Best Practices for Weaning a Foal
Nothing pulls at your heartstrings quite like the sound of a newly weaned foal whinnying frantically to its out of sight mother. Although weaning can be done any time after the foal receives an adequate amount of colostrum, ideally you will wean your foal when it is between 4.5 to 6 months of age. With proper planning and management, you can minimize the stress on both foal and dam during this process.
Before you consider weaning make sure your foal is:
- Starting to be socially independent - it mingles with other foals without worrying if its mother is nearby.
- Nutritionally independent.
The first step in preparing your foal for weaning is to begin creep feeding. "Creep feeding allows the foal to consume feed on its own without having to compete with the dam," explains Southern States® Equine Nutritionist, Dr. Marty Adams P.A.S. "Start creep feeding the foal at one month of age and provide access to good quality hay at this time also."
Adams suggests feeding Legends® Growth, which can be used as a high quality creep feed, it contains 14-16% protein and guaranteed lysine levels. As an added benefit, this feed has digestive aids such as organic trace minerals and yeast culture.
A good rule of thumb is to feed your foal one pound of creep feed per month of age daily until three months of age if the mare is producing adequate milk. After three months, increase the feed to 1.5 pounds per day until you wean. Research shows foals who were creep fed have less weight loss during weaning and cope better with the stresses of weaning.
A change in diet isn't the only potential stressor a foal will experience during weaning. Many people will also taking weaning time to introduce new experiences such as deworming, vaccinations, halter breaking and more. Schedule these activities before the weaning or once your foal is comfortable in his new life as a weanling. In a perfect world your foal will have had these experiences before weaning. If the foal is accustomed to human handling, he will be able to look to people for comfort and food. Being able to trust humans will make the weaning process that much easier.
Prior to weaning, it's important to make sure the paddocks or pastures used for weaning are completely safe for foal and mother. As there is sure to be some agitated behavior, triple check the area to make sure there are no hazardous objects lying around, sharps nails protruding from fences, flimsy walls, etc. Another way to prevent injury and reduce stress during weaning is to make sure your foal is accustomed to the stall or paddock where he will be weaned.
Choose a Weaning Method
When it comes to weaning there are two commonly used methods, abrupt and gradual weaning. Abrupt weaning occurs when the foal is completely and suddenly removed from all sounds, sights and smells of his mother. Gradual weaning places mare and foal in adjoining paddocks prior to complete separation. These paddocks will be made so the foal cannot touch the mare, but can still smell and hear her. After a few days the mare is moved to another location.
There are many schools of thought when it comes to deciding which method is least traumatic. Numerous university studies show that gradual weaning is one of the least traumatic ways to wean your foal. However, research done at Texas A&M University shows that gradual separation may prolong the stress response in foals and mares.
Don't Forget About Mom
While most of the focus during weaning time surrounds the foal, we can't forget about the mare. When you are 7-10 days out from weaning reduce the amount of grain in the lactating mare's diet. This will help reduce her milk production and make her more comfortable during weaning. As an added benefit, with less milk available the foal will rely less on her before separation.
No matter which way you choose to wean, it's a challenging process for all involved. Choose the method that works best for your facility and the temperament of your horses. If you have questions about which method would work best for your farm, visit your local Southern States for more information.