Creep Feeding Foals-An Important Time Period for an Equine Athlete

Creep feeding, the process of making feed available to the foal before weaning, is an important element in a feeding program to maintain a consistent growth rate and to prepare the foal for weaning and long term development as an equine athlete.

The feed selected for use for creep feeding should be a feed designed with foals and weanlings in mind. These feeds will generally be 14-16 % protein and have a minimum guarantee for lysine and perhaps methionine and threonine as well, the first 3 limiting amino acids.  It should also be fortified with adequate calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc and selenium as well as Vitamins A, D and E.  Controlled starch and sugar levels may also be beneficial in a creep feed.  Prebiotics and probiotics are frequently included in these feeds as well.

There are multiple creep feed designs, ranging from buckets/feeders with bars across the top to keep the broodmare from eating the feed to feeding areas with entry openings wide enough to allow the foals to enter, but narrow enough to prevent the mares from entering. It is important to be able to keep the feed fresh and free of contamination.

The mare’s milk production will generally not provide adequate nutrition to support optimum growth past about 2 months of lactation. This is why it is important to start creep feeding prior to this time.  Relying on the foal being able to eat with the dam is not a very reliable way to provide nutrition to the foal.  The foal should be consuming about 1 pound of feed per day per month of age (2 month old foal, 2 pounds per day, 4 month old foal, 4 pounds per day).  Foals should also have access to fresh, clean water and salt free choice.

Foals will also start nibbling on forage early in life, but the cecum is not well developed at this time, so the forage will not be a good source of nutrition.

Monitoring Body Condition Score and rate of growth is useful with foals to make certain that they are on track and maintaining a smooth growth curve. This may also help reduce the risk of Developmental Orthopedic Disease issues.

A good creep feeding program, coupled with proper management (parasite control and vaccination) and proper handling can help make weaning a smooth process and get the young growing horse off to a great start to achieving their genetic potential as an equine athlete!

The Best Time of the Year, Pregnant Mares – The Chance for a Champion!

Many broodmares are in the last one third of gestation at this time of the year and some have already foaled. The latter part of gestation is one of the most important development periods in the life of a foal when the foal is developing in the uterus of the mare. The importance of this period was recognized in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Edition, when the Committee established that the nutrient requirements of the mare start increasing at the 6th month of gestation, earlier than previously believed.  During the last three months of gestation, the foal may be gaining a pound per day.

The key elements of managing the pregnant mare are the following:

  1. Maintain appropriate body condition score. Mares should be at about a body condition score 6 when they foal so that they have sufficient energy reserves for early lactation as well as to maintain condition for re-breeding.  We are already thinking about re-breeding before she foals!
  2. Adequate protein/amino acid intake. Lysine, methionine and threonine, the first 3 limiting essential amino acids, need to sufficient in the diet for placental and fetal development.
  3. Adequate macro mineral, trace mineral and Vitamin intake. The mare needs to be receiving adequate calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, manganese and selenium to provide minerals for the development of the foal and to build the foals own trace mineral reserves. Trace minerals are also critical for immune support. Vitamins A, D, E and B-Vitamins are all essential and should be included in a balanced diet.
  4. Vaccinations and deworming. A regular vaccination program should be developed in conjunction with a veterinarian so the mare is protected herself and can also produce the appropriate antibodies to protect the foal when it nurses and receives the colostrum that contains maternal antibodies. This is what protects the foal until it can be vaccinated and develop its own antibodies. The mare should also be dewormed as needed prior to foaling to make certain the environment of the foal is as “clean” as possible to reduce parasite contamination. Selective worming based on fecal count monitoring is becoming more and more important to reduce the risk of parasite resistance developing.

Good quality pasture or forage may provide sufficient energy thru late gestation, but may NOT provide adequate amino acids and minerals for optimal fetal development. A well designed ration balancer product may be used from month 5 to about month 10 or 11 of gestation to provide the missing nutrients. A well designed feed for broodmares and foals should be introduced prior to foaling so that the mare is on the feed before she foals to avoid the need for a sudden change in feed at foaling. This feed can then be increased after foaling to provide both the increased energy and the increased nutrients that are required for lactation, as well as providing nutrition for the foal when it starts to nibble on feed. Fresh clean water and free choice salt should also be available at all times.

Feeding the broodmare properly can help reduce the risk of developmental problems for the foal and help insure that the mare can be rebred in a timely manner to produce another foal the following year.

Feeding Foals During Weaning & Post Weaning – An Important Time Period for an Equine Athlete

Baby SeamusProperly preparing the foals to be weaned can make the process much easier for everyone!

