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Providing a nursing foal an opportunity to eat solid foods is called “creep feeding”. This practice is without the dam’s intervention and the food source is a balanced formula that will provide additional energy and nutrients to the foal. Horse owners may be confused by the messages that circulate in the industry regarding feeding foals. Those messages range from the importance of creep feeding to compliment the nourishment of the dam’s milk to concerns that creep feeding may cause one of the developmental orthopedic diseases.
There are studies that have demonstrated that around the 8th week of age the mare’s milk production begins to decrease while the foal’s growth continues to increase. Subsequently, there are differences in the nutrient requirements of the foal relative to the nutrients being provided by the mare’s milk. In other words, there is a threshold in which the dam’s milk does not provide adequate nutrients and energy to fulfill the foal’s growth requirements. Studies have also demonstrated that foals during the weaning process will experience weight loss and may experience health related challenges. Providing a creep feed to complement the nursing foal’s nourishment has been a standard practice of managers for decades. However, research relative to what constitutes a favorable creep feed has been inadequate. Thus nutritional management skills and experience are imperative. The 2007 National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses does provide mathematical equations for estimating energy and selective nutrient requirements of foals.
Foals are natural explorers and by 3 weeks of age the foal will nibble at the dam’s food sources. Although horse owners consider this arrangement as creep feeding, it’s not. The foal must have either its own foal-feeder or an isolated area that allows the foal to eat without interruption or competition from the dam for food. Foals should individually be creep fed and should not be in competition with other foals that are bigger and more assertive. Nevertheless, creep feeding foals together works with solid management and observation of the foals in the creep feeding group. In addition to the advantage of maintaining growth during the nursing period, there is clear evidence that creep fed foals perform better during the weaning phase than foals that are not creep fed. These benefits include less weight loss after weaning, quicker acclimation and thus less stress, and fewer health related issues post-weaning.
In general the creep/foal feed label’s basic guaranteed analysis should approximate 16.0% crude protein (but not more than 18.0%), 0.85% lysine, 3.5 – 6% crude fat, 0.8 % calcium (but not more than 1.0%), 0.6 % phosphorus (but not more than 0.8%), a 1.8 – 1 calcium-phosphorus ratio, crude fiber not more than 8.0%, and digestible energy that approximates 1.4 Mcal/lb (energy value will be influence by the fat content). The amino acid lysine is the most important amino acid thus soybean meal must be the primary protein source. Milk proteins are excellent sources of lysine and other required amino acids but are expensive ingredients to include in a formula. Fat can be top-dressed to a nursing foal’s diet, but horse owners are encouraged to consult with an equine nutritionist familiar with dietary requirements. The first four ingredients listed on the label tells one much about the feed quality providing that the manufacture has followed requirements in listing the feeds in order of magnitude from most to least.
Pellet forms of creep feed will prevent selection by the foal and are better suited since the foal initially has limited ability to chew. The pellet should be small (5/32) and have a texture that as chewed will mix with salvia and form a consistency that is easy to swallow. If acceptability of the pellet feed is slow, an old-encouragement is to sprinkle a little brown sugar on the pellet for the first few feeding. The creep feed should be available as early as 3 weeks of age but not later than 8 weeks of age. Initially feed ½ pound per day (split into 2 feedings at ¼ pound per meal). If food is left over from a previous feeding, remove the feed and provide “fresh feed” for the next meal. By weaning age the foal will be consuming approximately ¾ pounds per 100 pounds of body weight. For a 450 pound weanling that translates to approximately 3.5 pounds per day. There is a circulated “horseman’s sound-byte” that a weanling should be fed 1 pound for every month of age. Experiences suggest that amount is approaching an upper limit of a dry ration that should be fed per day.
Foals do drink water so be sure that water sources are at a ground-height for the nursing foal to drink. Also free access to forage is critical to the foal for hindgut development and gut-integrity. Monitor growth (weight and height) each month during the first 18 months at least. Once the foal approaches 12 months of age, the body condition scoring system is an effective tool.
Also read The 7 Steps of Creep Feeding Foals.