Some To Grow On

The studies have been done, the jury is in, and the verdict is unanimous: if you want your foals to achieve their optimum growth, with the least risk of developmental orthopedic disorders like contracted tendons and physitis, plan to "creep feed" them. A creep feed is a concentrated ration designed specifically for foals, with a heaping helping of the minerals, protein, and digestible energy they need to build strong, correct bones and muscle.

(The name comes from the common practice of offering such feeds in a feeder surrounded by a barrier to keep out greedy broodmares; the foals can "creep" under the barrier to dine uninterrupted.) Creep feeds help fill the gap when mare’s milk no longer provides all the nutrients a growing foal needs.

That's not to diminish the role of milk in the foal's diet; in the early weeks of his life, it's an essential, because it's the only food a baby's digestive system is equipped to process. But being prey animals, horses are adapted for quick self-sufficiency--so as early as three weeks of age, a foal's digestive tract can begin to utilize starches, and within three to four months, the ability to digest fiber comes on-line. While creep feeding is by no means an essential, studies, including a doctoral thesis by Cindy McCall at Texas A&M University, have demonstrated that creep-fed foals have certain advantages:

  • Grow at a faster rate, so they are often larger and heavier than foals of a similar age who are not creep-fed;
  • Cope better with weaning stresses;
  • Are less affected by weight loss during weaning because they have "some to spare;"
  • Have less trouble adapting to their new lives as weanlings because they are already accustomed to solid feed;

Are at lower risk for developmental orthopedic disorders (DOD) than non-creep-fed foals because foals which are not creep-fed tend to gain weight quickly post-weaning when introduced to hay and grain, and that rapid growth spurt predisposes them to certain orthopedic problems, such as contracted tendons and bone spurs.

In addition, providing foals with access to a creep ration from about one month of age might lessen the strain of lactation for many mares. (Some mares are copious milkers, but others struggle to provide enough milk for their foals, often losing condition in the process.) As the quality and quantity of a mare's milk gradually decrease over the course of a few months, creep feed handily can make up the difference, helping to meet the foal’s burgeoning nutritional needs.

The Secret Ingredients

A good creep feed has some very specific qualities. Not only should it be extremely palatable to encourage foals to sample it, but it also should be nutrient-dense and highly digestible. Put all this in a pelleted format, and foals will have a harder time sorting through the ingredients.

But that's just part of the story. A creep feed also should contain 14-16% crude protein, 0.9% calcium, and 0.6% phosphorus, as well as high levels of the trace minerals zinc and copper, both of which have a vital role to play in the construction of strong bones and muscles.

Fat, while not essential, might be another useful addition to a nursing foal's diet. Just like adult horses, foals can utilize fats very well, and studies that examined the effect of a 10% vegetable-source fat in the diet of foals indicated that it can help increase the growth rate as well as the foal's overall feed efficiency.

Because the ability to digest forage doesn’t kick in till the age of three to four months, the combination of mare's milk and a creep ration should be expected to supply 100% of a young foal’s nutritional needs. This simplifies calculations somewhat--you don't have to take into account the mineral or protein content of your pasture or hay, for example.

Grain mixes designed for lactating broodmares contain many of the same ingredients as creep feeds, but most nutritionists now agree that just letting your foal nibble on the feed his dam is getting is not the best approach. For one thing, with a shared feed, there's no way really to measure how much the foal has ingested (and if your mare is the pushy type, the baby might get precious little!). And for another, the nutritional demands of mares and foals are different enough that the foal's needs are better met with his own diet.

One of the key differences is in the digestibility and quality of the protein on which the ration is based. Foals are best equipped to digest protein based on animal sources, such as milk. Not all that coincidentally, milk protein happens to be an excellent quality protein source, with high levels of the first limiting amino acid, lysine. It's very palatable to foals, too. Adult horses, on the other hand, tend to be better adapted to utilize plant sources of protein (of which soy protein is the best quality choice). Milk protein, while expensive, is the preferred ingredient in a creep ration, approaching 100% utilization by foals. In a broodmare ration, it’s an expensive and unnecessary luxury.

Because they are not building new bones or muscles, mares also don't have the same trace mineral requirements as a growing foal. Copper and zinc, two minerals that do not seem to be passed on to the foal in the mare's milk, are particularly important and should be included in a creep ration to the tune of 50 parts per million, and 60 parts per million, respectively, in most areas of North America.

Let's go back to protein for a moment. It's a nutrient that has received a bad reputation with regard to growing foals, because for many years excess protein was considered a key player in the incidence of developmental disorders. More recent studies, however, have shown us the finger has been pointed in the wrong direction. It has been demonstrated that although a foal’s growth rate can be reduced by inadequate protein levels (resulting in a horse which never reaches his full height potential), it isn't increased by excess protein levels. In other words, high levels of protein will not make your foal grow too fast. What has been implicated in the incidence of DOD is inadequate mineral support for growing bones--with calcium, phosphorus, copper, and zinc playing the major roles. (A slower growth rate also decreases the need for and masks other nutrient deficiencies.)

