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!

Feeding Foals

Similar to human babies, the nutrition and care a foal receives in the “baby” stage can have an effect on its whole life – including soundness and development issues that may not become obvious until years down the road. Starting your foal on the right path to nutritional health will pay off not only in the immediate future but in the long term as well.

Within a few hours of being born your foal will take in the mare’s first milk. This milk is known as colostrum and it provides valuable antibodies that help prevent diseases. In the first several weeks of life your foal focuses on nursing to get all of his nutrition. Your foal should consume 15-25% of his bodyweight daily in milk and will be gaining from 2-3 lbs. per day. If you notice your foal nursing longer than 30 minutes at a time, you may need to investigate and make sure that the mare is producing enough milk to the foal.

Foal scratching face

Ferris with mom Rosie - foals exhibit the most entertaining behaviors....

As early as one week of age your foal may start taking some interest in feed by nibbling at hay or grain. This initial interest may be just a way of imitating mom, but the foal soon learns to use these other sources of nutrition and his digestive tract quickly adjusts to solid food. One of the things your foal may eat might not look all that appetizing to you, but coprophagy (eating manure) is now recognized as being normal in foal behavior. It is thought to be a way that the foal’s hindgut gets prepared ferment forages later on.

Between weeks 13 – 24 your foal’s source of nutrition from his dam is starting to dwindle as the lactating mare produces less and less milk. At this point we want to make sure that the foal has a good and balanced supplemental source of nutrition; you may want to start a creep feeding program to make sure your foal has good access to this supplemental diet. 

Foal feed needs to be focused on providing balance to the diet.  Metabolic bone disease is something almost all foal owners fear. Foals who grow too rapidly, gain weight too quickly or who have an imbalance in essential parts of the diet (minerals, protein, calories, etc.) can end up with these serious health issues, which can include DOD (Developmental Orthopedic Disease), physitis, contracted tendons and others. Make sure that you are providing  a good, digestible source of protein (tip: look for guaranteed levels of amino acids), correct amounts  of vitamins and minerals (particularly important are calcium & phosphorus,  copper & zinc and selenium & vitamin E)  and the right amount of calories for sound growth.

Check out our Equine Growth Chart to chart your foal’s progress!

 

Creep Feeding Foals

Newborn Foal, Ella takes in the world next to mom, Serena

When was the last time you picked a mare out for breeding based solely on the fact that she was a good milker? If you are like most horse owners, that thought probably didn’t even cross your mind when it came to mare selection. Most of us look at things like conformation, color, attitude and athletic ability as traits to breed for before we ever consider things like milk production.

The fact is that mares need to provide milk – and a lot of it – to feed and nourish the foal at their side. But even the best milking mare will start to decline in milk production a few months after the birth of her foal. By week 13-24 her milk production will shrink from 3% of her body weight to about 2%. This is a peak time for growth in the foal and nutrient needs are increasing just as the nutrition provded by mom is decreasing. A good way to address this issue and make sure that your foal gets all the nutrition that they require is to implement a creep feeding program. Creep feeding is simply a method of feeding foals so that they have access to feed that the mare doesn’t.

A simple creep feeder can be made of a small pen that allows the foal an entry that the mare can’t fit through. Height of the opening is a great way to keep mares out of the creep feeder. Keep your opening at least a couple of inches higher than the foal’s withers – this will be low enough to keep the mares out and still let the foals in. Remember, those foals are growing so you may have to periodically adjust the height of the entry. 

If you feed the foal in a stall alongside his dam, there are small feeders on the market that have evenly spaced bars in place over the opening that prevent the mare’s larger muzzle from reaching in to snack on the creep feed.

The ration you provide as your creep feed should be designed specifically for growing foals with the primary intention of providing balance in the diet.  It needs to have a few key features:

  • Good palatability to ensure intakes
  • High quality protein
  • Amino acids (particularly lysine) for sound growth
  • Balanced levels of vitamins and minerals – having too much, too little, or the wrong ratio of certain vitamins and minerals at this stage can be detrimental. Of particular importance is calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, selenium and vitamin E.  

Creep feed can be offered free choice; the foal will nibble at it throughout the day. To make sure that your foal is getting enough of the feed, place your feeder in a place that the mare frequents or spends a large part of her time.  Keep feed fresh and feeders clean so that the foals will be encouraged to eat.

By providing a creep feeding program for your foals you will be giving them the nutrition they require and helping them in their journey to becoming strong and sound adults.