Keep in mind that weaning can be a high stress period for the foal.  With that in mind, other high stress events should probably not take place at the same time as weaning.  The following management practices should be in place before the foal is weaned:

  1. Make certain that the foal is consuming at least 1 pound of a feed per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings.  If a foal is 4 months of age, it should be consuming at least 4 pounds of feed per day. If a foal is 6 months of age, it should be consuming at least 6 pounds of feed per day.  Appropriate feeds will be 14-16% protein with controlled starch and sugar along with amino acid, mineral and vitamin fortification.  Keep in mind that past 2 months of age, the milk produced by the dam is not sufficient to maintain adequate growth, so the foal should be creep fed if possible as not all mares allow the foal to eat with them. The day you wean the foal is NOT the day to change feeds!  The foal should also have access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.
  2. Make certain that the foal has been vaccinated for appropriate diseases according to your health care plan.  Vaccination is a stress on the animal, so you do not want to do this at the same time you wean the foal if that can be avoided.
  3. The foal should also be de-wormed prior to weaning.
  4. The foal should have been handled, taught to lead and have had its feet trimmed.

There are a number of ways to separate the foals from their mothers and many farms manage in different ways.

Monitor the new weanlings fairly closely and increase feed intake to maintain growth and body condition, feeding according to both weight and Body Condition Score.  Some weanlings become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning.  This is frequently due to inadequate feed intake and too much forage.  The cecum is not fully developed in the weanling, so it cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse.  This limits nutrient availability and may limit growth and development.

Proper preparation can minimize the stress of weaning for foals and help maintain uniform growth and body condition.  Uniform growth and maintaining target body condition is essential to reduce risk of certain types of Developmental Orthopedic Disease.  One of the things we want to avoid is letting the weanling get off normal growth rate, then deciding to push for rapid growth as a yearling to hit target for show or for scheduled sales.

Feeding and Managing Pregnant Mares-Fall Check List

Animal protein products provide lysine, an important amino acid for young growing foalsOne of the most important development periods in the life of a foal is the last 6 months of gestation when the foal is developing in the uterus of the mare. The importance of this period was recognized in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Edition, when the Committee established that the nutrient requirements of the mare start increasing at the 6th month of gestation.  Mares that foaled and were re-bred or were bred in the first four months of the calendar year may now be entering 6th month of gestation, so a fall check-up is an excellent idea.

The key elements of managing the pregnant mare are the following:

  1. Maintain appropriate body condition score.  Mares should be at about a body condition score 6 when they foal so that they have sufficient energy reserves for early lactation as well as to maintain condition for re-breeding.  If they need to gain weight, now is an excellent time to gradually increase the energy intake of the diet so they will be in the desired body condition at foaling.  If they are a bit too heavy, increased exercise or slight reduction in energy intake may be useful while still maintaining amino acid, vitamin and mineral intake for the developing foal.  Drastic weight loss is NOT recommended!
  2. Adequate protein/amino acid intake.  Lysine, methionine and threonine, the first 3 limiting essential amino acids, need to sufficient in the diet for placental and fetal development.
  3. Adequate mineral and trace mineral intake.  The mare needs to be receiving adequate calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, manganese and selenium to provide minerals for the development of the foal and to build the foals own trace mineral reserves.  Trace minerals are also critical for immune support.
  4. Vaccinations and deworming.  A regular health care program should be developed in conjunction with a veterinarian so the mare is protected herself and can also produce antibodies to protect the foal when it nurses and receives the colostrum that contains maternal antibodies.
  5. If a mare was bred during the breeding season and is NOT pregnant, this is a good time to have this mare checked over carefully to determine why she did not settle or if she settled and aborted.  She may require treatment to have her ready to breed in the next breeding season.

Good quality pasture or forage may provide sufficient energy thru late gestation, but may not provide adequate amino acids, vitamins and minerals. An appropriate ration balancer product may be used from month 5 to about month 10 or 11 of gestation to provide the missing nutrients.  A feed designed for broodmares and foals can be introduced prior to foaling so that the mare is on the feed before she foals.  This feed can then be increased after foaling to provide both the increased energy and the increased nutrients that are required for lactation, as well as providing nutrition for the foal when it starts to nibble on feed.  Fresh clean water and free choice salt should also be available at all times.

Feeding the broodmare properly during gestation can help reduce the risk of developmental problems for the foal and help insure that the mare can be rebred in a timely manner to produce another foal the following year.

