riley Gordon and Senior Project Strategist Michael Sparby rounded out AURI’s team.
“The equine feed was exciting to work on because it showcased one of AURI’s developing capabilities and helped a small business owner take the next step in the growth of her business,” Doering says. AURI has done a lot of work assisting in the formulation and development of animal feed, but not much specifically for high performance horses.
“This project is a great example of how we can help entrepreneurs that are on the cusp of a significant innovation. Mary came in with an idea of how to grow her business, and AURI helped move the idea to reality through technical expertise and equipment,” Doering says of the collaboration. “There is always satisfaction working on projects that wind up in the marketplace and that will benefit not only our client’s business, but other Minnesota businesses as well.”
The AURI team assisted on complete feed formulation, densification trials and process requirement along with assistance identifying potential ingredient suppliers and toll-manufacturers. The team is also working with Hartman to get the feed tag certified by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
It was a challenging and rewarding project to work on, Doering says. Hartman had a specific list of ingredients she wanted included in the recipe for the feed not commonly found in animal diet balancing software. She also had target nutritional and vitamin levels she wanted to achieve. The challenge was to combine all the ingredients into a product that hit the desired levels that was also palatable to horses.
“Mary had very high standards,” Doering says. “There are products that she wanted to use that are just not that common in diet formulation and pelleting projects. The fun part was going through the different variations to meet the levels of protein, minerals and antioxidants that she was looking for. It was kind of like bartering. We would adjust the amount of one ingredient and then had to adjust another ingredient to correspond. Watching the ingredients mix and match with each to reach the final goal was rewarding to our team.”
Hartman says she created the recipe being mindful of the kinds of plants that would be available to a wild horse. Those plants are changing due to climate change and other environmental factors.
“I think it is important to pay attention to how what we are doing is affecting the planet and the diet of these animals,” she says. “I wanted to have something that utilized our planet’s resources and also changed the way people think about feeding our horses. What we have been using up until now is cheap, and not well made.”
A key ingredient in the feed is Sainfoin. While this perennial legume is grown in the western United States, Mary hopes to eventually source the majority of the feed ingredients from Minnesota producers. She is actively seeking producers willing to grow a wide range of specialty crops. She is already sourcing the dehydrated carrots in the recipe from a MN company.
“I wanted to use actual feed, not a lot of fillers or artificial products. And then I had other things like bee pollen and chia that I included for specific reasons,” Hartman says. “It was important to me that the horses metabolize this feed to get the nutrients they need. That is where Alan’s team was so amazing. They worked very hard to find the right balance between all of these ingredients.”
The end result, called StableFeed, is a nutrient dense feed pellet served to an animal with mixed forage. The final testing numbers are impressive. While most products result in 45 to 60 percent digestible energy, Hartman’s product hit 75 percent digestible energy. There are 14 different plant proteins in the product with a four-pound daily feeding meeting most of a horse’s nutritional needs.
“By having it in a minimal four-pound package that is the ‘super food’ aspect of it,” Doering says. “You are getting a lot of nutritional punch out of a limited quantity.”
After developing the feed, Hartman sent it out for palatability testing. She selected 100 of the “pickiest” horse owners she could find for an informal trial. Without exception the feedback was positive.
StableFeed will be available for sale later this year, but there is already interest and demand from riders and trainers of high level performance horses.
“The reaction has been phenomenal,” Doering says. “There are championship level stables that want to use the product.”
This product line was designed with the goal of feeding a variety of ingredients to the horse based on natural selective behaviors a horse has and the ingredients’ ability to add health benefits to a horse’s diet, rather than feeding them a ‘monoculture’ type diet with limited ingredients. The product focuses on utilizing specialty ingredients for improved health and performance.
Hartman says she could not have developed the feed product without the assistance of the AURI team.
Building on the success of that collaboration, Hartman says she has plans for new equine feed products.
“We can do better and we need to. We must be mindful and purposeful in what we feed these animals because our demands on horses are incredibly high,” Hartman says. “They are poorly built for what we use them for. I would love for my tiny company to be able to grow into something that changes the way people think about feeding their horses, so the industry does an about face and ultimately provides a higher quality feed for these animals that leads to better long-term health.”