Nutrition consultants have been a fact of life in the dairy and beef feedlot sectors of animal agriculture for a long time. In those enterprises where profit margins are slim and production response to feed formulation is measurable, consultants have more than been able to justify their fees by showing increases in the milk tank or increases in amount and efficiency of gain.
Putting a number on the value of nutrition in general and specifically on the value of nutritional consultants in the horse industry has been more difficult. Increased gain is not really an issue, the impact of nutrition on reproductive efficiency is hard to measure; and for the performance horse, faster times and more wins are so multi-factorial that it is difficult to isolate the impact of nutrition. So what is the role of the nutrition consultant on the farm? Further, is there a combined role that the farm consultant can play with respect to the feed manufacturer?
The consultant and the farm
Why do farms hire consultants? There are myriad reasons a farm might have for hiring a consultant in several of the areas of expertise related to horse production. The first and foremost reason to bring in a consultant may be the value of having an impartial outside observer who, on a scheduled basis, examines the reproductive, growth or performance response of horses on the farm.
In many cases the farm may have the expertise in-house, but the farms that are the most successful are always willing to get an unbiased evaluation from outside to make sure that the efficiency of the farm is optimal. In terms of the horse enterprise, this does not generally mean saving money but rather in most cases means accomplishing goals more effectively.
There is no area of emphasis on the farm where the input of a consultant is more valuable than in the development of the nutrition program. A nutrition consultant may be uniquely qualified to evaluate rations and feed ingredients used on the farm, to recommend forages for pastures and to ensure that the concentrate and forage feeding programs are complementary. Evaluating nutrient intake based on the total ration rather than just on the concentrate feed is important if the nutrient requirements of the horses are to be accurately met.
The role of the consultant is to translate general feeding recommendations for various classes of horses on the farm into specific feeding programs that allow nutrient requirements to be met. Consultants allow specific feeding programs to be developed based on the actual feeds and horses on the farm and monitor closely the horse’s response to feeding. Based on these responses the consultant, along with farm personnel, can adjust intake levels, concentrations of nutrients and the products being used to make the feeding program fit the unique needs of the farm.
Another extremely important aspect of the relationship between the consultant and the farm is the perceived objectivity that the consultant brings. The farm depends on the nutrition consultant to spot check feeds, assess the quality of the ingredients used in the feeds and in general ensure that they are ‘getting what they pay for’ from the feed manufacturer. This does not mean the farm does not trust the manufacturer, but rather that the nutrition consultant is in a position to offer an unbiased evaluation of the feeds and supplements purchased.
The truly objective consultant should not be concerned where a farm buys feed, only that the manufacturer makes the best quality, most nutritionally accurate feeds possible. This aspect of the consultant’s job need not be combative or confrontational but requires complete objectivity.
The consultant and the feed manufacturer - the farm’s perspective
As far as the farm is concerned, the consultant is an employee of the farm and should have only the interest of the farm in mind. The farm, by making the decision to purchase a manufacturer’s products, has essentially said “we want to work with X manufacturer”.
In making that decision the farm has also said in a manner of speaking “we want our consultant to work with X manufacturer to ensure that our nutrition program works”. This should then establish a spirit of cooperation rather than a spirit of confrontation if all parties keep the primary objective, service to the client, in mind. One of the things that I tell clients as an independent consultant is that it is their decision from whom they purchase feed. It is then my role to work with that manufacturer to ensure that the feed needs of the farm are met.
One of the more stressful aspects of being a nutrition consultant or a consultant of any kind is keeping the needs of the farm foremost while being fair and honest with the feed manufacturer. Nowhere is this more of an issue than with the laboratory analysis of feeds.
My approach is to properly sample feeds, send the samples to a reputable lab for analysis and then communicate those results to the farm as well as to the feed manufacturer. In instances where the laboratory nutrient analyses do not make sense, I discuss the issue with the feed manufacturer, since I understand all too well the vagaries of laboratory analysis.
In 90% of these instances, the manufacturer is more than willing to discuss the nutrient specifications they are trying to achieve so that I can honestly evaluate their products as they relate to my client’s program. In the other 10% of cases, the manufacturers have basically said that the nutrient specifications of their feed are none of my business and they are no longer selling feed to my clients.
A single laboratory analysis cannot be viewed as the absolute truth. There is a great deal of variation in laboratory values on the same feeds and most nutritionists have many times gone through the exercise of sending duplicate samples to the same lab or to different labs and received entirely different results. One must remember that the farm wants to believe the results of the independent evaluation of feeds by their consultant. This means the consultant has the responsibility of integrity above reproach in the sampling and interpretation of the lab results from feed samples. It is unprofessional to use a single, unsubstantiated lab report as a way in which to get people to change manufacturers.
