10/11/2001 11:00PM

Beet pulp, good for what ails him

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Take a peek in Unbridled's feed tub these days and you'll find beet pulp, a feed component that has become a useful element in caring for horses who are recovering from abdominal surgeries. Unbridled underwent two abdominal surgeries last month at Lexington's Hagyard Davidson McGee clinic, one to remove a three-foot portion of thickened colon and a second to repair a hole at the surgical resection site.

Understandably, the syndicated Claiborne Farm stallion needs an easy-to-digest feed that won't tax his recovering digestive system. Beet pulp, equine nutritionists say, fits the bill.

Beet pulp, the dried fibrous plant material that's left after the sugar has been extracted from a sugar beet, ferments easily in the horse's intestine and is a high-calorie feed component, which helps a post-surgical horse gain weight. It's also absorbent, which is also advantageous.

"It also encourages water intake," explained Dr. Steve Jackson of Bluegrass Equine Nutrition in Lexington. "It stimulates a horse to drink, and that hydrates the gut. Many sick horses in part have to cope with a lack of hydration, and the last thing you want in a horse with damaged bowels is an impaction."

Beet pulp is available in shredded or pellet form. Commercial feed companies can provide it, often in mixtures that contain also other elements such as molasses and sweet feed.

Thanks to its low level of soluble carbohydrates, or starch, the fibrous beet pulp also may be useful in preventing laminitis, the debilitating disease that can cause a horse to slough off its hoof.

"The horse is designed to eat fibrous feed," Jackson said. "It wasn't really designed to eat a lot of starch. When you feed a lot of starch, if a significant amount of it escapes degradation in the small intestine, it spills into the hind gut, where it is extremely fermentable. It ferments rapidly, and that causes production of lactic acid. The increased acidity can kill the flora in the gut, which produce endotoxins that can be absorbed, causing laminitis."

Not surprisingly, some new feeds touted as helping reduce the risk of laminitis contain vegetable proteins such as beet pulp.

"What you have to do is keep the horse in a positive energy balance without facing them with a lot of carbohydrates," Jackson said.

Another natural tool against feed-induced laminitis may be yeast. Studies suggest that some kinds of yeast may aid digestion and decrease gas production. And, Jackson said, certain yeasts might also cause a buffering effect in the hind gut by helping it maintain its pH level. That balance, which helps prevent the gut from becoming too acid, is another factor in preventing onset of laminitis.

"It doesn't raise the pH level per se as much as it appears to protect the level against lowering," Jackson said. "It takes more of an insult to cause radical shifts in the pH levels in the gut."

o There may soon be another tool against laminitis in the form of the antibiotic virginiamycin, according to Australian research into the disease. Dr. Chris Pollitt of Australia's Laminitis Research Unit has reported that administering the antibiotic before a carbohydrate overload often prevented the onset of laminitis.