Step by step guide to mare and foal nutrition

Step by step guide to mare and foal nutrition
5 July 2017 | Kirsty McCann


Nutritional advice on feeding from late gestation right through to the foal’s early days as featured in The Irish Field. Written by Nichola Reynolds and Kirsty McCann.

Late gestation, birth, and a foal’s early days can potentially shape its future health and performance for the rest of its life. This period can be a challenging time for horse and breeder. What you put into a mare and foal at this stage will pay dividends forever, so while you put the finishing touches to foaling plans for your broodmare, high quality accurate nutrition should feature at every stage.

During the last 90 days of gestation 60% of the total foetal growth can occur. Getting the nutritional management of a mare correct during this rapid period of growth can influence the mare’s ability to successfully carry a healthy foal to term. It will also enhance her recovery after birth and potentially aid her ability to conceive again as early as possible. Providing a balanced diet for the mare can also help to provide good quality colostrum, an adequate milk yield and promote the growth and soundness of the new born.

The mare’s demands for protein, calcium and phosphorus increase substantially in late gestation. Energy demands also increase but not to the same extent and it’s important to avoid having an obese mare. The mares requirements for trace elements is also increased, these include iron, zinc, copper and manganese. Trace elements are particularly important at this stage because the foetus will store the elements in the liver, in order to support growth post-partum, when trace elements are less available from the milk.

Calcium, working in conjunction with phosphorus, is particularly well documented as a fundamental building block for strong bones and the mare must receive these two essential minerals in the correct ratio, ideally Ca:P 2:1. If a mare is fed a diet containing a significant amount of straight cereals (e.g. oats) particular attention with regard to calcium intake is required, as cereals are very low in calcium. In such situations Foran Equine’s Cal-Gro is an ideal supplement and will provide the correct ratio of calcium and phosphorus in the diet, as well as other nutrients that are needed for skeletal health.

Connolly’s Red Mills Stud Cubes or Mix, when fed at the recommended rate, will provide an ideal ration for your broodmare in late gestation. However, in the last month of pregnancy it’s common for the mare’s appetite and feed intake to reduce, and often forage intake is significantly reduced. During this stage of pregnancy the mare’s hard-feed must be divided into several small meals in order to ensure that she continues to receive optimal nutrition. However, if you find that the mare’s appetite for hard-feed is significantly reduced the addition of Connolly’s Red Mills GROCARE, a highly concentrated source of essential micro-nutrients, to the ration is recommended. Foran Equine’s Shy-Feeder B, a highly palatable B vitamin supplement, is also immensely useful at enhancing appetite, as well as provide an excellent supply of the B vitamin range.

Other vitamins that should be considered in late gestation, include vitamin A and E, both of which will be lower in preserved forage (i.e. hay or haylage) compared to fresh grass. Vitamin E is especially important as it has been shown to influence colostrum quality and therefore immune function in both mare and foal. If colostrum quality is a concern (e.g. maiden or older mares and those with a history of poor colostrum quality) additional vitamin E may be beneficial and can easily be provided by ‘top-dressing’ the mare’s feed with Foran Equine’s vitamin E supplement.

More important than any feed product to the health of a new born foal is good quality colostrum. Commonly referred to as liquid gold, it is thick, sticky yellowish coloured fluid produced by the mare during the last few weeks of pregnancy as a response to hormonal changes.

The new born foal is immunologically naïve, meaning it has a functioning immune system but the process of antibody production is not underway, as yet. No antibodies pass to the foal in utero and so the first supply of antibodies come from the colostrum. Colostrum is rich in antibodies that are critically important to protect the new born foal from disease in its first few weeks of life, after which time it will start to produce its own.

The new born must receive colostrum within 12 hours of birth for maximum absorption of antibodies to occur, this happens via specialised gastrointestinal cells in the small intestine. Failure or partial failure of the passive transfer of antibodies via colostrum significantly increases the risk of life threatening infections. Some factors which affect the quality and production of colostrum include the mares age, whether it is a maiden mare or not and the mare’s general health and nutrition.

The new born foal adaptive period describes the hours after birth when various adaptations to the extra-utero environment need to take place, to ensure survival. The stud hand should be very familiar with what is expected from a normal healthy foal so that anything out of normal parameters is noticed as early as possible. Heart rate should be greater than 60 beats per minute (typically 80-120 in first 24hrs), and the respiratory rate should be greater than 30 breaths per minute (typically 60 for the first few days). Body temperature is a key indicator of how well the new born is adapting to the outside world as well as being an indicator of potential infection. The typical temperature range for a foal is 99.5-102°F or 37.5-38.9°C.

Physical parameters are just as important as physiological ones and the new born should be attempting to sit sternal within 5 minutes of birth and the suckle reflex should be seen within 20 minutes. Within 1-2 hours the new born will attempt to stand and with a few wobbles here and there it should be suckling successfully within 2 to 3 hours. Suckling should be checked by the stud hand to ensure the foal is fully latching on to the mare. The first faeces, known as meconium, should be passed within 24 hours and is a good indicator of normal gut function.

