What about Wheat?

Recently, I was visiting a boarding facility with horses of different breeds, sizes, disciplines, ages, workload etc. The manager asked me if I could help with organizing and streamlining all the different feeds boarders were using at the time they were moving in, to something that would be easier to manage and keep the horses healthy and thriving.

In this random selection of feeds, the first thing that stood out to me when reading the labels, was that within the first 5 ingredients listed, the majority was based on GMO crops such as alfalfa, beet pulp and soy related ingredients. This however will be the topic for a future newsletter. Another common denominator within the ingredients however, was “wheat mids” or “wheat middlings”.

At the moment wheat has not been approved to be grown as a GMO crop by the USDA, but I still wanted to delve deeper into wheat and wheat middlings, their characteristics, their proposed nutritional benefits and any concerns there may be. In order to understand what we are talking about, we need to do a little homework and go back in history.

A little history

Domestic wheat originated in southwest Asia and primitive relatives of present day wheat have been discovered in some of the oldest excavations of the world in eastern Iraq, which date back 9,000 years. Other archeological findings show that bread wheat was grown in the Nile Valley about 5,000 B.C. as well as in India and China. In the United States, wheat was first grown in 1602 on an island off the Massachusetts coast. Russian Mennonites in particular, transplanted red wheat to North America in the late 1800’s.

Today, wheat is the third-largest field crop produced in the United States following corn and soybeans. The largest wheat producing states by volume are Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, Washington and Idaho.

The wheat we know today however is not that of our ancestors several thousand years ago. How is it different? What has changed? Two major events have influenced the characteristics and the cultivation of wheat and wheat products, as we know them today. First of all, around 1870, the modern steel roller to process the wheat was introduced, which changed the way wheat was milled and processed. Processing became fast, efficient and capable of separating all components (hull, germ, shorts) and creating pure white flour, with a long shelf life once stripped from all parts that could cause spoiling.

However, stripping the wheat from all but the endosperm also stripped it from most of its nutrients, except for the starches. On top of that, the way we prepare the grains, without sprouting, fermenting and slow rising yeasts, we add insult to injury because we don’t let the nutrients develop in beneficial ways. Less of them are there and they are not as accessible and digestible.

The second major influence came when “the green revolution” happened around the ‘60s. Norman Borlaug, the son of a farmer in Iowa and a Norwegian descendant, is known as ‘the father of the green revolution’. He basically developed modern wheat through crossbreeding and crude genetic manipulation in order to prevent their susceptibility to certain diseases and to obtain shorter stalks to increase yield as the wheat would no longer collapse on itself.

Modern wheat has undergone some important changes in nutrient and protein content and their availability. Studies have shown that concentrations of Zinc, Copper, Iron and Magnesium were 19-28% lower than in the late ‘60s. Other studies have confirmed that modern wheat compared to ancient wheat varieties like Kamut, lead to much lower Magnesium and Potassium levels as well as increased Cholesterol levels.

Having said that, why do feed manufacturers put wheat or wheat middlings in horse feed? Wheat middlings consist of fine particles of wheat bran, wheat shorts, wheat germ and wheat flour. There are a few reasons for it:

  1. they are very competitive in price compared with the whole grains
  2. they are readily available and not seasonal as the grain itself, as the flour industry needs to get rid of the by-products and will store them to sell them year round
  3. they can contribute greatly to the digestible energy (DE) value of the feed through starches (up to 34% with an NSC of 41%)

Downsides of using a by-product from another industry would be:

  1. The percentages of the parts of the initial product in the by-product may be inconsistent. In other words, some of the endosperm will still be with the middlings, which will cause a nutrient variability within the feed between batches.
  2. Wheat contains a lot of Phosphorus and needs to be balanced with adequate Calcium. Again, these levels may vary due to the differences between batches and therefore the balancing with calcium can become problematic.

Lastly, we have not touched on the herbicides used during the growing process of the wheat. When one reads the instructions for the pre harvest application Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup WeatherMAX® and Roundup Transorb® HC or ‘glyphosate’, it is clear wheat and the soil it grows on is another staple on which this is widely being used, despite it not being non-GM approved for the market. Moreover, the ‘thumb nail test’ seems a questionable method at best and not a reliable, consistent or objective measure for when to apply.

Balancing the pro’s and cons of a feedstuff is not always straightforward. Price certainly plays a big role in this, but the health of our animals in which we invest so much time and money should not be taken too lightly.

One can only ask oneself if wheat middlings are a contributing component in the diet of the horse or if there are alternatives?