Feeding the Broodmare During Lactation

Proper nutrition for the broodmare during lactation is essential to make certain that she produces adequate milk for the foal and also maintains her body condition so that she will re-breed successfully and safely carry the next year’s foal.

The broodmare has substantial increases in requirements for digestible energy, protein, lysine and minerals as she goes from the last month of gestation to the first month of lactation. For an 1100 lb mare, the following changes occur:

  • Her DE requirement goes from 21.4 Mcal per day to 31.7 Mcal per day
  • Her protein requirement goes from 630 grams to 1535 grams per day
  • Her lysine requirement goes from 27.1 grams to 84.8 grams per day
  • Her calcium requirement goes from 20 grams per day to 59.1 grams per day
  • Similar increases occur in other amino acids and minerals, as well. They are documented in the Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Edition, pages 298-299.

If her feed intake is not increased to provide these nutrients, she will maintain milk product by using her body stores for energy, amino acids and minerals, causing loss of weight and loss of body condition as well as mineral losses.

Foal scratching face

Ferris with mom Rosie - foals exhibit the most entertaining behaviors....

To meet her increased DE requirement, an additional 7.5 pounds of grain containing 1364 Calories/lb will need to be added to her diet gradually post foaling. Fortunately, she also can consume more dry matter during lactation, so she is actually able to eat more forage and more feed. If she is fed a product suitable for lactating mares, the additional feed will provide the additional energy as well as the other important nutrients. She will also require unlimited access to water and salt free choice along with good quality forage.

If she continues to lose weight, she is much less likely to cycle normally during lactation and less likely to become pregnant and carry the next foal. This may be why some mares are “every other year” mares in producing foals. They are frequently mares that produce large foals and milk very heavy during lactation. As a result, they do not maintain body condition and do not re-breed and carry a foal the next year. When they are not in foal and not lactating, they gain weight and come back into the next breeding season in good flesh and breed successfully. This is even more likely if they are not in a suitable body condition (BCS 6+) prior to foaling.

The nutrient requirements of the mare will start to decrease at the 3rd month of lactation and will gradually decrease until the foal is weaned. Monitoring body condition of the mare and the foal is one of the best ways to determine if the feeding program for both is producing the desired results!

Feeding Broodmares

During a mare’s pregnancy, some significant changes happen that cause her nutrition needs to skyrocket. While bred mares should be fed a quality maintenance diet for the first half of their pregnancy, a maintenance feeding program just won’t cut it after the mid-way point of the pregnancy.

Since we cannot increase the feed intake drastically when the mare foals, she needs to be carrying some extra fat stores so she does not drop body condition drastically before we can bring her up to intake levels that fill lactation energy requirements.  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 she is in a significant negative energy balance (losing body condition) she is much less likely to rebreed easily and carry the next pregnancy.

To bring a mare along properly in her nutritional journey, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Good quality pasture or forage may provide sufficient energy thru late gestation, but may not provide adequate amino acids and minerals. 
  • A ration balancer product or a feed designed for pregnant mares 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 should be introduced prior to foaling, so that the mare is properly adjusted to the feed well before she foals.  She is under quite a bit of stress immediately before foaling, so this is not the time to be introducing a new feed. 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.
  • The mare should also be vaccinated properly before foaling so that her colostrum, the rich first milk, contains antibodies to protect the foal.  Proper nutrition will also help immune response to vaccinations.

During lactation, a mare’s energy needs are easily doubled over her maintenance needs, and while a mare is producing milk for her offspring, her water consumption can exceed 50-100% that of a maintenance horse. Around 13-24 weeks after the mare has given birth, her milk production will begins to decrease, and the diet can start to be cut back slightly as nutritional needs are getting back to those of a normal maintenance horse.

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.

Inside the Broodmare’s Belly…

Lactation demands a lot from a broodmare!

Are you anxiously awaiting that first foal of the spring? Do you have the foaling stall ready, the vet on speed dial, and the video camera on the battery charger? While you’ve been busy prepping, here are some of the amazing changes that have taken place (or are about to take place) in your mare:

