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!
A 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!
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.
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.
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!