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Health & Diet: Feeding the Foal for a Successful Weaning

By Dr. Martin Adams, PAS Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

Mare and foalTwo areas of focus for a successful nutrition program during the first year of a foal's life are creep feeding of the nursing foal and a proper feeding program for the weanling foal. Creep feeding the foal is important in the weaning process. As foals get older, their dependence on solid food increases while milk intake decreases. Mare's milk is usually sufficient to provide a desired growth rate for the first 2 months and then declines. The mare only provides about 50% of the protein and energy a 3-month-old foal requires due to reduced milk production at that time.

Creep feeding should begin before milk production decreases. Creep feeding promotes developmental aspects of the weaning process. Equine research shows that creep fed foals cope better with weaning stress and are better able to maintain a healthy weight throughout the weaning process. Research studies 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. Creep feeding not only allows the foal 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.

Starting Creep Feeding

Start creep feeding the foal when it is 2 to 3 weeks old. Feed one pound of creep feed per month of age (example: 2 lbs. of feed for 2 month old foal) 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 proper growth rate for the foal. Fresh creep feed should be placed in the feeder daily and old feed should be removed. Also provide good quality hay, at least 1% of the foal's body weight daily.

Recommended creep feeds will have a 14% to 16% crude protein content, a guaranteed level of lysine (0.8% minimum) and a high quality protein source (soybean meal). Adequate calcium (0.8% minimum) and phosphorus (0.5% minimum) levels, as well as elevated and guaranteed amounts of zinc, copper, manganese and vitamins A, D3 and E are necessary components.

Best Feed Choices

Legends® Growth and Triple Crown® Growth are recommended feeds for growing horses and lactating mares and meet all the requirements for a high quality creep feed. Foals are normally weaned at 4 to 6 months of age. 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® Growth 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 about 60% of the horse's mature weight and about 85% of wither height is achieved by a year of age, a good feeding program is essential to the future potential of your growing horse. Start gradually increasing 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, which is 2.0 lbs per day for a light horse breed such as the American Quarter Horse. 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® Growth or Triple Crown® Growth are recommended feeds and can be fed up to one year of age.

A Great Start

The most common problems with a nutrition program for weanlings 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% must be fed, provide alfalfa hay, or use Triple Crown® Chopped Alfalfa Forage or Triple Crown® Alfalfa Cubes. 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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