From field to feed
Come Behind the Scenes with Dengie - From Field to Feed!
Dengie is the only large-scale horse feed producer in the UK to grow, process, blend and market its range of high temperature dried alfalfa blend fibre feeds for horses. This is crucial to the company's ability to control the quality of every bag in the Alfa-A and Hi-Fi ranges that is behind Dengie's position as market leader in fibre feed.
First for Fibre
A farmers' collective, founded in the 1960's, Dengie today harvests 5,000 acres of alfalfa and is therefore not subject to external suppliers' timetables or the threat of contamination. Dengie crops are grown with due care and attention to the environment using fewer pesticides and, because the alfalfa is grown locally to the processing site, food miles are lower.
Support for research projects into equine nutrition plays an important part in the company's ongoing commitment to improve horse health. Dengie employs a team of highly qualified nutritionists who help to shape product development and advise consumers and retailers alike on matters of equine nutrition and feeding.
A is for Alfalfa
The name alfalfa comes from Persian and Kashmiri words meaning "horse fodder" and "horse power".
Rich in protein and antioxidants alfalfa contributes significantly to the horse's nutritional requirements. Dengie's research support has included a PhD study by Dr Jo-Anne Murray at the Royal Dick Veterinary School, who found that by combining sugar beet and alfalfa, digestibility was increased. This led to the development of Dengie's quick soak Alfa-Beet.
Although alfalfa has an energy level equivalent to a low energy mix or cube, Dr Murray established that the combination of alfalfa and sugar beet would meet the requirements of a horse in hard work demonstrating that alfalfa could replace cereals as a source of energy.
In a seperate study, undertaken in 2006, Dr Murray, investigated the buffering effects of alfalfa and concluded that it could help reduce adidity in the gut that can lead to laminitis - six of Dengie's products; Hi-Fi Molasses Free, Alfa-A Molasses Free, Healthy Hooves Molasses Free, Healthy Hooves, Hi-Fi Lite and Alfa-Beet, enjoy the endorsement of The Laminitis Trust.
"Research continually highlights risks associated with feeding cereals and so Dengie has focussed its effort on developing the best forage production processes and spreading the "think fibre first" message to horse owners," explains Katie Williams, Senior Nutritionist at Dengie. She says: "We are now seeing a shift to more horse owners using alfalfa as the basis of their rations".
The Alfalfa Harvest
Alfalfa is a perennial plant and stays in the ground for between three and four years providing winter ground cover for birds and insects. A legume, it is able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and return it to the soil. Fewer artificial fertilisers are required which has environmental benefits.
The harvest runs from April or May into October with the alfalfa being cut three to four times in seven week cycles.
Having worked for Dengie for over 20 years, Field Harvest Manager, Bob Turner has seen many changes. "The company has grown massively but has kept its family atmosphere. We now have large enough machinery to cut large acreages very quickly and have increased our drying capacity to ensure that we can dry the alfalfa at the optimum time." Bob works closely with agronomist Charles Malone. "Ideally alfalfa should be harvested pre-bloom as this is when it is at its most nutritious" states Charles. "The weather can affect yields however, we are prepared for any eventuality and, because we control the whole process from the field to feed, we can adapt accordingly" he explains.
The Production Process
Dengie pioneered the use of high temperature drying to conserve forage for horses in the UK. This allows crops to be harvested much earlier, so are more digestible and higher in energy and nutrients. Performance and race horses benefit from the dust-free forage the process produces.
In the winter the harvest team transfers to work under Finished Goods Production Manager David Filce. "Being able to offer year round employment is vital in retaining trained and qualified staff. If we didn't harvest and package the alfalfa we could lose key employees who are essential to guaranteeing continuity of quality" explains David.
Why does the appearance of the finished product vary?
As alfalfa is a natural material the end product can vary in appearance but this is no different to the variations in colour, size and shape of the fruit and vegetables that we eat. Variation can be of concern to horse owners when they open the bag but hopefully the following information will explain why some of these variations occur.
Colour variation in the finished product is something that most people will notice at some stage and whilst some bags can appear bright green others may appear brown. The main factor influencing the colour of alfalfa is the weather with wet and warm conditions producing green, leafy plants while dry and hot weather tends to result in browner material. Although the alfalfa is mixed to try to create a consistent finished product, this can be difficult in years when extreme weather is experienced as most of the crop will be the same. Any variation in colour shouldn’t be a problem for the horse as they have limited dichromatic vision that means they do not really distinguish green from brown!
The alfalfa can also vary in texture which relates to the proportion of leaf and stem it contains. The stems of the alfalfa plant are very fibrous whereas the leaf is very nutritious. The weather determines how quickly the plant is growing and if the conditions are right, it can mature very quickly making it more fibrous. In contrast, leafy alfalfa can look very “bitty” in the bag which is why we add coatings such as molasses or oil to all the Fibre Feeds as it helps to bind the alfalfa leaf to the stem. As the leaf is the most nutritious part it is vital that it is included in the feed.
The Future for Dengie
When Dengie was founded, it was the only producer of high temperature dried alfalfa. Now other feed manufacturers are following suit as research extols the virtue of a high fibre diet for horses. However, Dengie remains the only large scale manufacturer that controls the production process from field to feed, thereby providing horse owners with a consistently superior product that is good for their horse's health.