Total mixed rations have come into their own in the cattle, poultry, hog and pet industries. In the horse industry, however, TMRs are virtually non-existent.

Harlan Anderson, Cokato, MN, hopes to change that.

Over the past several years, Anderson has developed a variety of cubed hay products — from garden mulch to a compost igniter. His latest project, “Senior Supper,” is a complete cubed ration aimed at owners of older horses.

The mixture of alfalfa, grass, ground oats and corn, minerals and vitamins, plus 1-2% of soybean oil, is soft and palatable. It gives older horses what they need nutritionally, says Anderson, a former veterinary practitioner. Other senior feeds are filled with molasses or other sugars to make them palatable, he says.

“The total-ration cube is no different from the dog nugget,” he says. Dog food has evolved from choice table scraps to a complete feed — something Anderson would like the horse industry to model.

“About three-fourths of what I did for the horse industry as a veterinarian, at least on an emergency basis, was treating nutritional screw-ups. So I've gotten very interested in nutrition.”

In his research, he found few people who have done much equine nutrition research. The animal feed industry also has all but ignored the horse owner — until recently, he says.

“I have come to the conclusion that the feed industry has treated the horse industry as a nuisance. But it has finally figured out that the horse industry can be a good market and is making monumental moves toward better equine nutrition in the next three to five years.”

In the meantime, Anderson has located a few equine nutritionists, developed his own horse TMR and now has 5,000 bags printed up, ready to be filled with Senior Supper.

Marketwise, however, it's slow going.

“It's hard and frustrating,” admits Laura Hassinger, Anderson's marketing manager. Hassinger has been busy the past few months gathering local comments on what horse owners might want from a cubed product. A feed for older horses looked to be the easiest way to sell customers — who generally treat their horses as pets — on the idea of a nutritionally balanced, complete ration.

“We're dipping our toe in the water with Senior Supper, getting people to understand that you can make a complete nutritional food for a horse without pelletizing it,” Hassinger says.

TMR cubes may be superior to pelleted horse rations, says Sarah Ralston, a veterinarian and equine nutritionist at Rutger's University in New Jersey.

“The cubes have a slightly longer fiber length, which is healthier for the horse's digestive system,” she says. “If you went to a pellet you would end up with major wood chewing problems.”

Even cubes, which horses tend to eat rather quickly, “leave what I call a lot of time on horses' teeth, and they start chewing down the barn,” Ralston adds. “It's not a huge problem, but one people should be aware of.”

Anderson says his cubes have been formulated to “all but eliminate wood chewing or cribbing.”

The other concern in feeding cubes is possible choking, Ralston says. “If the horse likes to wolf down his food … it can get stuck in his esophagus, and that requires treatment.” One way to prevent that is to soften cubes with water, she says.

Senior Supper cubes are already soft, says Hassinger, who feeds them to her horses. She brings buckets of cubes to local businesses interested in selling the product. Customers, she says, like to feel and smell the cubes — and see how easily they break apart.

Older horses, which often have few teeth, find the ration easy to eat and digest, Hassinger says.

“We have not experienced any choking with our soft cubes,” Anderson adds.

Once the market for senior horses is established, Anderson and Hassinger hope horse owners will also accept the TMR — with little or no oil — as a maintenance diet for younger adult horses.

At this point, they're test-marketing 40- to 50-lb bags for under $10 each. “If you're feeding your horse hay now and you want to try this new product, we want to try to compete in price,” Hassinger says.

Ralston would like to see horses on long-stemmed hay or good pasture in addition to the TMR cubes. “But especially on the East Coast, storage and pasture space are limited for a lot of horse owners,” she adds. And there's nutrient management of manure to consider.

“The cubes are going to be more highly digestible, which means less coming out the other end.” And that, she says, could reduce manure management problems.