How to Properly Feed Orphan Foals

A young foal typically relies solely on the mare’s milk for all his nutritional needs. But what about when a foal is orphaned? Orphaned foals come with their own set of challenges – such as ensuring they are getting adequate nutrition.

The milk a mare produces for her foal has a direct effect on the foal’s health and growth rate. Without it, it’s up to the foal’s surrogate caretakers to ensure the foal is getting all the nutrients she needs.

The first few months, especially the first twenty-four hours, of a foal’s life are the most crucial when it comes to proper nutrition. During the first 24 hours of life, colostrum is essential for providing the antibodies that help a foal develop a strong immune system. If a foal is orphaned at birth, it is essential they receive colostrum during the first 12 – 24 hours of life.

Testing newborn foals to determine that they absorbed enough antibodies from the mare’s colostrum is a good practice to implement with all foals, but it is especially important for the orphaned foal. Foals can be tested during the first 12 to 36 hours of life for serum IgG (Immunoglobulin G) to measure the passive transfer of antibodies from mare’s colostrum.

Surrogate Mares for Orphan Foals

Surrogate mares, also known as nurse mares, are commonly used in the Thoroughbred breeding industry, although many breeders or those who find themselves with orphaned foals seek out this alternative, as it is the most ideal.

Nurse mares can either be a mare that recently lost a foal of her own or one that still has a live foal.

If a nurse mare can be found and is receptive to raising the orphan foal, this can be a great option for the foal to have access to a natural milk supply. While a well-fed lactating mare can support two nursing foals, should she still have a foal of her own, it’s best to work closely with your nutritionist and feed supplemental nutrition to both the mare and foals to ensure they are getting the nutrients they need.

Mare’s Milk Replacement

In many regions, nurse mares can be hard to find.

If a suitable nurse mare cannot be obtained, the other option is to manually bottle feed the foal using a mare’s milk replacement. This milk replacement can either be another mare’s milk or a powdered mare’s milk replacement. Foals should be fed about 20% to 25% of their body weight per day.

When using a powder milk replacement, it’s important to be mindful of dilution. Most milk replacement powders have a much more concentrated mixture than what a foal would get from mare’s milk. Mare’s milk is about 90% water and 10% percent dry matter. A higher dilution rate of 1:10 for milk replacement powders will mimic the natural dilution of mare’s milk.

Whole cow’s milk should be avoided, as it has less sugar and a higher fat content than mare’s milk and can cause loose stools. Goats’ milk is an acceptable replacement for mare’s milk, but will not provide the same level of nutrition as a milk replacer designed for foals.

Feeding Management for an Orphan Foal

The number of feedings provided to an orphan foal in a day can influence the growth rate of the orphan foal. Typically, a foal will nurse the mare up to seventeen times per hour during their first week of life and then up to three times per hour the next few weeks of life.

When bottle feeding a foal, it’s ideal to feed them every one to two hours the first week of life and every four to six hours after the second week.

After about two weeks of age, a foal may show interest in and can begin eating a milk-based creep feed, like Foal Foundation™, in addition to mare’s milk or milk replacer.

As foals consume more creep feed, you can gradually begin to wean them off of the milk replacement and increase the amount of solid food over the next couple months, while referring to the instructions on your feed bag. Meals should still be given in small amounts throughout the day. Avoid large, twice a day feedings, as this can cause loose stools and gastrointestinal upset.

Foals can be completely weaned off milk or milk replacement at three months of age.

Adding Supplemental Nutrition for an Orphan Foal

Whether the orphaned foal has a nurse mare or is being bottle fed by a human caretaker, it’s important to be sure they are getting all the nutrients they need during this imperative stage of life.

Foal Foundation, Tribute®’s milk-based free-choice creep feed for foals, provides the nutrients that may be lacking from the milk replacement or a nurse mare alone. Foal Foundation™ is a great source of protein and includes whey, dried skim milk, amino acids, vitamins, organic minerals, as well as pre- and probiotics for optimal gut health. This creep feed is a mini-pellet sized feed that should be placed in a creep feeder, which allows the foal to access it anytime, but prevents a nurse mare from being able to steal it.

After the foal is over three months of age, a plant-based protein horse feed or ration balancer that is designed with balanced levels of minerals, vitamins, amino acids, etc. for this stage of their life can be used. Tribute®’s Growth Pellet is a specifically designed horse feed for young and growing horses 3 months of age to 2 years of age.

Optimum Growth Rate for Orphan Foals

It’s often believed orphaned foals will have stunted growth. However, with the proper nutrition, foals can still grow at an optimum rate. Keep in mind foals should gain about two pounds per day, so regularly weighing the orphaned foal is a great way to track their growth rate and adjust feeding amounts and frequency as needed.

It’s essential to monitor an orphaned foal’s overall health and work closely with your veterinarian to ensure they are getting the nutrition they need to reach their genetic growth potential.

If you’d like help developing a feeding program for an orphan foal, please reach out to the Tribute® team at any time!

Article By: Sarah Welk Baynum
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