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

Properly 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.

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.