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Feeding the Foal: Birth to Weaning


Dr. Martin Adams, Equine Nutritionist for Southern States Foal with Mare

Your new foal arrives and you want to provide for its proper growth and health. The first consideration is to make sure that the foal receives an adequate amount of quality colostrum from the dam. Your mare's first milk is called colostrum and it contains antibodies that provide immunity for the foal against infectious diseases. These antibodies are absorbed directly into the foal's bloodstream from the digestive tract. This direct absorption of antibodies can only occur in the first two days of the foal's life and is more efficient during the first 12 hours after the foal is born.

Normally the foal will nurse often enough and the mare's colostrum will contain enough antibodies or immunoglobulins (IgG) to provide sufficient immunity. Within 12 hours after birth, foals should have nursed colostrum from the dam, been fed a colostrum replacement, or had colostrum administered by nasogastric tube by a veterinarian. Colostrum can be frozen for up to two years, and sources of frozen colostrum are available and can be found locally at large breeding farms or through the internet (www.cyberfoal.com).

Foals can have the IgG concentration in the blood checked at 12 to 24 hours after birth to ensure that an adequate level has been achieved. If no colostrum has been provided to the foal by the third day or the IgG level is too low (< 400 mg/dl), blood plasma can be administered intravenously by a veterinarian to provide a sufficient antibody concentration.

An orphan foal can be the result of the dam's death, rejection, illness or lack of milk production. Alternative sources of milk for a foal include a nurse mare and milk replacer. The use of a nurse mare, typically a draft breed such as a Belgian or Percheron, would be the ideal situation for the foal, but the expense for leasing a nurse mare could exceed the value of the foal. If the use of a nurse mare is impractical, the alternative is to provide a milk replacer and hand-raise the foal.

A high quality milk replacer should have a similar composition to mare's milk (24% protein and 16% fat on a dry matter basis) and contain only milk-based protein sources. Mare's Match® Foal Milk Replacer has the same nutrient composition as mare's milk and is all milk protein. It is research-proven to provide similar growth as mare-nursed foals. Foals can be fed milk replacer by bottle or bucket. The easiest and safest method is to feed milk replacer by bucket. To train a foal to drink from a bucket, start with a pan that is so shallow the foal's mouth can touch the bottom of the pan without submerging its nostrils. Place your fingers in the foal's mouth to stimulate a suckle reflex. Change to a bucket with larger capacity as the foal learns to drink and the amount of milk replacer fed is increased.

Foals are normally weaned at 4½ to 6 months. 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. Creep feeding allows the foal to consume feed on its own without having to compete with the dam. Creep feeding not only allows the foal supplemental nutrients to continue an optimum growth rate from three months to weaning, but also provides a balanced diet to prevent developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) during the first three months by supplying nutrients deficient in mare's milk. A high quality creep feed for foals will contain 14 to 16% protein, a high quality protein source (soybean meal), a minimum of 0.65% phosphorus, and a guaranteed lysine content (at least 0.80%). Legends® Growth meets the requirements of a high quality creep feed, with additional digestive aids such as yeast culture and organic trace minerals.

Start creep feeding the foal at one month of age and provide access to good quality hay at his time also. The foal's digestive system does not produce enzymes in sufficient quantity to digest sugars and starches until at least 3 weeks of age and should be provided only a milk-based diet until then. Feed one pound of creep feed per month of age for the first three months if the mare produces a normal amount of milk for light horse breeds such as the Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred. Then increase the amount of feed to 1.5% of body weight until weaning, and adjust the amount of feed according to the desired growth rate and hay quality. Following these steps will help to insure that you have a properly growing and healthy foal.


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