Feeding for Weaning: Advice for Breeders and Owners

Monday, September 17

Feeding for Weaning: Advice for Breeders and Owners

Emma Short B.Sc (Hons) Equine Nutritionist advises on the correct nutritional support for foals at this critical time:


Laying Good Foundations

Now the futurity evaluations have come to an end for another year many of you will be beginning to think about weaning as we progress into autumn/winter. The key to successful weaning lies in good preparation and correct nutrition is one aspect of that preparation which can start whilst the foal is still suckling and which is not only important for the general well-being of the foal, but can have particular implications for its future.


Foals are dependent on milk for the first three months of life, but as the foal matures its digestive system evolves and with the milk supply and quality dwindling as he approaches weaning his dietary requirements change. Horses, like other mammals, are dependent on enzymes to breakdown certain nutrients. Enzymes are specific to different nutrients and ingredients and so their levels in the digestive tract will vary according to the horse’s diet. Young mammals start with increased levels of lactase, the enzyme that digests milk, which gradually declines as levels of other enzymes increase. 


At around 3 to 4 months of age the foal is beginning to digest cereal grains and other protein sources such as legumes (soya) more efficiently, as levels of amylase and protease enzymes are increasing. The foal is therefore no longer dependant on a milk-based diet and this is the ideal time to introduce the foal to his own specific stud ration.  


The hindgut and its bacterial population should also not be forgotten and since the adult horse is so reliant on bacteria in the hindgut to ferment and release the nutrients from fibre in forage, these must also become established in the developing digestive tract of the young foal. Many are ingested naturally as the foal’s interest in foraging and eating grass increases rapidly from 1 to 6 months of age and it is not unusual for a foal to consume some of its mother’s faeces as a direct source of fibre-fermenting bacteria.



The stress of weaning combined with a change of diet can result in a significant drop in condition, when the milk supply is removed. To ease the foal’s transition to a concentrate ration and to try and minimise the loss of condition, it is advisable to get the foal established on concentrate feeds well before weaning. Introducing a stud ration from 3 to 4 months of age is the ideal time increasing gradually so that by the time the foal is weaned at 6 to 8 months he is receiving the full amount of concentrates required. The quantity and type of stud ration will then be determined by age and condition but a stud ration will be required until maturity.  


Supporting Growth

There is often a reluctance to feed foals, particularly those who are naturally good-doers, for fear of causing growth problems, with protein wrongly labelled as the culprit. It is now recognised that it is a high energy (calorie) intake with insufficient minerals which can lead to these problems, as this creates an increased rate of growth without the nutrients required to build the tissues to support the growth. 


Keep it Steady

Maintaining a steady rate of growth is essential to try to avoid the dangers of growth problems, which affect the growing skeleton and associated tissues and which could ultimately have an effect on a foal’s soundness and ability to perform as an adult.  So, for foals who hold their condition well both before and during the weaning process, a specially formulated stud balancer is ideal, as this will provide essential protein, vitamins and minerals to support growth but with a minimal calorie content. They can also be used for individuals experiencing developmental problems.


For those who require some help in maintaining condition, a traditional stud mix or cube will provide additional calories but must be fed at recommended rates to supply the necessary supporting nutrients required. At the time of weaning, the foal should be receiving sufficient nutrients from a stud ration to maintain weight and consistent growth once the mare and foal are separated. 


Whatever feed you choose it’s very important to feed it at the manufacturer’s recommended levels to ensure that the foal receives all the nutrients required for correct growth and development. Underfeeding is likely to cause an imbalance just as overfeeding will provide too many of one or more nutrients creating an excess, neither of which are ideal and could predispose your foal to growth problems.  


Feed as many small feeds as you can over the day so you are not overloading your foal’s digestive system.


Forage Portion of the Diet

Getting the bucket feed right is only part of the consideration and the type and quality of the forage your foal has available can make a big difference in his development but also what concentrate feed you choose.


If you have an abundance of good quality grass it is likely that it will be high in calories. Don’t be mistaken that plenty of good grass also means adequate nutrients will be provided as this is often not the case. In this instance your foal may be receiving plenty of calories (energy) from the grass so maintaining weight but insufficient protein, vitamins and minerals, thus the diet is unbalanced and not fully able to support correct development. Therefore it would be prudent to consider a lower calorie stud balancer to ensure vitamins and minerals are provided and counteracting any shortfalls within the pasture to ensure that his diet is fully balanced.


On the other hand later cut fibrous hay is less digestible and likely to sit undigested in the gut increasing the risk of ‘hay belly’ but also will provide fewer nutrients as well as calories. If you can source it opt for soft early cut forages to increase digestibility as well as provide more valuable nutrients. It may be the case that for those who do no maintain weight as well that a higher calorie stud cube or mix ration will be required. It is also worth bearing in mind that if you cannot source a better quality forage then alfalfa chaff can be fed alongside the concentrate feed to help raise the overall protein and fibre content of the diet. 


Supporting the Gut

So, before the foal is finally separated from its dam it should be well established on its own concentrate diet and should also be eating grass and any other forage source which it will remain on after weaning. The fibre digesting, and other hind gut bacteria, of any horse can be disrupted by stressful situations with associated reductions in gut efficiency and potential digestive upsets like loose droppings. Feeding a digestive enhancer, such as a prebiotic, before, during and after the weaning process can help both the mare and the foal through the stressful time by supporting the beneficial bacterial populations and helping maintain a healthy balance in the gut. 


What About the Mare?

Having focussed very much on getting things right for the weanling, the welfare and nutrition of the mare should not be forgotten. Once removed from the foal, the calorie content of her diet should be reduced until her milk supply has dried up, although it is preferable to keep a vitamin and mineral source available, like a specially formulated block or lick, or continue to feed a low calorie balancer. 


Her diet will then depend on whether she is in foal again, returning to work or simply remaining roughed off and also on how well she has maintained condition through lactation and weaning.  If she is in foal again it is vital to feed to support the growing foetus so a stud mix or cube should be fed at recommended rates, or a stud balancer if fewer calories are required.  Ensuring she receives a fully balanced diet at all times will help her replace the body reserves which have been drawn on by having a foal and help her return to work or prepare for the next covering.


Healthy Future

How you wean your foal will depend on your particular circumstances and how mare and foal cope with separation will depend on them as individuals. However, by taking care beforehand, you can help reduce the stress and help ensure that both foal and dam have a strong and healthy future.

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