At this time of year the process of weaning will be underway for many, and the nutritional requirements of mare and foal need to be considered carefully.
Feed for foals who are still with their dam is termed ‘creep feed’, which describes the sectioned off area where the young animal’s feed was traditionally given. Foals should grow in a steady curve, and some will need extra feed on top of their dam’s milk. Furthermore, mare’s milk is short of some minerals and these must be supplemented to the foal from a couple of months onwards for optimal growth and development. If the foal is in good condition and growing well (on forage alone), do not feed a traditional stud compound, but instead use a stud balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement that supplies all the essential nutrients without excess energy or protein. If you feed the traditional stud compound, you will need to feed less than the full recommended amount to avoid the foal getting too fat or growing too fast, and therefore you will not supply all the essential vitamins and minerals.
Creep feed allows the foal to be eating well before weaning, helping to smooth any growth spurt from the stress of the process, or digestive adaptation to a diet without milk.
Initially, allowing the foal to eat from the mare’s bucket is a useful way to help encourage them to start eating supplementary feed. After a few weeks, the foal will need their own feed and may have different requirements to the mare. Creep feed can be given from a very young age and often takes the form of small pellets. Special feed containers with bars across can be used to allow a small muzzle access whilst stopping the dam from eating the feed. Alternatively an area the foal can access which is too small (in height, or/and width) for the mare can serve the purpose.
Stud balancers tend to have protein contents of about 27 to 32% and are fed in quantities of around 500 g to 1 kg, but these levels and amounts are variable and the feeding directions should always be followed carefully. Most importantly, the growth of the foal should be monitored and the energy and protein intake adjusted accordingly.
You need to ensure the mare and foal get the full amount of the feed they are meant to, without sharing, if they have different feeds. Balancers supply all the essential vitamins and minerals in a much smaller amount than a traditional stud feed, so are more appropriate for mares and foals who don’t need a substantial amount of extra energy (calories) or protein.
A gradual weaning process is the healthiest for the foal, since abrupt weaning can cause harmful levels of stress. The foal should be adapted to the forage and feed that they will be given once separated from the mare, to avoid any more stress than necessary. A slowing of growth due to reduced intake after weaning is often followed by a compensatory growth spurt, which can lead to developmental orthopaedic disease and other health challenges.
The aim for feeding the foal is to meet their nutrient requirements and ensure a smooth, uninterrupted growth curve for optimal development.