What should I feed my foals?
How do I know if it’s too much or not enough?
Like any breeder and foal raiser, I ask myself those questions pretty regularly. We want the best start in life for our foals and I find myself pretty bewildered at the wide array of feed out there being offered and touted as the best solution to this niggling worry. But when I go looking for actual data on what foals actually need I am faced with a couple of challenges.
- the information in other blogs and articles are so vague that it is of no use. “Make sure the foal has access to quality feed.” Please define quality? “Feed it a foal ration and follow the feeding instructions”-How is this feeding requirement the same for all foals raised everywhere?
- When looking into nutrient requirements- when I can find them from unbiased sources materials- the units are sometimes hard to follow, inconsistent, and are all over the place: mg/kg, ppm, %, gr/BW, kg, and lbs of course…
- Finally, when the numbers have been worked out for you they always mention that this is for an animal with a mature weight of 1100lbs- seems to be the gold standard probably because its the average weight of a QH and let’s face it there are way more of them in North America then warmbloods or sport horses. Average sport horses and warmbloods are 1250 to 1400 lbs at maturity and face the challenges of growing for longer with their livelihood literally depending on the quality of their constitution.
So, for those reasons, I went on the hunt to recalculate and do a sanity check on what sport horses and warmblood foals need.
To start we must first ask: How much milk do foal drink? How much do they really eat? How much should they eat? Only then can we really answer the question as to whether it is enough or not and if we should supplement them or not.
In the first two months of life, the milk of the mare is sufficient to provide both the caloric and the protein the foal requires. Foal drink around 15 liters of milk a day in the first week or two and but ramps up to close to 20 liters of milk a day at its peak at around 2 months of age.
At that age, the protein requirement of the growing foal is roughly 450 to 500 gr of protein per day. When we consider that mare milk has a protein content of between 29 and 31 grams per liter we see that the foals get what it needs from its mother’s milk.
In fact, at that age, the foal is quite unable to get any nutrition from anything else. Its digestive system is not mature enough to extract nutrients out of the forage it nibbles or the mare ration it steals. It can, however, give him diarrhea, so best is to keep the mare’s ration out of reach at that age.
At three months of age, the digestive tract of the foal has mature enough to start to digest some forage. The forage will slowly start to replace the mare’s milk as a source of protein, energy, and nutrient over the next few months. However, at this age, the foal will eat about 1-1.3% of its body weight in dry matter forage (be it grass or hay). It is still drinking plenty of milk, sleeping a lot, and playing and exploring with the other foals for a good part of the day.
The foal will be stealing some bites from its mother’s ration if you are supplementing her but likely not enough to make an impact on its nutrition. A few bites here and there will probably add up to a cup or so maybe less. It does, however, get more and more nutrition from grazing and if you observe them they do spend a growing proportion of their day doing just that.
If you anticipate needing to supplement the foal at some point this is when you can start to introduce the practice of having its own bucket. We like to introduce fibers the foal is already able to handle. To minimize any digestive upset, we simply soak some hay cube with a bit of beet pulp (the base of their mother’s feed) and we add a handful of pellets to soften in there and let it eat a bit at feeding time. We start at that age because it gives us an occasion to handle the foal a bit more. The mare also has to get used to the idea that all the feed being served is not necessarily for her- a tough concept for some!
At four months, the foal rounds a corner, its need for protein increases dramatically, going from about 600 gr per day to almost 800 gr per day for a foal destined to reach a mature weight of 1200-1300lbs. ( less for those heading to a mature height of 1100 lbs such as Arabian and Quarterhorses-in fact those foals probably don’t need much protein supplementation if at all).
With declining milk quality the foal no longer gets enough protein and energy from milk alone and is not yet able to eat quite enough forage to supply what all that it needs. At this point to continue growing well it needs some supplementation from another source or the quality of the forage provided must increase.
What happens if the foal is not supplemented?
If the protein and energy need is not met the foal’s growth will slow down until its ability to eat more forage catches up (around 5 or 6 months). Growth will plateau. That is what happens to foal on the range, in large operations, and those born in the wild. If its diet is still balanced and providing the mineral and mineral it needs ALL that we will see is a delay in growth from optimal-the foal will catch up later. Where things get a bit delicate and unfortunate is if the diet is NOT balanced AND poor in protein in that case the foal will suffer from deficiencies on many fronts and it could affect its future as a performance animal.
Therefore now is a good time to start ramping up the nutrition if your foal is destined to a life of sport and performance.
But the question is then how much to feed? And what?
For this section, let’s focus solely on the protein question.
In the graph here you will see what is needed to bridge the gap if the foal has access to hay with an average protein content of 10% protein.
(Disclaimer) -This is calculated for a particular foal and hay quality to give you an idea of what is required. You really need to analyze your own hay and track the weight of your foal to see what your foal might require. This is based on very general averages of feed intake (gleaned from publications) and feed quality encountered in my area (Alberta, Canada)
Depending on the protein content of your hay you will be able to determine how much the foal will need to be supplemented. (Hay protein content can vary between 8% and 15%).
Also of key importance are amino acids such as lysine, methionine, and threonine. These can be found in sufficient amounts in mare’s milk, soybeans (often added to manufactured ration for that reason), and legume grasses such as alfalfa. Because of this getting good forage with some alfalfa content seems to be the best way to ensure foals get the right nutrition.
For average hay with a protein content of about 10%, you are probably looking at supplementing the foal between 100-250 g of protein per day, less if your hay has more protein. This amount of protein can be found in the foal ration of your choice.
Here is the feeding instruction found on 4 bags of popular foal ration available here in Alberta:
“Feed 1 to 3 kg of feed per day”
With a protein content of 17% this feed yields between 170 gr to 510 gr of protein per day.
“For a foal that weights 450 lbs feed 1.1 kg of feed per day”
With a protein content of 32% that yields 352 gr of protein per day
“Feed between 1 and 3 kg of feed per day”
With a protein content of 16% that yields 160 to 480 gr of protein per day.
“Feed 1% of body weight”
For a foal that is 250 kg (550lbs)-its 2.5 kg with a protein content of 16% that yields 400 gr of protein per day.
(BTW: In this case, it represented 25 cups of pellets…. :-O)
Based on those numbers and my hay analysis, all 4 commercial feeds provide substantially more protein than my foals need. I, therefore, don’t feed the full quantity.
BUT: they have to make recommendations without knowing the protein content of your hay! So test your hay so you know if you need to feed 1 kg or 3kg. And remember to feed by weight.
For reference (although you should weigh your scoops to make sure) a scoop of the rations we feed here are between 400g (Purina Optimal) and 800g (Hoffman Developer) depending on the brand and each provides around 130-140 g of protein.
However, like it was touched on in a previous blog: choose a supplement with limited starch and sugar if at all possible. Consider supplementing with some soaked alfalfa pellets (roughly 15% of protein). Oilseed meal is also a good source of protein (Horse Power powder contains 17% of protein and is mostly derived from canola oil seed meal-what remains of the canola once the oil has been extracted- one little scoop contains almost 25 g of protein. Flaxseed meal contains as much as 34% proteins!)
Other considerations such as mineral content, calcium and phosphorus balance, Zinc, and Copper balance will be explored in another post at a later date.