Feeding the Nursing Foal

The foal’s first four months of age is a time of rapid growth and digestive changes, and a time when nutrition plays a critical role in growth and skeletal development. To achieve each foal’s genetic potential, we must provide feed in a form they can absorb and nutrients to meet their needs for growth and health, including proteins (amino acids), fats (fatty acids), calories, major and trace minerals, and vitamins.

A common management practice, in the past, has been to allow nursing foals to eat the grain mixtures with their dams. Unfortunately, all grain mixtures are formulated with minerals to complement forage, and foals under two months of age have very little ability to digest forage or the starches in cereal grains. This management practice is one of the reasons young foals develop diarrhea. During a foal’s first months of life, their digestive enzymes are more efficient at breaking down and absorbing milk (Fig. 1). As the foal ages, their digestive enzymes change. When the foal is between three to four months of age, the enzymes amylase, etc., will surpass lactase, allowing foals to begin digesting the nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) found in cereal grains and immature forages. Foals First® Starter and Creep contains a combination of milk-based ingredients with heat-processed, or cooked, protein grains and cereal grains to match their digestive system. This will result in optimum nutrient absorption, helping reduce the chance of digestive upset that can lead to loose stools, diarrhea, or Acid Gut Syndrome (AGS).

Digestive Enzyme Activity chart

As foals grow and develop, the first “visual” signs of Developmental Orthopedic Disease (DOD) are physitis (epiphysitis) and/or acquired contracted tendons. To determine the cause and ultimate solution to this problem, we must evaluate a foal’s 1) nutrition intake, 2) environmental conditions, and 3) genetics. To ensure nutrition is not the limiting factor, prompt attention must be given to every ingredient eaten and its nutrient content. If nutrition is determined to have played a role, immediate attention to their dietary needs and nutrient balance will speed recovery. Many times, the nutrient shortages are the result of a decline in mineral density in a mare’s milk. If this is the cause, the symptoms of DOD usually appear between two and four months of age. Foals First® Starter and Creep will help address these nutritional short comings by complementing the nutrients found in mares’ milk and supply their needs for amino acids as well as the major and trace minerals and vitamins, such as calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, selenium, and vitamin E, in an easily digested form.

Steps to Successful Management of the Nursing Foal

  • All nursing foals should have free choice access to Foals First® Starter and Creep and should average eating 1 lb/100 lbs of body weight/day, from one to four months of age.
  • To help ensure adequate consumption of Foals First® Starter and Creep: a.) provide it in a foal creep feeder during their first week of age and b.) limit the foal’s access into the mare’s grain mixture. If the foal tastes the mare’s grain mixture first, it may be difficult to get them to eat from the creep feeder, especially if it is a feed containing molasses. Optimal management includes raising the mare’s feed tub high enough so the foal cannot reach it during their first few months of age.
  • The amount of milk the mare produces per day will affect the foal’s appetite, therefore, resulting in how much Foals First® Starter and Creep they will eat per day. If the mare is a good milk producer, the foal may not be interested in eating the foal feed, but vice-versa is true also. Be sure to keep it fresh daily in the creep feeder.
  • If a foal is not eating the recommended amount of Foals First® Starter and Creep and begins to show signs of a developmental problem, provide them with one of our Rejuvenaide® products daily
  • By four months of age, the foal’s digestive enzymes will have changed and they can effectively digest grains and forage. Therefore, select a weanling feed that: a.) will complement forage, type, and maturity level (RFV) and b.) is formulated for the young, growing horse and will support their growth.