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Feeding the Foal for a Successful Weaning


Dr. Martin Adams, PAS – Equine Nutritionist for Southern States Weaning Foal

There are two areas to concentrate on in order to have a successful nutrition program for a weanling foal and insure a vigorous and healthy first year of life for your new horse. These two areas are creep feeding of the nursing foal and a proper feeding program for the weanling foal.

Creep feeding the foal plays an important role in the weaning process. As foals get older, their dependence on solid food increases while milk intake decreases. Milk production by the mare is usually sufficient to provide a desired growth rate for the first 3 months and then declines to a level that will not allow a desirable growth rate. The mare is only providing about 50% of the protein and energy that a 3-month-old foal requires due to reduced milk production at that time.

Creep feeding allows the foal to consume feed on its own without having to compete with the mare. Foals can be started on an individual feeding program as young as 3 weeks of age. Creep feeding needs to start at least by 2 months of age before milk production by the mare decreases. Creep feeding provides two important developmental aspects of the weaning process. The foal develops eating habits that will make permanent separation from the mare easier on a psychological level as well as meeting nutrient demands for optimum growth and good health.

Equine research has shown that creep-fed foals cope better with weaning stress and have less weight loss during weaning. Research studies have also demonstrated a lower incidence of developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) problems such as osteochondrosis dissecans (OCD) and contracted tendons in creep-fed foals due to a lower growth rate after weaning than non-creep-fed foals. Non-creep-fed foals consumed larger amounts of grain and had higher growth rates and more DOD problems.

Start creep feeding the foal when it is 2 to 3 weeks old; also provide access to good quality hay at this time. Feed one pound of creep feed per month of age if the mare produces a normal amount of milk. Increase the amount of feed if the mare doesn't produce enough milk to provide a normal growth rate for the foal. Fresh creep feed should be placed in the feeder daily and old feed should be removed and may be fed to mares or other horses. Also have good quality hay available for the young foal, at least 0.5% of the foal's body weight daily. Creep feeding not only allows the foal supplemental nutrients to continue an optimum growth rate after milk production declines, but also helps to provide a balanced diet to prevent DOD during the first three months by supplying nutrients deficient in mare's milk, such as zinc, copper and manganese.

A good creep feed will have a 14% to 16% crude protein content, a guaranteed level of lysine (0.8% minimum) and include a high quality protein source (soybean meal). Adequate calcium (0.8% minimum) and phosphorus (0.5% minimum) levels are also important, as well as elevated and guaranteed amounts of zinc, copper, manganese and vitamins A, D3 and E. Legends Mare & Foal and Triple Crown Growth are recommended feeds for growing horses and lactating mares and meet all the requirements for a quality creep feed.

Foals are normally weaned at 4 to 6 months of age, and before starting the weaning process the foal should be eating at the rate of one pound of horse feed per month of age as well as hay or pasture consumption. Continue with Legends Mare & Foal or Triple Crown Growth horse feed for the weanling as either feed may be fed until 12 months of age. To reduce stress when separating the mare and her foal, health care procedures such as parasite control and vaccination should have already been accomplished. Use a deworming product that is labeled for foals and consult your veterinarian about performing a proper immunization program before weaning. Also don't add other stressful procedures during weaning time, such as halter breaking, hoof trimming or castration.

Since 60% of the horse's mature weight, 90% of withers height and 95% of bone growth is achieved by a year of age, a good feeding program is essential to the future potential of your growing horse. Gradually increase the amount of feed to 1.25% to 1.75% of body weight (5.5 to 8.0 lbs daily for a 450-lb weanling), adjusting the amount of feed according to the normal growth rate. Provide enough hay for the horse to consume 1 to 1.5% of its body weight daily (4.5 to 7.0 lbs daily for a 450-lb weanling). Legends Mare & Foal, Legends Grow & Perform and Triple Crown Growth are recommended for weanlings and any of these feeds can be provided up to one year of age.

The most common problems with a nutrition program for weanling horses is over or under feeding, and rapid growth rate increases by suddenly changing the amount of feed available. Hay quality should be good to excellent, with soft leafy hay testing at least 10% crude protein. Mixed hays, such as timothy/alfalfa or orchard grass/alfalfa contain 12% to 14% crude protein and are good selections for growing horses. If low quality grass hay with crude protein of less than 10% protein must be fed, try to also feed some alfalfa hay, or Triple Crown Chopped Alfalfa Forage or Triple Crown Alfalfa Cubes, and provide at least five pounds per horse per day. Continue to monitor growth rate and adjust amounts of feed and hay to provide a gradual decrease in growth rate from about two pounds daily for a weanling to one pound per day for a yearling horse (normal growth curve for light horse breeds). Follow these feeding recommendations for a successful weaning program and provide a great start for your horse’s first year.

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