Milk Replacer for Foals

foal drinking milk replacer from bucketA friend recently called, asking if I had bottles for foals. She explained that her mare had rejected her foal, and the said they were going to have to start feeding milk replacer.

I then asked my friend if she was aware how many times an hour a young foal can nurse, and there was a long silence on the phone.

So, I explained that a young foal can nurse up to 17 times an hour, and although this does decrease with age, it would take a village to manage the task. At 1 day of age the foals intake can be up to 10% of its body weight.  This consumption will increase up to 25% from about 10 days of age until weaning, so bottle feeding is not a realistic solution.

With that in mind, giving the foal access to milk at all times is feeding in a more natural manner than a bottle fed meal. This will also allow the foal to drink as little or as much as he/she want, which will result in fewer digestive upsets.

The foal can learn to drink from a shallow bowl or bucket very quickly after birth, so I explained to my friend the steps to follow with her foal:

  • First, place your finger in their mouths to stimulate the suckle reflex.
  • While they are sucking, raise the small bowl containing the liquid milk replacer solution up to their muzzle.
    • Always bring the milk up to the foal; do not force the foal’s head down into a bucket!
  • After they start to suck and drink, slowly remove your finger from the foal’s mouth.
  • If he stops drinking, repeat the above steps until he is drinking by himself.
  • The first day, warm the liquid milk replacer to encourage consumption.
  • When the foal drinks without assistance, hang a bucket with the milk replacer solution in it from the stable wall at the foals shoulder height. This will allow the foal to drink whenever it wants, just as if the mare was there.
  • The bucket should be a contrasting color to the wall to make it easy for the foal to find.

From birth to about 4 months of age milk replacers are a great option for orphaned ro rejected foals, or foals needing supplementation. Products such as Foals First Milk Replacer powder by Progressive Nutrition can be fed by the bucket and stay fresh for up to 12 hours.

I encourage any farm that is expecting a foal to have at least a 15-pound bucket of milk replacer on hand. It is well worth the investment!

Feeding and Managing Pregnant Mares: Prenatal Nutrition

Pregnant MareMany broodmares are in the last half of gestation at this time. The latter part of gestation is one of the most important development periods in the life of a foal when the foal is developing in the uterus of the mare.  The importance of this period was recognized in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Edition, when the Committee established that the nutrient requirements of the mare start increasing at the 6th month of gestation, earlier than previously believed.  During the last three months of gestation, the foal may be gaining an average of one pound per day.

The key elements of managing the pregnant mare are the following:

  • Maintain appropriate body condition score.
    • Mares should be at about a body condition score 6 when they foal so that they have sufficient energy reserves for early lactation as well as to maintain condition for re-breeding.
  • Adequate protein/amino acid intake.
    • Lysine, methionine, and threonine, the first 3 limiting essential amino acids, need to sufficient in the diet for placental and fetal development.
  • Adequate mineral and trace mineral intake.
    • The mare needs to be receiving adequate calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, manganese and selenium to provide minerals for the development of the foal and to build the foals own trace mineral reserves.  Trace minerals are also critical for immune support.
  • Vaccinations and deworming.
    • A regular vaccination program should be developed in conjunction with a veterinarian so the mare is protected herself and can also produce the appropriate antibodies to protect the foal when it nurses and receives the colostrum that contains maternal antibodies.  This is what protects the foal until it can be vaccinated and develop its own antibodies.  The mare should also be dewormed as needed prior to foaling.

Good quality pasture or forage may provide sufficient energy thru late gestation, but may NOT provide adequate amino acids and minerals for optimal fetal development.  A well-designed ration balancer product may be used from month 5 to about month 10 or 11 of gestation to provide the missing nutrients.  A well-designed feed for broodmares and foals should be introduced prior to foaling so that the mare is on the feed before she foals to avoid the need for a sudden change in feed at foaling. This feed can then be increased after foaling to provide both the increased energy and the increased nutrients that are required for lactation, as well as providing nutrition for the foal when it starts to nibble on feed.  Fresh clean water and free choice salt should also be available at all times.

Feeding the broodmare properly can help reduce the risk of developmental problems for the foal and help insure that the mare can be rebred in a timely manner to produce another foal the following year if desired.

Feeding Weanlings

Weanling in pastureYou have followed your preferred method for weaning foals and you have followed the directions below:

  1. You made certain that the foals were consuming at least 1 pound of a feed per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings.  6 month old foals were consuming 6 pounds of feed per head per day.
    1. Appropriate feeds will be 14-16% protein with controlled starch and sugar along with amino acid, mineral and vitamin fortification designed for young growing horses.
  2. You kept in mind that past 2 months of age, the milk produced by the dam was not sufficient to maintain adequate growth, so the foals were creep fed if possible as not all mares allow the foal to eat with them.  The foal also had access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.
  3. You made certain that the foals were vaccinated for appropriate diseases and de-wormed according to your health care plan.  Vaccination is a stress on the animal, so you did not do this at the same time you weaned the foals
  4. The foals have been handled, taught to lead and have had their feet trimmed.

