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Proper Nutrition Critical For Adequate Growth And Development Of Foals

A foal’s main source of nutrients is the dam’s milk.

New foals are now trailing their mothers in lush pastures throughout the Midwest.

Still, economic turndown has reduced the number of horses produced annually compared to peak times four decades ago.

However, proper nutrition is as important as ever or even more so for the equine newborns.

“Feeding foals properly is critical for adequate growth and development,” according to Kristen Janicki, graduate performance horse nutritionist.

Performance horse nutritionist Kristen Janicki has done extensive research on improving growth patterns of young foals.

 “A foal’s main source of nutrients is the dam’s milk,” Janicki said. “But in some cases this alone won’t meet the young horse’s high nutritional demands.”

Newborn foals generally begin nursing from the mare within two hours of birth. “By one day of age, foals can suckle up to 10 times per hour,” Janicki said.

Study results have shown that foals older than one day can consume around 30 pounds of milk per day. That’s slightly more than three gallons.

Foals must get colostrum shortly after birth to boost the immune system.  “Ensuring that the foal ingests immunoglobulin antibody-rich colostrum is of utmost importance,” Janicki emphasized.

A mare’s milk is richest in immunoglobulin immediately after birth and decreases rapidly in concentration four to eight hours post-foaling. “By the time a foal is 24 hours old, it is no longer able to absorb these vital components,” Janicki pointed out.

Veterinarians can perform a simple blood test to ensure the foal has consumed adequate colostrum.

Deficiencies occur when the mare does not produce adequate colostrum, or if the foal fails to suckle soon after birth. Premature foals and those with inadequate oxygen supply, inflammatory injury or other illness can sometimes not absorb the colostrum.

“A veterinarian can provide the important immunoglobulins via frozen colostrum, colostrum replacer, or intravenously,” Janicki explained. Fresh plasma, frozen hyper immune plasma, and immunoglobulin concentrates are administered in the veins.

Nutrient concentration of a mare’s milk varies based on several factors, including the mare’s nutritional status.

“Energy, protein, fat, and mineral content in milk are highest in the first month and decrease thereafter,” Janicki said.  Milk’s energy content drops from 263 kilocalories (kcal) per pound in the first month to 228 kcal at five months.

Foals will actively seek out solid food within the first few days of life, the expert said. “Many will try to consume their dam’s feed but whether Mom is willing to share is another story,” Janicki added.

Thus, most breeders offer foals a creep feed. This would typically be a milk-based pellet fed free-choice in a feeder only foals can access.  “The feed contains high-quality sources of energy, amino acids, and balanced minerals, particularly calcium and phosphorus,” Janicki said.  

Creep feeding’s advantages include higher average daily gain and decreased weaning stress, she added.

Should a newborn foal be orphaned, nutrition needs depend on several factors, including age and availability of a nurse mare.

“Newborn orphans must consume colostrum like any other foal,” Janicki insisted. “But afterwards they can immediately transition to a nurse mare or a commercial milk replacer via bucket or bottle.

“Orphaned foals can be weaned from milk at around 10 to 12 weeks of age. They will do fine with quality forage and creep feed,” Janicki clarified.

In summary, Janicki reiterated colostrum and milk should provide the foal with necessary nutrients and immunoglobulins from birth to weaning.

Breeders can use creep feed to ensure the foal is receiving adequate nutrition daily and to help decrease weaning stress.

When faced with an orphaned or rejected foal, a nurse mare or milk replacer help meet the foal’s nutritional needs.


Frank J. Buchman
Published on 01-06-2020