  • 6 Month Mark: During 2nd half of pregnancy, 60 – 65% of fetal growth occurs!
    • Energy requirements of the mare go up almost 30% over a normal maintenance horse – from 16.7 Mcal DE per day to 21.4 Mcal DE per day.
    • Her protein requirements will increase 32%, and vitamin and mineral requirements also increase significantly during this time.
    • 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. 
    • Adequate protein/amino acid intake is essential – lysine, methionine and threonine, the first 3 limiting essential amino acids, need to sufficient in the diet for placental and fetal development.
  • Last Trimester: The average foal fetus will grow by 1 pound per day!
  • Lactation: After the foal has been born the real work for the mare is just beginning.
    • The normal mare will produce around 24 lbs (3 gallons) of milk per day. During an average 150 day lactation, this equals 450 gallons or 1.75 tons of milk!
    • During lactation, a mare’s energy needs are easily doubled over her maintenance needs – from 16.7 Mcal DE per day to 31.7 Mcal DE per day!
    • While a mare is producing milk for her offspring, her water consumption can exceed 50-100% that of a maintenance horse.
    • Around 13-24 weeks after the mare has given birth, her milk production will decrease from 3% of her body weight to around 2%.

With all that effort going into producing a darling new foal for your farm, be sure to give your mare an extra pat on the neck, and of course, make sure you are feeding her properly!

Weaning Foals

Early autumn is a time when horse owners are frequently preparing to wean foals from their dams. Proper preparation makes the process much easier. There are several management practices that should be in place before the foal is weaned:

  1. Make certain that the foal is consuming at least 1 pound per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings. (Ex: If a foal is 4 months of age, it should be consuming at least 4 pounds of feed per day.) Keep in mind that beyond two months of age, the dam’s milk is not sufficient to maintain adequate growth. The foal should also have access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.
  2. Ensure the foal has been vaccinated for appropriate diseases according to its health care plan. Vaccination is stressful for the animal, so we do not want to do this at the same time we wean the foal.
  3. The foal should also be de-wormed prior to weaning.
  4. The foal should have been handled (imprint training is a great tool), taught to lead and have had its feet trimmed.
  5. Weaning can be a high stress period for the foal. With that in mind, other high stress events should be avoided during weaning. For example, the day you wean the foal is not the day to change feeds.

There are a number of different ways to handle weaning, depending on the number of foals and the layout of the facility. There are several factors to keep in mind:

  1. There is probably less stress on the foal if it remains in the pen or paddock where it is accustomed instead of being moved to a new location.
  2. Misery loves company. If you have more than one foal, wean at least two at a time and keep them together. If you have only one foal, perhaps you have a nice old gelding who can be a babysitter?
  3. Make certain the pen and paddock are safe with good fencing and no hazards.
  4. Out of sight (and earshot) means out of mind. Mares and their foals tend to calm down faster if they cannot see and hear each other after weaning.
  5. A few days prior to weaning, reduce the mare’s grain intake 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.

Monitor the new weanlings closely and increase feed intake to maintain growth and body condition. Because a weanling cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse, some weanlings can become a bit pot-bellied and look a little rough following weaning from inadequate feed intake and too much forage.

Proper preparation can minimize weaning stress for foals and broodmares and make for a more pleasant autumn for the horse owner, too.

Feeding Broodmares Properly

While visiting an area farm at feeding time I watched the owner give her mare an extra portion of feed since she was eating for two. I know she meant well, but the mare is not due until May. I explained to her that the “extra portion” really isn’t needed – she can continue to feed her mare on a quality maintenance program, including quality forage, until her last trimester.

During this time, the foundation of the foal’s body is being built, so quality nutrition is needed, but it doesn’t put a big strain on the mare just yet. When she reaches the last part of pregnancy, the foal’s body begins to actually grow by around 1 lb per day, and that is when the demands on the mares’ reserves begin. At that point, the owner would be wise to switch to a feed specially designed for broodmares and foals, as these feeds take into account the increased needs of the mare during that last part of pregnancy, and are formulated so a regular portion can be fed instead of having to provide “extra”.

Explaining further, I told her to gradually switch the mare to a broodmare or mare and foal ration, over a period of 5-7 days. Total dietary protein – not just from the grain, but from the grain and hay both – should be 12-14% (depending on amino acid balance) and balanced for all nutrients. It is important that the concentrate portion of the diet provide adequate protein, energy, calcium and phosphorus, as well as other vitamins and minerals. The foal is pulling significantly from the mare’s supply during the end of the pregnancy, and building up stores of nutrients for the first weeks of life on the ground. For example, the foal will not receive any copper from mare’s milk, so it has to store up sufficient levels while still in the womb to last it until it begins eating solids alongside its dam.

Finally, most mare & foal feeds are designed such that the mare should continue on the ration until she is through the heaviest part of lactation, and the foal can begin eating alongside her to adjust to solid feed, then can continue on the same feed through weaning – thereby reducing at least one stressful switch at that difficult time!