foal-laying-down
• Photo by Molly Montag

Food for Foals

This article was first published in the July 1, 2019 issue of Quarter Horse News courtesy of North Texas Farm & Ranch.

Starting with proper nutrition from the beginning will give a foal the boost it needs to reach its potential in life.

As the summer sun beats down on some of the last foals to hit the ground this season, now is an opportune time for owners to make sure they are giving their new babies what they need to have a successful start at life. One of the best ways to do that is by giving them the proper nutrition for whichever growth stage they are in.

According to Jen Voellinger, DVM, owner of Precision Equine in Roanoke, Texas, foal nutrition begins before birth. Mares carry foals for around 11 months, and while dams just need general maintenance feeding much of that time period, it is possible to overfeed a broodmare.

“I think a lot of people like to overfeed mares, kind of like people like to overeat when they’re pregnant,” Voellinger said. “I think that’s where watching their body condition is important.

Their bellies are obviously going to get big, but watching for areas of fat pockets is really important. I think keeping them around a body condition of 6 or 6.5 is best because usually a lot of times if they’re obese, it actually can create problems for the foal and problems during parturition [birth].”

As the mare gets closer to foaling, her nutritional requirements may increase. This is dependent on her age and breed, so each mare should be looked at on an individual basis. More than anything, a well-balanced diet is important to help nourish the growing foal, who goes through a lot of development during the last months of gestation. Often a good-quality food forage, ration balancers and/or grain is all the mare needs.

triangle-winter-sale-swing-thru-the-drive
Swing Thru The Drive, an NCHA Amateur World champion, was the high-selling broodmare at the 2021 Triangle Winter Sale. • Photo courtesy of Triangle Sales.

Supplements of many kinds, including those for pregnant mares, are readily available to horse owners. While Voellinger acknowledged some supplements, like those for joints and ones with extra biotin or protein additives, can be valuable, she suggested owners invest in a higher-quality grain versus adding packs of various powders and pellets to a mare’s feed.

“It’s best to put your money, instead of toward extra supplements, into a really good quality forage hay, grass and then on top of that, a good-quality grain. I think that’s where people miss it a lot. Spend the extra money and get the good hay, and once you do that, you’re going to meet a lot of those vitamin/mineral/protein requirements, and you’re not going to have to rely on supplements for that,” she said.

 After a foal is born, it depends on its dam’s milk to provide it with the nutrition it needs for the first few months of life. That does not mean the owner is exempt from offering any sort of foodstuff to the baby; instead, around a month of age, a foal should be given access to a creep feeder as it begins to show interest in its mother’s feed.

“They’re usually just kind of mimicking mama they’ll even start that sometimes in the first month but it’s mainly just mimicking,” Voellinger said. “Usually, people do start supplementing after the first month, though, because what happens is that mare’s milk kind of peaks in quantity and quality, and then it starts decreasing. “The foal is increasing in its size that whole time, so you kind of get this waxing and waning where the mare’s milk is decreasing, and the baby’s nutrient requirements are increasing.”

 Voellinger recommended owners follow a rule of thumb of giving 1 pound of a good foal feed per each month of the foal’s life once a day to allow it to grow at a steady rate without overfeeding. For example, if the baby is 1 month old, feed 1 pound a day. If it’s 2 months old, feed 2 pounds a day. The food should be offered in a creep feeder the mare cannot get to.

Following these guidelines, rather than allowing foals free-choice access to creep feed, can assure owners their foal is maturing at a healthy rate. Overfeeding can cause structural and developmental problems, such as physitis the inflammation of the growth plates in the joints. The growth plate is where the bones are growing from, and any inflammation is painful.

Foals are usually weaned from their dams around the five- to six-month mark, if not later. At that time, they may still be nursing, although the quality and quantity of their dam’s milk has decreased by that point. If the foal has been fed following the recommended rule of thumb, it will have an easier time transitioning to full-time feed and forage.

foal-laying-down
Foals in Pasture • Photo by Molly Montag

“If you start your creep feeding early enough, like at month one, by that point [when they’re weaned] they’re eating quite a bit on their own, so they’re already getting the nutritional needs met through the foal feed at that point,” Voellinger explained. “I think it’s not a good idea to wait until weaning to start doing the grain because then it’s a harder transition. If you start earlier, then they’re kind of used to eating it. They’re kind of getting their nutrient requirements met as the mare’s milk is decreasing.”

As foals approach weaning time, their cecums (hindguts) where they digest forage, are starting to develop. An owner may see their foal playing with hay prior to that, but until the digestive tract has matured, a foal feed is most digestible. According to Voellinger, the foal’s hindgut is usually properly populated by microorganisms at 4 to 6 months of age usually around weaning which will allow it to ferment forage.

After a foal has been weaned, it is usually best to switch it to a juvenile feed formulated for weanlings. As the baby continues to go through growing phases, it will need support to mature and develop. Working on specialized nutrition plans with a veterinarian will ensure the foal has the chance to be the best it can be during this time.

“Their whole development past weaning is really important,” Voellinger said. “Follow your rule of thumb. Quality and amount are super important.”