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!