In the early stages foals will suckle approximately 30 times per day, ingesting 20-25% of their body weight in milk, gaining an average of 2 to 3% of their body weight daily. If the new born is unable to nurse, alternative routes of nutritional support will be required. Veterinary advice should always be sought at such times, to determine why the foal isn’t nursing and identify any other possible problems. Your vet will also advise on the most appropriate method of providing nutrition to the new born.

Foals are by nature creatures of habit, their day is simple and repetitive. Nurse, defecate, urinate, sleep. This routine is broken by a few episodes of frolicking around, whether it be along with their dam or with their friends in a field. Should any small variation in a foal’s normal behaviour be witnessed, extra observation should result. Early veterinary intervention is key in successful treatment of a sick foal.

Multi-vitamin supplementation is particularly useful in foals that have, or are recovering from, health problems. The foal’s resources at this time are under stress on many fronts, including growth and developing a strong immune system. Friska Foal is a multi-vitamin and prebiotic supplement specifically formulated to support the foal’s nutritional needs during times of illness or stress, such as travelling. Given by mouth once daily, Friska Foal is a pleasant tasting supplement, which is a great advantage when administering oral medications to foals for several days. Friska Foal is safe to be used on new born foals and many studs incorporate its use into the standard management of all foals for the first week or weeks of life.

The nutritional demands of the lactating mare are similar to those of a racehorse in training. This is hardly surprising when you consider that a Thoroughbred foal can consume 8 litres of milk in the first 24 hours after birth, increasing to 15 litres by day 7. As a result the mare’s requirements for water, energy, protein, vitamins and minerals all increase. Inadequate nutrition during this stage will result in the mare mobilising her own reserves in order to maintain milk production, at her own expense. To meet the demands of peak lactation Thoroughbred mares will require a specifically formulated stud ration such as Connolly’s Red Mills Stud Cubes or Mix. However, as the mare’s milk production decreases in later lactation, or if the mare is gaining too much weight, her hard-feed intake may need to be decreased. If the mare receives less than the recommended amount of a stud feed GROCARE Balancer should be added to her ration to ensure that she continues to receive optimal levels of all the essential micronutrients, without exceeding her calorie requirements.

One of the most common questions a breeder will ask is, does my mare have enough milk to supply her foal?

To answer that question requires asking the following:

Does the mare have a visibly full udder?
Is the foal behaving normally?
Is the foal in good form and active?
Is the foal constantly at the mare’s udder getting frustrated and head butting at her stifle?
Is the mare squealing or kicking out, is she becoming frustrated with the foal’s attempts at nursing?
Is the foal gaining weight at a steady rate?

If all seems calm and normal with both the mare and foal then there should be no cause for concern. If however the foal is weak, constantly at the mare looking to nurse, or if the mare is getting increasingly agitated with the foal there may be cause for concern over milk production.

Nutrients from the mare’s milk are essential for life. Failure to provide adequate nutrition to the new born is life-threatening due to their limited energy reserves and will leave the foal susceptible to hypoglycaemia, hypothermia, weight loss, dehydration and infection.

If the milk yield of a mare is reduced or none existent then supplementary feeding of the foal is required. A new born foal’s gut is not prepared for solid food in the first few weeks of life and so supplementary milk must be provided, either from another mare or by using a commercial milk replacer.

The milk replacer should provide balanced nutrition in the same way as the mare’s milk would. Bottle feeding can be appropriate but should only be carried out by an experienced stud hand due to the risk of aspiration and potential development of pneumonia. Bottle feeding can also lead to behavioural problems and requires more time from the handler.

Ideally the milk replacer should be formulated to accommodate bowl feeding, it is mixed with water (warm water can improve consumption) and the foal is able to visit the bowl as often as it would suckle from the mare. The bowl should be placed between elbow and shoulder height for the foal. Over consumption can be a problem and feeding rate as well as body condition should be monitored carefully.

As the foal gets older a creep feed can be gradually introduced alongside the milk replacer, the foal’s curiosity means that he will investigate and slowly begin to consume the feed. Connolly’s Red Mills Foal Pellets provide an excellent creep feed for foals from 3 weeks of age onwards.
Should a breeder find themselves in a position of having an orphan foal to care for, then the best option would be to foster the foal onto a nurse mare, this allows for a more natural upbringing.

Foals are innately inquisitive and therefore usually start to show interest in whatever their mare is eating a few days after birth.

Ultimately the mare’s milk provides all of the foal’s nutritional needs in the first 6-8 weeks of life. At this point the foal may be consuming 25% of its own bodyweight in milk. So although the foal shows interest and may even swipe some of the mares forage and solid food, it doesn’t need it to meet nutritional demands in the early stages. However, by 3 months of age, when the nutritional value of the mare’s milk declines, it’s important that the foal has been introduced to, and is consuming, a suitable creep feed.

A foal’s ability to digest forages comes as more teeth erupt, and the gut microflora required for the digestion of forage is well established. A foal will learn to drink water by watching the mare, this is usually before the physiological need for water kicks in. Foals can be seen showing interest in water as early as day one, but the unusual sensation on their whiskers can be off putting. However, this is quickly overcome when the physiological demand kicks in.

For further information on broodmare and foal nutrition please contact Foran Equine and Connolly’s RED MILLS.