Expert Advice for Feeding Hobby Farm Animals
A Q&A with renowned celebrity veterinarian Dr. Pol
Jennon Bell Hoffmann
After nearly 50 years in veterinarian practice, including 17 seasons of the Nat Geo WILD TV show “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” Dr. Jan Pol remains incredibly passionate about animal welfare and care. Born and raised in the Netherlands on his family’s dairy farm, Dr. Pol moved to rural Michigan in the 1970s, where he’s had more than 25,000 clients. He’s treated pets and livestock ranging from mice and snakes to cows and 2,600-pound horses.
Dr. Pol recently collaborated with Consumers Supply to create a branded line of pet and farm animal food for horses, goats, chickens, and rabbits. The Dr. Pol line was designed specifically with hobby farmers in mind: Formulas were developed to meet the unique nutritional needs of each of these animals and help livestock owners overcome some of their biggest feeding challenges, from ensuring proper digestion to avoiding waste.
We sat down with Dr. Pol to discuss some of these challenges. We also asked him to share his expert advice for keeping farm animals well-fed, healthy, and working hard.
Q&A with Dr. Pol
Tractor Supply: As a vet who’s cared for a variety of animals, from chickens to llamas, what question are you asked most often?
Dr. Pol: The most frequently asked question tends to be “What do I do to keep my animals healthy?” And it’s easy: Good feed, parasite control, and clean out the manure. I always tell owners to keep it simple. Animals need good-quality nutrition, but it does not have to get overly complicated to keep them happy and healthy.
Tractor Supply: When it comes to feeding livestock, there’s no “one size fits all” approach. Can you explain how different animals have different nutritional needs?
Dr. Pol: Species, age, and environment all play a role in the type, amount, and level of nutritional adequacy of the feed. Chickens (which are monogastric, or single-chambered stomach), goats (ruminant, which means they have four-chambered stomachs), and rabbits and horses (non-ruminant herbivores, which means their digestive tract shares similarities of the monogastric and ruminant digestive systems) all have vastly different digestive systems that utilize nutrients from feed differently.
And when it comes to horses, especially those with dental issues or trouble chewing, you want a pellet that breaks up easily for better chewing and quicker digesting. In addition, pelleted horse feed shouldn’t expand, as it does with some feeds, because what we see is that it gets lodged in the horse’s throat and chokes them. Then the owner calls me, and I have to run a tube up the horse’s nose, and we all get covered in whatever was stuck. No one likes when that happens.
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Tractor Supply: How can livestock owners determine whether their animals are getting enough food and nutrition from their feed?
Dr. Pol: A tremendous amount of research and experience goes into the ration provided to animals. Some species, such as cattle and horses, are able to graze natural pasture while being provided additional supplementation, like a fortified kibble, loose mineral, pellet, or feed concentrate, to supply the balance of their needs.
Other animals are provided a complete feed in the form of a kibble, meal, pellet, etc., that satisfies their nutritional requirements. Feed requirements change with age, life stage, and environment. However animals are perfectly fine being fed the same quality ration from day to day.
Tractor Supply: What inspired you to develop your own feed line for horses, rabbits, chickens, and goats?
Dr. Pol: There are so many different feeds on the market, and not all of them are good. For example, color is not important for animals, and yet many food producers are adding color to make it look nice. The thing is, for an animal, the food has to taste good and also has to be nutritious. Animals don’t care about what color, size, or shape their food is. As long as it’s good, they’ll eat it, so it’s important to us to make it as high quality and nutritious as possible.
Tractor Supply: The Dr. Pol line uses something called extrusion to make animal feed. Can you explain why that’s important?
Dr. Pol: Extrusion is a process by which ingredients are subjected to heat, pressure, and steam to cook the food, like a pressure cooker. This breaks down the carbohydrate bonds within the ingredients, allowing the food to be more easily digested by the animal. We want the animals to get the most nutrition from the feed as possible and making it more easily digestible is a great start.
Tractor Supply: Why should hobby farmers use specialty feed, instead of what commercial farmers are using?
Dr. Pol: Commercial farms buy in bulk totes, and it isn’t realistic for hobby farmers to use this form of feed because they don’t have the equipment to monitor and deliver food intake of their animals. Besides, commercial farmers may have many more animals so buying in bulk makes sense, whereas hobby farmers may only have a few and then they risk the food spoiling if it’s not used in time.
Tractor Supply: For many livestock owners, cost is a major deciding factor for animal feed. What should look for to ensure they are getting quality food for the price they’re paying?
Dr. Pol: I get asked this question a lot. That’s one of the reasons I started my own brand of feed. They should always look for a product that provides adequate nutrition to their animals for their budget.
Start by consulting your local veterinarian. They will have a lot of experience in the area you live and can share insights with you. Research the topic—via the internet, farmers’ groups, publications, and extension programs at universities—and share your findings with your vet to ensure they are accurate and safe.
Look at feed ingredients to make sure your animals are getting the nutrition they need, and not a lot of what they don’t, or ingredients their stomachs can’t handle, such as meat meals or animal byproducts. Other ingredients can be harder to digest, like wheat or soy.
Tractor Supply: In the same vein, food waste or spoilage can be a challenge for many livestock owners. How can farmers avoid wasting animal feed?
Dr. Pol: Three things: Buy in amounts that fit your feed buying cycle; rotate that food first in, first out; and use proper storage.
Tractor Supply: What is the shelf life of animal feed?
Dr. Pol: All animal feeds should last 10 to 12 months under the right conditions. The feed’s moisture content can impact the shelf life in more humid environments due to molding. Since all animal feeds have an expiration date, freshness could certainly impact taste. As long as the food is stable and within the best-by period, digestion and nutritional support should not be impacted.
Tractor Supply: What’s the best way to store animal feed?
Dr. Pol: Always store food in a cool, dry place and in a separate room with a door that animals cannot open. Because too many times, we’ve seen animals, especially horses, break down a door and then overeat. Once they get into that good food they will not stop. I have seen cows overeat grain and die. The main thing is that you feed animals according to the directions on the bag and store feed in a locked area that animals cannot get to.
Tractor Supply: How can farmers avoid illness and parasites with their feed?
Dr. Pol: The main thing is to clean up every time.
Cows, horses, and dogs would eat in front, defecate behind, and keep on walking. People changed that when we put them in a small area where they have to eat and defecate in closer spaces. When they are in a smaller area, they have a bigger chance of infecting themselves.
If your pen has a cement floor, power wash it. If you have a dirt floor, get all the manure out every few days. Spread lye, then put the bedding on top—this is how you keep parasites under control.
Tractor Supply: Do you have any advice for new hobby farmers just starting out with livestock?
Dr. Pol: Yes! Two things:
- Know what you’re getting into. Do your homework before you buy your animals. There are extension programs through universities that will help you learn what it takes. Try not to learn it all on the fly.
- Cleanliness is next to godliness. Many people don't realize that animals get diseases through their own stool, and you can deworm them all you want, and you can keep them clean, but at a certain point, parasites come. It’s no fun for the animals or the owners. Prevention is better than treatment, so it’s best to make cleaning their surroundings a habit.