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Feeding the Orphan Foal

Southern States

How to feed your foal when mama can't - The hope of every mare owner is a healthy foal with an attentive dam. The dependent newborn needs mama's colostrum for a healthy start and if the mare provides the milk there is a lot less work for the owner.

Too often, however, something unfortunate happens and a foal does not receive adequate amounts of colostrum and milk. Even the best managed broodmare farms have unexpected deaths or illnesses of mares. Sometimes an otherwise healthy mare simply cannot produce colostrum.

In this case, either supplemental colostrum or a plasma transfusion, followed by the feeding of a mother's milk replica for several weeks, is required. This situation where attentive management is a must.

Once the foal receives colostrum-which is necessary within 12 hours of birth-the next step is feeding.

"The best milk replacer for an orphaned foal is a nurse mare," says Dr. Bill Vandergrift, president of Equivision and technical advisor to THE MANE POINTS.

"The nurse mare had the correct milk replacer formula, properly mixed and delivered at all the right times."

"The best nurse mares come from draft breeds of their temperament. But you've got to watch because the draft breeds tend to overfeed the foal," He cautions.

The two biggest drawbacks with using nurse mares are the question of their availability at the time of foaling-especially for the backyard horse owner-and finding one that has the right temperament to accept the foal.

If a nurse mare is unavailable, the only other choice is to hand-raise the foal using a commercial milk replacer.

One mark of an outstanding mare manager is that replacer is at hand when the need is critical.

"I've found that the people who get nailed without milk replacers are the ones with only a couple of mares," Vandergrift says. "Most large breeding farms have nurse mares available as well as a few bags of replacer, but for those with only a mare or two, I can't say enough about buying your milk replacer long enough before that foal is on the ground. If there is a problem, you'll have your replacer ready, and you won't be scrambling around in the middle of the night to find some.

It's better to buy the milk replacer and not need to use it than not to have it and endanger your foal's health. Generally it keeps for about a year. If it sits around for longer than that, it won't be quite as beneficial but will still help your foal."

In an emergency, cow's or goat's milk can be used as an alternative to mare's milk, but better results are usually obtained with the use of milk replacers specifically designed to replace the dam's milk.

"Goat's milk tends to be more palatable to foals than cow's milk and causes fewer digestive upsets," Vandergrift notes.

"The most common mistake when hand-feeding the foal milk replacer is overfeeding, which leads to foal diarrhea. Therefore, it's important to follow directions as closely as possible for the milk replacer you are using.

Vandergrift says, to do a good job, know the right weight of your foal-preferably from a scale rather than a weight tape.

"If you overestimate the weight of your foal, and thus overfeed him, he's bound to get scours," Vandergrift warns.

Being mother to a foal takes time. During the first month of life, normal foals nurse as often as eight times per hour, consuming as little as 50 milliliters of milk per nursing.

Hand-reared foals can be successfully raised by feeding every two hours for the first few days. During this time, attempt to teach the foal to consume the milk replacer from a bucket.

"Successfully training your foal to drink independently will increase the chances that your foal will develop at a normal rate, and will shorten the amount of time you need to spend with him," explains Vandergrift.

Recent advancement in milk replacer technology allows the milk to be mixed and left for 24 hours without sacrificing quality and palatability.

"A young foal that learns to drink milk replacer on its own will tend to regulate its own intake more accurately than a foal that waits for 'Mom' (that's you) to arrive," he says.

Once the foal learns to drink the milk replacer, the next step is to introduce solid food into the diet.

"Get them to eat hay or grass," Vandergrift explains. "Hay can be introduced within the first two weeks of the foal's life, and it sometimes helps to feed him alone. Isolating the foal with access to hay may accelerate his willingness to eat."

Grain especially formulated for foals can be introduced at this time as well.

"Even if the foal only nibbles at the hay and grain over a 24-hour period, it's well worth the effort to switch to dry feed," Vandergrift advises.

As with the milk replacer, the orphan foal owner has to be especially careful not to overfeed.

"My best answer is to feed him as much as he needs to support skeletal growth without scours or getting fat," Vandergrift says.

This requires that the person managing feeding determine the foal's rate and growth development. A rule of thumb that Vandergrift advises is to feed the amount of milk replacer recommended on the directions, and feed one pound of grain per month of age.

Vandergrift notes that another concern orphaned foal owners voice regards stunting the animal's growth. But it's difficult to stunt a foal's growth to the point that he fails to reach his full-size-potential, Vandergrift says.

"Let the foal grow at it's own pace and don't try to push it, even if you don't think your foal is as big as foals of the same age," Vandergrift explains. As long as the foal is healthy, eating and growing, he will reach his adult size.

"Being afraid of stunting the foal's growth often leads to overfeeding, which creates more developmental and health problems than slightly underfeeding."

1997-2004 Southern States Cooperative, Inc., Reprinted from Mane Points magazine, with permission of Southern States Cooperative, Inc.