A foal's rate of weight gain due to grain consumption is very efficient: the average 2-month-old foal will gain one pound of weight for every four pounds of grain consumed. That level of efficiency declines somewhat as the foal gets older. At 7 months, the conversion rate has slowed to a one pound gain for every seven pounds of feed consumed.

Generally, it’s recommended that nursing foals eat between 0.5 and 0.75 pounds of creep ration per 100 pounds of their body weight every day. That should supply him with between 1.5 and 1.7 megacalories per pound of digestible energy, which he'll need for growth and for the exciting business of being a foal. It’s important to note that most forages, on their own, won’t meet the nutritional needs of a foal (especially the DE), nor will most cereal grains. (The average cereal grain—oats, barley, or corn—falls short in terms of almost all nutrients, especially calcium and copper.)

So, the best choice for a creep ration is a commercially mixed feed designed specifically for foals. A ration that achieves optimum nutrition by mixing many ingredients and supplementing the protein, vitamin, and mineral levels (and possibly the crude fat content) as necessary. Feed companies generally package creep rations as a small-sized pellet, which is easy for foals to chew. Look for a creep feed based on milk protein for high levels of lysine (egg protein is an acceptable substitute; if neither is available, go for soy, which is the best choice among plant protein sources). If the protein source is not specifically mentioned on the feed label, ask your dealer to be sure.

It's also a good idea to make available to your foals a mineralized salt that contains at least 2,500 ppm of copper, 7,500 ppm of zinc, and 25 ppm of selenium (unless you live in an area where there is sufficient selenium in the soils). Keep in mind, though, that mineralized salt blocks contain no calcium or phosphorus, so on their own they won't compensate for a poorly formulated creep ration. Make sure the balance of all of these minerals is adequate in your feed.

Delivering The Goods

Once you've selected an appropriate creep feed, the next challenge is getting the ration into your babies. Foals learn by example, so they’ll start sampling solid rations almost as soon as they witness their dams enjoying a grain meal--although the level of their consumption will vary, depending partly on how much milk they are consuming.

In a pasture situation, foals will follow each other's lead, so it’s a good idea to design your creep feeder (which can be any arrangement that allows foals to feed and keep mares out) to accommodate more than one foal. It might be necessary, at first, to coerce your foals into the creep feeding area (which should be located fairly close to where the mares are grazing), and even show them a handful of the grain or place it in their mouths to help them get the idea. Once they catch on, there'll be no problem getting them into the creep feeding area.

Some farms prefer to creep feed foals in their stalls; other farms, in a communal pasture setup. The stall approach offers more control over the situation as well as allowing you to monitor how much feed the foal is eating, but it might not be practical for a large operation.

If you do feed the mare and foal in a stall, you might want to tie the foal's dam while she eats her grain, then offer the foal his own feed in a separate container. Alternatively, you can place a sturdy board in one corner, at a height of about 54 inches (for most light horse breeds), under which the foal can duck to feed from a small bucket you've placed there. There also are special foal feeders available, with adjustable bars across the top. The idea is that the foal can get his muzzle between the bars, but his mother cannot (of course, this doesn’t really take into account the endless ingenuity of a hungry mare!). Whatever method you use, monitor the mare and foal closely at feeding time; some mares will become aggressive about stealing food from their foals, in which case it could be better to consider a pasture-feeding arrangement.

Pasture creep feeders have been designed in many innovative ways, none of which is completely guaranteed to keep a pushy mare away! But most farms have relatively good success in erecting a barrier, a couple of inches above wither height, around a central feeder. (As the foals grow, the height of the opening will need to be adjusted.) Within the barrier, foals should be able to turn around easily; remember, you don't want a smaller or more passive foal to be cornered and bullied by a larger, more aggressive one. If you have a large herd, it might be wise to separate the foals into smaller groups, with older animals in one field, and younger ones in another, to minimize conflicts. Ideally, you'd like every foal to get his fair share of feed.

To begin with, a young foal might only consume a pound, or less, of creep feed; his dam's milk is still supplying all his nutritional needs (not to mention a comfort factor). But gradually, as he becomes more independent and inquisitive, he'll spend more time away from his mother and quickly increase his intake of a creep ration. At three to four months of age, he should be eating more than two pounds of feed a day, and by the time he’s weaned (at 4 to 6 months of age), he might be up to 10 pounds a day, as well as pasture or hay. (You can start to offer free-choice hay as soon as he shows a significant interest in it.)

Once your foal is weaned, his ability to utilize milk protein will decline. At this point, it's relatively easy to switch him gradually to a feed with about 14% crude protein, based on soy. This is where the broodmare ration can become useful again for him. Continue to offer free-choice hay (preferably legume-based, which will have a high calcium and protein content), as well as mineralized salt.

Your foal's continued steady growth, with no sign of orthopedic problems, is the best reward for having taken the trouble to creep feed.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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