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Caring for the New Foal

You will want to make sure you are providing for the proper growth and health of a new foal when it arrives. Making sure the foal receives an adequate amount of quality colostrum from the dam is the first consideration. Antibodies that provide immunity from infectious diseases are found in colostrum. The foal absorbs these antibodies directly into their bloodstream from the digestive tract. Only within the first twenty-four hours of life is this direct absorption of antibodies the most successful.

Normally sufficient immunity will be gained by the foal nursing and the mare’s colostrum will have enough antibodies or immunoglobulins or IgG. Foals should have either nursed colostrum from the dam or been given a colostrum replacement within twelve hours of birth. If foals cannot nurse successfully then a veterinarian may have to administer colostrum by a nasogastric tube. For up to two years, colostrum can remain frozen. Either through the Internet or locally at large breeding farms you will be able to find frozen sources of colostrum.

At twelve of twenty-four hours after birth foals can have the IgG concentration in their blood checked to make sure they have achieved an adequate level. If the foal has no colostrum by the third day or if their IgG levels are still too low then the attending veterinarian will likely administer blood plasma intravenously.

Feed room door with pad locks and chainsFor the first three months the mare’s milk is usually enough to provide the foal with the desired growth rate but it then declines to a level that is not desired. The supplemental nutrients required by the foal to continue their optimum growth rate from three months to weaning which is normally four to six months then creep feeding is an option. Creep feeding also helps prevent developmental orthopedic disease or DOD by providing a balanced diet. You should begin creep feeding a foal around one month old. Until three weeks of age the digestive system of the foal doesn’t have enough enzymes in sufficient quantity to digest the sugars and starches that are present in horse feed. So until this time the foal should only be given a milk-based diet.

Creep feeding foals helps them to cope better with the weaning stress. These foals will also turn out to be larger and heavier at the same age as foals that are not creep-fed. The foals will have a lower risk of getting DOD and contracted tendons. This process of creep feeding foals also makes it easier on the mare.

For the first three months of a foal’s life you should feed one pound of creep feed per month of age if the mare is producing a normal amount of milk for the foal. The amount of feed should then be increased to one to one and a half percent of body weight until weaning. The amount of feed should be adjusted according to the desired growth rate and quality of the available hay. The foal should be given enough hay to eat one percent of their body weight each day.

There are several things to look for in a good, high-quality creep feed including at least sixteen percent protein, protein sources that are high-quality such as soybean meal and milk protein, at least .65 percent of phosphorus and at least a .85 percent guaranteed lysine content. There are few creep feeds on the market that are high-quality and also include additional digestive aids such as yeast culture and organic minerals. These added ingredients help bind the pathogenic bacteria in the foal’s intestinal tract and reduces the incidence of digestive upset.

A foal has a high protein requirement before weaning, but their fiber digestion is often still inefficient so a feed for foals is often appropriate even if the sole forage is alfalfa hay. After weaning you should give the foal specific feeds for them at one to 1.75 percent of their body weight depending on what your desired growth rate is and the quality of the hay. If at least fifty percent of the hay is legume such as alfalfa or clover then the feed can be used up until the foal’s first birthday. Another option can be to give the foal a lower protein feed which given an adequate amount of protein for the weanling if the hay is at least fifty percent legume.

Milk Replacements

A dam’s death, rejection, illness or lack of milk can result in an orphan foal. Some alternatives include nurse mares and milk replacers. The ideal situation for the foal is a nurse mare which is typically a Belgian or Percheron, but leasing a surrogate child can be expensive and may exceed the value of the foal. The alternative to an impractical nurse mare is to feed the foal a milk replacer.

The milk replacer should be high-quality and have a composition similar to mare’s milk which is twenty-four percent protein and sixteen percent fat on a dry-matter basis. The milk replacer should contain protein sources that are milk based since it is proven to give a growth that is similar to mare-nursed foals.

You can feed a foal by a bottle or bucket with the latter being the best method since it is easier and safer. Start with a pan that is so shallow the foal’s mouth can touch the bottom without submersion of their nostrils to train them to drink from a bucket. To stimulate the suckle reflex you should place your fingers in the foal’s mouth. As the foal learns to drink change to a bucket with a larger capacity as the amount of milk replacer that is fed is increased.

Weaning can take place at three months if you are hand-feeding an orphan foal. You should feed the foal a high-quality foal supplement. The proper nutrition for a growing foal is twenty-six percent protein and ten percent fat with a high-quality milk protein and balanced levels of any required nutrients.

At one month old you should start feeding pellets and gradually increase the amount until the foal is eating about two pounds each day. Until the foal is weaned you should decrease the amount of milk replacer. Continue feeding pellets at two pounds each day after weaning and add a feed that is specifically formulated for the growing horse. At a half pound per week you should decrease the pelleted food. The total amount of feed you give the foal should be equal to one percent to 1.75 percent of their body weight after weaning is complete. Hay should be given to the foal at one percent of their body weight.

Read the next horse nutrition article on Older and Senior Horses Need Different Diets.
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