Feeding for Weaning Success

  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.     Early growth     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.     To maintain an estimated weight gain of between 0.8-1 kg/day in a three-to-six-month-old foal, creep feed should be fed at a rate of approximately 1% (to a maximum of 1.25%) of bodyweight/day (bw/d) up to and throughout weaning.    Some of the nutritional requirements of the foal (NRC 2007) and considerations when selecting an appropriate creep feed are:    Crude fibre should be a minimum of 6% bw/d.    Crude fat should be a minimum of 3% bw/d.    Crude protein requirements are 731 g/day at three months of age up to 980 g/day at 12 months of age, and feed should contain between 14-16% protein. Protein is crucial for muscle, tendon, and ligament development.    The protein source should have a high quality amino acid profile. Lysine, threonine, and possibly methionine are the most growth-limiting essential amino acids for foals, so supplementation is prudent. Lysine requirements are between 31 g/day at three months up to 40 g/day at 12 months of age.     Sources of quality protein are milk protein/whey, soybean, or alfalfa meal.     Attention should be afforded to an appropriate digestible energy (DE) content for age, from 13 Mcal/day at three months of age to 20.7 Mcal/day at 12 months of age. It has been established that excess DE is the predominant cause of abnormalities in bone growth in the foal.    Correct concentrations of minerals necessary for growth, in particular zinc, copper, calcium, and phosphorus.      Calcium is a major component of bone, and its availability affects bone quality. However, an excess of phosphorus in the diet will induce a calcium deficiency, and so the correct calcium to phosphorus ratio must be achieved, ideally at 2:1.     Meals should be small and frequent and use a feeding system that prevents access to the feed by the dam.    It has been suggested that introducing creep feed prior to weaning contributes to excessive nutritional intake and its associated complications. However, a study published by Coleman (1999) found that creep feeding imparts a multitude of benefits. It was found that that creep-fed foals exhibited less distress during weaning, maintained optimum weight gains and body condition both before and after weaning, and showed fewer orthopaedic problems. In short, creep-fed foals were healthier and appeared to cope physically and psychologically better with stress and change.    Highly digestible forage, such as good quality grass or a grass-legume hay (which isn’t too mature), should be made available.      When to wean     Non-natural weaning is typical within the sports horse industry, being more financially economical and practical from a business aspect. This accelerated weaning may be as fast as four-eight months, which is a significant departure from non-domesticated horses, where weaning is usually completed by the birth of the next foal in the subsequent year.  Preventing access to the dam’s milk and separation of the foal from the dam represents not just the removal of nutritional support, but also the psychological bond between a mare and foal. Unfortunately, this process can create significant stress for the foal, which if prolonged can lead to poor overall health, delayed growth, and increased susceptibility to injury and disease. In addition, stress can easily disrupt the balance of bacteria in the hindgut.     Gastrointestinal adaptations to a changing diet    Creep feeding and free access to forage contributes to the proper maturation of the microbial community of the hindgut. Initial colonisation of the foal’s intestinal tract is catalysed by the dam’s own microbiota at birth, which is then boosted by subsequent contact with bacteria in the general environment, often including the ingestion of the dam’s own droppings. Along with sampling of small amounts of non-milk food, these behaviours all help to shape the bacterial profile, particularly during the first 60 days of life. At four-six months, changes of the enzyme activity in the small intestines also occur, with a marked reduction in lactase (responsible for digesting milk) and a corresponding increase in maltase and sucrase (responsible for digesting starch and sugars). This correlates well with the transition from a predominately milk-based diet to a plant-based one.    The role of the bacterial population of the hindgut is likely most recognised for the fermentation of complex carbohydrates, such as forages, to generate 60-70% of the horse’s total energy. However, it also plays a key role in optimising immunity, preventing overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella and Clostridium Difficile, and maintaining the health of the intestinal tract mucosa.     The development of a balanced bacterial population is essential, but our understanding of how this complex ecosystem proliferates remains frustratingly limited. It is known, however, that the microbial population begins to stabilise around two months of age and tends to mimic the dam’s own bacterial profile. To enhance this process, some breeders may choose to supplement the foal’s diet with probiotics (“live” bacteria, usually lactobacilli or bifidobacteria) or prebiotics (indigestible sugars that feed beneficial bacteria). Despite being generally regarded as safe for adult horses (though proven benefits remain questionable) caution is advised when using probiotics in foals, following numerous reports of causing or exacerbating diarrhoea and other clinical signs of gastrointestinal disruption (Weese & Rousseau, 2005). However, prebiotics, such as Mannan Oligosaccharide (MOS) derived from yeast (S. cerevisiae) cell walls, can be helpful in balancing the gut microbiota. MOS is particularly useful in being easily available for digestion by beneficial bacteria, facilitating removal of pathogenic bacteria, and stimulating the immune system.      The effects of stress     Weaning is undeniably a stressful event for the foal and can dramatically affect the balance of the gastrointestinal tract. Reduced feed intake, increased defecation (indicating increased gut motility), and increased physical activity during this unsettled time can slow down weight gain, or even cause weight loss after weaning. The stress hormone cortisol, which is frequently found elevated during weaning, also plays a key role in disrupting the microbiota of the hindgut. Prolonged cortisol circulation can modify the diversity of the bacterial population which in turn can limit proper immune response, affect gut motility, reduce integrity of the gut lining, and inhibit effective cellular turnover and repair. This also creates an increased vulnerability to pathogenic infection. Thus, using a method that minimises distress must be a key objective when weaning.     Maintaining digestive tract health    Early planning and preparation for weaning is central for a successful outcome. A fully balanced and correctly rationed creep feed should be introduced in time for weaning. Quality forage and access to clean water will encourage the foal to adapt well to the post-weaning diet thereby reducing stress. Growth should be monitored regularly, with steps taken to address any deviations in weight or body condition.     The challenges to gastrointestinal tract health during weaning are significant and deserve close monitoring. During a period where growth and maturation of the hindgut microbiota is prominent, the change in diet coupled with the stress of weaning necessitates a robust plan for gastrointestinal support. Introducing a digestive tract supplement to support the health and correct functioning prior to and throughout weaning can complement a carefully constructed feeding programme. Supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria whilst suppressing pathogens can help the foal cope with the rigors of weaning and adjust to his new independence. Optimising gut health also minimises the risk of digestive disturbances and enables the foal to fully utilise the nutrition contained within his feed and forage.       Gastrointestinal tract health underpins all other biological systems in your horse, which in turn contributes to its overall health, trainability, temperament, athletic potential, and ultimately competitive success. Apply these lessons, and your foals will thrive.
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.

Early growth

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.

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