There is also little point. From the standpoint of feed nutrient specs, recommendations among nutritionists are not all that different. When feeds submitted for analysis are reported to be outside the normal range for a nutrient, either sampling was poor, a mistake was made at the lab or something happened at the mill the manufacturer does not know about.
Only rarely are poor lab results the result of mistakes made in mixing feed. The farm hires the consultant to communicate with the feed manufacturer (their supplier) to get what that individual farm needs. If the manufacturer wants to maintain the business, he needs to listen to what the consultant wants to do for the farm. If this entire exercise is approached in the spirit of cooperation everyone generally comes out a winner.
The consultant and the feed manufacturer - the feed manufacturer’s perspective
From the standpoint of the feed manufacturer, working with a consultant for a customer they have in common should be a very positive thing. Most feeding problems are usually not the feed, but the way in which the feeds are managed. If a farm has a nutrition consultant, feeding management should be optimized and as a result the feed company’s product performs very well. Not all farms that hire a nutritionist require a custom formula from the manufacturer. There are many times when the standard range of feeds the company produces are appropriate for meeting the needs of horses on even the largest of farms.
Consultants should not use custom formulation to justify fees when the standard feeds offered will do just as well. On the other hand, there are certainly times when custom formulas or at least a ‘custom’ version of a standard formula are needed. If a farm wants a custom formula and if the consultant responsible for the feed agrees or makes this suggestion independently, then it is best by far to accommodate that customer.
Many manufacturers are uncomfortable with the concept of independent consultants. They view consultants as paid critics who might send their customers to another feed company or at the very least will insist they make complicated, manufacturer-unfriendly formulas. This need not be the case. Manufacturers must realize that farms are going to hire outside advisors and that the best approach with most of these consultants is a spirit of cooperation. It would be very difficult for a consultant to tell a customer he needs to change feed companies when the manufacturer stands ready to accommodate.
On the other hand, it is very easy for me to redirect clients when the feed manufacturer is confrontational, rigid and uncompromising.
Manufacturers must realize that many times consultants are really evaluating the net effect of the entire feeding program and may even be adding input in areas other than just the nutrient specs of the feed. It is important to be able to evaluate the response of the horse to feeding.
Any consultant worth having should also be a horseman or should at least understand what the farm is trying to achieve with their horses. As such, a consultant that might be very effective when working with Thoroughbred horses for the race track might be totally ineffective when advising Quarter Horse breeders trying to raise foals for halter futurities.
As a corollary to this, the feed manufacturer makes recommendations for feeding their products that may be appropriate for one breed or class of horses, but may fall short of meeting the needs of another breed or class of horses. It is the consultant’s role to incorporate the feeds available into a feeding program that allows the horse breeder the greatest opportunity to succeed.
There are many times when a certain product may be adequate for the majority of the horses on the farm but for one reason or another some horses just do not perform as well on that same ration. At this point, the nutritionist should be able to recommend various nutritional tools that will allow the outliers to thrive.
Examples might be the addition of vegetable oil, beet pulp, substitution of alfalfa for grass hay or vice versa, the addition of various vitamins, minerals or protein sources, etc. Basically the consultant allows for the accurate conversion of the feed the manufacturer produces into feeding and management programs that allow the nutrient requirements of the horse to be met.
The feed manufacturer feeds the average horse and the nutritional consultant ensures that the horses on the other ends of the bell curve thrive as well. Hopefully the consultant has had adequate exposure and experience to recognize when a horse is not doing well and can suggest nutritional strategies that can resolve the situation.
The rest of the story
Many of the nutritional consultants that work with farms are not only nutritionists but are horsemen also actively involved in raising horses. They may be judges, trainers, breeders or farriers with expertise in the science of nutrition. As such, these individuals have talents outside of the classic realm of the ‘nutritionist’. They understand what is being done with the horses and how to help the horse producer to achieve farm goals.
Nutrition, feeding management and an understanding of the impact of nutrition on growth and development, reproduction and work are only a part of what these people bring to the table. The smart feed manufacturer is one that tries to learn something from the feeding and management programs that a good consultant establishes.
Some of the tools and strategies that a consultant may use for one of a feed manufacturer’s clients are sure to have bearing on the horses that belong to other clients. It is common for feeds that worked for one customer, based on the recommendation of an outside consultant, to be developed for general use. Lets face it, if nutrition and production were as simple as formulating feeds and feeding them in the same manner across the board, most of us would be out of work and the business of raising horses would be a great deal easier.