Now What?

You need to monitor the weanlings/early yearlings fairly closely and adjust feed intake to maintain desired growth rate and healthy body condition, feeding according to both weight and Body Condition Score (BCS).

  • Weanlings at 6 months of age that will mature at 1200 lbs. may be gaining 1.5+ lbs. per head per day.
  • The objective should be to maintain a smooth and steady rate of growth and a BCS of about 5.

Why Does My Weanling Have a Pot Belly?

Some weanlings become a bit pot-bellied, do not gain muscle mass and look a little rough following weaning.  This is frequently due to inadequate concentrate feed intake and too much forage.  The cecum is NOT fully developed in the weanling, so it cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse.

If a young growing horse is not getting the essential amino acids from a well-balanced concentrate, muscle development is slowed down.  If it is not getting the appropriate minerals, the risk of developmental orthopedic problems may increase.

How MUCH Should You Feed a Weanling?

A 6 month old weanling may be consuming 2.0-3.5% of bodyweight in feed and hay per day as fed and should be consuming about 70% concentrate and 30% forage.  At 12 months of age, the growth rate will slow down to about 1-1.25 lb. per day and the yearling will be consuming about 2.0-3.0% of bodyweight in feed and hay per day as fed and the concentrate to forage ratio will drop to 60:40.

As the young horse grows, the rate of growth slows down and the amount of forage it can digest efficiently increases.  Digestible Energy (DE) intake drives growth, but requires the right balance of amino acids and minerals to achieve healthy growth.  Too much DE without the right balance might lead to excessive BCS (fat!) with lack of muscle gain and may increase risk potential developmental orthopedic issues.

Proper preparation can minimize the stress of weaning for foals and help maintain uniform growth and body condition in the weanling to yearling transition to help develop a sound equine athlete.

Will Too Much Protein Cause Developmental Disorders in my Growing Horse?

Protein is a very important part of every horse’s diet.  Horses of all ages, developmental stages, activity levels, and reproductive status have essential amino acid requirements, amino acids being the building blocks of protein, and are what determine the quality of the protein.

Here’s an analogy:  consider amino acids as letters of the alphabet, and protein as words with structures such as muscle being the complete sentence.  Now put it all together; the combination of amino acids (letters) determines the quality or type of protein (word) that is formed.  The body is made up of many different types of proteins, all with distinct amino acid profiles.  If you have a shortage of or imbalance of the essential amino acids, the body cannot spell the words and complete the sentences, so the body can’t build and maintain quality tissues.

Consider this example:

  • 94% of a hoof is made up of amino acids (methionine for example)
  • The remaining 6% is comprised of fats, minerals and vitamins (biotin being just one of those vitamins)
  • Having protein or amino acid deficiency in the diet or feeding an unbalanced ration will compromise hoof integrity (brittle, soft, cracks, susceptibility to thrush, etc.).

cargill050aNow for the question above: Will protein cause developmental joint disease in my growing horse?

Growing horses have high nutrient requirements, with quality digestible protein (amino acids) being a very important and significant part of that nutrient requirement.

Confusion often occurs between providing nutrients and calories.  Providing a grain concentrate that is balanced for adult horses may provide too many calories (energy) and not enough of the nutrients (amino acids, minerals, fatty acids, vitamins ) the growing animal requires, for a couple reasons:

  1. Because unlike mature adult horses, youngsters cannot eat as much per meal (small stomach) and may never consume the recommended daily intake
  2. Because their hind-gut is immature (can’t digest/ferment forages very well) so they are unable to digest and absorb as many of the nutrients from forage as an adult horse does, leaving a nutrient gap in the total diet

The result is a mismatched calorie to nutrient ratio, with too many calories and not enough of the nutrients (amino acids, minerals, fatty acids, vitamins) that they need to grow and develop properly. High calories without the right amount and type of nutrients to support the rapidly growing animal can be problematic.  Resulting issues are often experienced as hay bellies, physitis, developmental joint disease (e.g. OCD), contracted tendons, etc.

