By Dr. Emma Hardy, PhD
The first 12 months in the life of a foal are pivotal in building the foundations for overall long-term health and optimal development. It is also during this initial year that the foal will face its first major life event in being weaned from his dam, and he must cope with the nutritional challenges this may bring.
There are many approaches to weaning and every breeder strives to make the right choices for the best outcome. The reproductive status of the mare, the cost and time available, the plans for the foal, and the physical practicalities of the yard will often dictate which type of weaning strategy should be employed. They all come with their own benefits and drawbacks. Choosing the correct feeding and nutrition programme is key to your success.
The dam’s milk is nutritionally complete, providing all the energy and nutrients required for a foal. However, at around three months of age, milk yield peaks, then naturally starts to decline, along with suckling frequency. At the same time the foal increases its intake of non-milk feedstuff such as grass, forage, and some concentrates as the his nutritional needs begin to overtake the mare’s own supply. This period coincides with rapid weight gain, with foals reaching around 30% of their adult weight by this point.
Genetics, breed, seasonal temperature differences, and nutrient availability will all contribute to the growth rate of the foal. Small fluctuations in growth rates are normal and nothing to worry about. However, continuing or significant deviations from the National Research Council (NRC) 2007 growth recommendations can predispose the foal to health issues, most notably orthopaedic problems. The structures and tissues of the foal’s body do not grow at the same rate: bone matures earliest, followed by muscle and then fat. Indeed at 12 months of age the yearling will have attained 90% of his mature adult height, which emphasises the importance of correct diet in supporting this rapid early bone growth.
Introducing creep feed
Although the foal supplements his milk intake with small quantities of the dam’s feed and forage, the introduction of a creep feed prior to weaning can help sustain normal growth rates. Highly digestible creep feed is formulated from milk proteins and micronised grain, and it’s fortified with vitamins and minerals. In addition to encouraging growth, it promotes gastrointestinal adaptation to the post-weaning diet and is also described as a significant factor in the reduction of weaning-associated stress.
The appropriate age to introduce a creep feed depends on many factors. For the foal at pasture and doing well, there should be little need for any additional nutrition until two-to-three months of age, when milk supply begins to diminish. Earlier intervention may be necessary should the foal be orphaned or fail to thrive due to inadequate milk supply or other environmental influences.