How to Feed the Lactating Broodmare

Lactation is the most nutritionally demanding state an adult horse can be in outside of intense race training. There is a significant increase in the requirement for all nutrients.

Nutritional Demands on the Mare During Early Lactation

To match the consumption and growth of new foals, the amount and composition of mare’s milk changes with the stage of lactation. During early lactation, the first 3 months of a foal’s life, the mare is the sole source of nutrients unless a milk-based creep feed is offered. Milk production gradually increases from foaling to 6-8 weeks post-foaling. After approximately 8 weeks, milk quantity and quality will gradually decline, as will nutritional requirements. Up until 12 weeks of age, foals can only digest milk-based proteins.

Nutritional Demands on the Mare During Late Lactation

Foals will naturally start experimenting with eating forage as they age, and the natural progression is that mare’s milk production will fall off as a greater proportion of a foal’s diet comes from forages. The nutritional demands on a mare decrease during this time; however, depending on how well she maintained condition during early lactation, a mare may still require significant calories and nutrients during late lactation.

What Nutrients Are in Mare’s Milk?

The quantity and quality of mare's milk is primarily genetic, but her nutrition can have an important impact. It is important to make sure the mare’s daily intake of nutrients is at least equal to the nutrients she is putting out in her milk. 

Mare’s milk contains many nutrients:

  • Protein – whey and casein
  • Carbohydrates (energy) – primarily lactose
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

If we do not match this nutrient input-output requirement, we cause the mare to deplete her body stores of many nutrients. This negative nutrient balance will eventually reduce the nutrients in her milk and adversely affect the foal. If the mare is not getting enough calories, she will lose weight. If she is low in other critical nutrients, unfortunately, we may not realize it until the foal begins to show poor condition, and/or signs of developmental orthopedic disorders (D.O.D.). Further, depletion of nutrient stores can impact future fertility, resulting in delayed re-breeding and decreased conception rates.

Important to note is that the increase in the demand for calories (digestible energy) is proportionately less than the increases in demand for crude protein, lysine, calcium and phosphorous. The demand for copper and zinc may also increase more than the need for calories and should be addressed in the nutritional program.

What Should I Feed a Lactating Mare?

Because the demand for calories and nutrients don’t directly track together, simply feeding more of a feed designed for “all horses” or non-breeding horses will not meet the requirements of the lactating mare. The lactating mare requires a diet significantly different than one designed for other types of horses. Lactating mares should be fed a feed designed to support both the calorie and nutrient needs of this stage of production.

Growth Pellet and Growth Textured are designed to provide a mare with additional calories during gestation and lactation, but more importantly, the higher plane of non-energy nutrients (amino acids, vitamins and minerals) is included to support the proper development of the foal.

For mares that are on a forage program including a significant portion of alfalfa, Alfa Growth® or Alfa Essentials® are designed to balance the calcium to phosphorus ratio. If this ratio is not balanced, the risk of developmental orthopedic orders increases significantly.

Some mares are “easy-keepers” even during lactation, meaning they are able to maintain their body condition on good quality forage; however, it is still essential to provide non-energy nutrients to these mares. Essential K® and Alfa Essentials® are designed to provide concentrated nutrients and are an ideal addition to the easy-keeping pregnant or lactating mare’s diet.   

Proper nutrition for the lactating mare requires strict management with attention to hay quality and the design of the horse feed portion of the diet to ensure we provide all the nutrients, in balance. Further, managing mares during lactation starts well before foals hit the ground, though attention must be paid to body condition and the nutritional program throughout pregnancy.

Body Condition Entering Lactation

Calorie demands during lactation are high. Mares should be managed to have a body condition score of 6 at the time of foaling. Feeding a mare to gain weight during early lactation is extremely difficult, the mare will put calories towards milk production at the expense of her body condition. Many times, a mare simply cannot consume enough feed to gain appreciable weight during early lactation.

If a mare enters lactation thin or loses significant weight during early lactation, dietary modifications can be made to support her; however, providing supplemental nutrition to the foal is required. This ensures that the foal is receiving the required nutrition to support proper development and takes some pressure off the mare. A milk-based creep feed, like Foal Foundation™, is required up to 12 weeks of age. After foals reach 12 weeks of age, they can be transitioned onto a Growth formula.

Does the Mare Provide Everything a Foal Needs During Lactation?

In an ideal situation, mares will provide all a foal’s calorie and nutrient needs during early lactation. Careful attention should be paid to the mare’s condition and that of the foal during this time. Even a high producing mare in good condition may not produce enough milk for a rapidly growing foal. Foal Foundation™ can be fed as a creep feed or meal fed during this time to fill in any gaps.

Often, foals will need additional nutritional support during late lactation as the mare’s milk production naturally decreases. Meal feeding a Growth formula fills in these gaps in the foal that is over 3 months of age and is good preparation for post-weaning.

If you have questions about your mare’s nutritional program, please contact us for a free, personalized equine feeding plan.

Article By: Nicole Rambo, Ph.D.
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