Providing a diet balancer or a concentrate specifically designed to support growing horses is a great way to avoid the calorie to nutrient mismatch as well as provide digestible sources of those nutrients.  Diet balancers tend to be very dense in their protein, vitamins and mineral content, and very low in calories themselves.  This is why crude protein, for example, seems very high (e.g. CP 30%) in ration balancers and can cause concern among horse owners.  Fear not, feeding rates for these concentrated products are much lower than a traditional grain formula, providing all of the balanced nutrients needed in a volume that a small stomach can handle, without all of the extra energy.

Having too much poor quality protein in the diet will not be utilized by your horse, and may result in an amino acid deficiency, and makes for an ammonia filled barn due to excess nitrogen being excreted in the urine.  Having the right amount and combination of amino acids in the diet is key to supporting optimal growth and reducing metabolic waste.

Working with an equine nutritionist to find a horse feed that is specifically designed for growth and development and then following the manufacturer’s feeding directions should result in a practical and effective solution to ensure your youngster is getting the right balance of energy and nutrients, helping to avoid developmental issues and maximizing performance.

Feeding Foals Through Weaning Time

Properly preparing the foals to be weaned can make the process much easier for everyone, and part of that preparation includes setting up a successful feeding transition for the foal.

  • Make certain that the foal is consuming at least 1 pound of a feed per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings. 
    • If a foal is 4 months of age, it should be consuming at least 4 pounds of feed per day. If a foal is 6 months of age, it should be consuming at least 6 pounds of feed per day. 
    • Appropriate feeds for foals and weanlings will be 14-16% protein with controlled starch and sugar along with amino acid, mineral and vitamin fortification. 
    • Keep in mind that past 2 months of age, the milk produced by the dam is not sufficient to maintain adequate growth, so the foal should be creep fed if possible as not all mares allow the foal to eat with them.
  • The day you wean the foal is NOT the day to change feeds!  Creep feeding the foal on the same feed it will continue to eat after weaning is a great way to keep one point in their life consistent through the weaning process.
  • The foal should also have access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.

Keep in mind that weaning can be a high stress period for the foal, so other high stress events should probably not take place at the same time as weaning.  The following management practices should be in place before the foal is weaned:

  • Make certain that the foal has been vaccinated for appropriate diseases according to your health care plan.  Vaccination is a stress on the animal, so you do not want to do this at the same time you wean the foal.
  • The foal should also be de-wormed prior to weaning.
  • The foal should have been handled, taught to lead and have had its feet trimmed.
  • Have a plan in place for the actual weaning/separation process.

Monitor the new weanlings fairly closely and increase feed intake to maintain growth and body condition, feeding according to both weight and Body Condition Score.  Some weanlings become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning.  This is frequently due to inadequate feed intake and too much forage.  The cecum is not fully developed in the weanling, so it cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse.

Proper preparation can minimize the stress of weaning for foals and help maintain uniform growth and body condition.

Weaning Options for Foals

Weaning time can be stressful, but proper preparation of the foals and the mares for weaning can make the process much easier for everyone!  Most foals are weaned at about 4-6 months of age, depending on the condition of the broodmares and the management plan of the owner.

There are a number of different ways to actually handle weaning, depending on how many foals you have and the physical layout of your facility.  Here are some factors to keep in mind:

  • There is probably less stress on the foal if it remains in the pen or paddock where it is accustomed to being instead of being moved to a new location.  Move the mare, not the foal if possible. 
  • Misery loves company.  If you have more than one foal, wean at least 2 at a time and keep them together.  If you have only one foal, perhaps you have a nice old tolerant gelding who can be a babysitter?  Mares also do better with company.
  • Make certain the pen and paddock are safe with good fencing and no hazards.
  • Out of sight (and hearing), out of mind.  Mares and foals tend to quiet down faster if they cannot see and hear each other after weaning.  There are some differences of opinion on this element of weaning management.
  • A few days prior to weaning, reduce the grain intake on the mare to prepare her to dry up from milk production. 
    • Her udder is going to be somewhat swollen, so don’t plan on cinching her up right away for a trail ride. 
    • Her milk production started decreasing significantly at 2-3 months of lactation
    • Make certain that she can continue to get exercise to minimize swelling and discomfort post weaning.

Monitor the new weanlings fairly closely and adjust feed intake to maintain growth and body condition.  Foals should be consuming about 1 pound of a suitable foal feed per month of age at the time they are weaned.  (Ex: a 4 month old foal should be consuming 4 lbs of feed per day.)  Some weanlings become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning.  This is frequently due to inadequate feed intake and too much forage.

Proper preparation can minimize the stress of weaning for foals and broodmares and make for a more pleasant experience for all!