A Meal Away from Mom

The question of whether to feed foals concentrate separate from mares (called creep feeding) has often posed a dilemma for horse owners. On one hand, owners want to be certain that foals are getting all required nutrients and growing to their genetic potential. On the other hand, there is concern that too much rich feed can cause bone and joint growth problems. Is there a correct approach to creep feeding to allay those fears, or is it strictly guesswork?

There appears to be a right way to get the job done, and the horse world is indebted to Robert J. (Bob) Coleman, MS, PhD, who is now serving as extension horse specialist at the University of Kentucky, for one successful approach. Prior to joining the staff at the University of Kentucky, Coleman served as the Horse Specialist for Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. While in that capacity, he conducted a 53-day trial that involved creep feeding a large group of foals on an Alberta, PMU (pregnant mare urine) farm. The study was funded by the North American Equine Ranch Council (NAERIC), which represents ranchers engaged in the collection of pregnant mare's urine for use as an estrogen replacement therapy for women.

The study has been hailed by equine nutrition experts such as Harold Hintz, PhD, MS, a professor of animal nutrition at Cornell University. "It's the best study I know of," Hintz says. Coleman is quick to say that at least part of the study's success is attributed to excellent cooperation from the equine rancher who owned the horses involved in the study.

"He (Tracy Watson, who with his wife, Sandy, owns Wolf Creek Ranch in Alberta) asked me how many creep feeders I needed and what the dimensions should be," Coleman says. "I told him, and he built them. The Watsons gave me full cooperation and help all through the study."

Creep Feeding Study

The study produced information indicating that creep feeding foals can improve their physical development and, bottom line, can mean more money coming to the owner when they are sold at weaning time."Nutrients produced by the mare early in lactation," says Coleman, "adequately meet the requirements for the young, rapidly growing foal. However, by mid-lactation--when the foal is about two months of age--the nutrient secretion might not be sufficient to support optimal growth of the foal."

M. Phyllis Lose, VMD, author of the book Blessed Are The Broodmares and its companion volume, Blessed Are The Foals, maintains that a mare's milk is at its peak for only six weeks. After that, she avers, it declines in both quantity and quality. This means, in her opinion, that creep feeding is necessary if the foal is to ingest an appropriate quantity of nutrients.

Hintz agrees with Lose's assessment. Although it varies mare by mare, he says, both the quantity and quality of mare's milk generally diminish after six to eight weeks.

Creep feeding, says Coleman, can actually cut down post-weaning developmental problems, rather than cause them. This is because the foal will have grown at his optimum potential, thus reducing a spurt of compensatory growth after weaning. In addition, he believes, creep feeding can do much to reduce weaning-time stress."Foals are under a great deal of stress at weaning," he wrote in a report on the creep-feeding study, "because their diets are changed and there is the loss of companionship with their dams, and they may be moved to new locations. Stress at weaning can result in injury, weight loss, and health problems.

"These stresses can result in reduced competitiveness of the foals in the marketplace or in the show ring," he continues. "Creep feeding has been shown to reduce stress on foals at weaning. Foals which are accustomed to dry feed prior to weaning exhibit less stress than those foals which do not receive concentrate before weaning."

Coleman's report on the creep feeding study was published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science in 1999. The study itself was conducted in 1997.

Guidelines on Creep Feed

One of the problems when trying to formulate a creep feed ration is the fact that the National Research Council (NRC) didn't address nutritive needs of nursing foals in its latest guidelines, which were published in 1989.

Hintz, who gave the Milne Lecture on Equine Nutrition at the 2000 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention in San Antonio, Texas, said at the time that plans were being made to form a new committee to produce a revised NRC edition of Nutrient Requirements of Horses. He estimated that the updated edition would be published within two or three years from that date. Ostensibly, the new publication would include nutritional recommendations for nursing foals.

However, Hintz said this past spring, it seems that money constraints have delayed the new study. He said that the parent organization for the research council is the National Academy of Science. The Academy has a subcommittee known as the Committee on Animal Nutrition, which in turn has a subcommittee known as the Committee on Equine Nutrition (CEN). Through the years, the CEN has formed research councils to produce equine nutritive recommendations. He said that each research process that results in the nutritive guidelines costs about $300,000, despite the fact that most of the work is handled by volunteers. (For more information about efforts to or contributions toward updating the NRC's publication Nutrient Requirements of Horses, please contact Dr. Jamie Jonker via e-mail at jjonker@nas.edu.)

The Academy of Science, Hintz says, is not a governmental agency, although it does receive some governmental funding. Hintz was involved in drawing up NRC guidelines as far back as the 1960s, but currently is not involved.

Coleman said that he was guided in determining content and quantity of the creep feed by estimates and recommendations published in the 1978 NRC guidelines.

In Coleman's study, 104 Quarter Horse and Quarter Horse-type mares and their foals were involved. The mares had been bred to Quarter Horse and American Paint Horse stallions the year before.

The mare and foal pairs were divided into 12 breeding herds containing six to 12 pairs each. A part of the criteria for assigning pairs to a particular herd or group, Coleman says, involved body weight. The goal was to assign foals of similar body weight to respective groups.

Once that assignment was made, however, the decision of which group should be on which feeding regimen was made at random. There were three dietary treatment groups with four herds per group. The feeding program began on July 22, 1997, and continued until Sept. 12, when the foals were weaned.

Foals in one of the study groups received no creep feed. Another group received a 13% (protein content) creep feed, and the final group of four herds received a 17% protein creep feed.

The 13% protein ration of creep feed contained 43% oats, 34% barley, 5% corn, no wheat, 3.5% soybean meal, 5% canola meal, 5.5% molasses, and 4% of a pre-mixed vitamin-mineral mixture.

The 17% protein ration of creep feed consisted of 48% oats, 16% barley, no corn, 5.5% wheat, 14% soybean meal, 7% canola meal, 4.6% molasses, and 4.9% of a pre-mixed vitamin-mineral mixture.

Coleman had this to report about the diets: "The creep diets were made up of oats and barley as the major grain components, while combinations of canola meal and soybean meal were used as the protein supplements. Soybean meal was used because it is the most common plant protein in Western Canada. The use of either of these protein sources alone or in combination has not resulted in any negative effects on feed intake as reported by other researchers feeding young, growing horses. Molasses was added to both diets to increase palatability; thus palatability of the feed should not have been a factor in the intakes of feed."

Creep feed was provided once daily at a rate of about one pound for each month of age of the foal. Thus, the foals at the beginning of the study were offered about two pounds of creep feed per head per day at the start of the study, and were consuming up to three pounds daily per foal at the end. Any feed not consumed by the end of the day was removed and fresh feed was placed in the feeder at the next feeding.

Coleman pointed out that the groups of mares and foals involved in the study were housed in fairly large pastures. This meant that the mares often were grazing a distance from the creep feeding area. Had they been in a more confined area, he reasoned, the creep feed intake on the part of the foals might have been greater.

Coleman described the covered creep feeders constructed by ranch owner Tracy Watson as 12 feet long, 30 inches wide, and 30 inches off the ground. They were set in the middle of a 24- x 24-foot pen that was surrounded by a fence that was 57 inches high. The foals could enter and exit through a series of 20 openings that were 14 1/2 inches wide and 57 inches tall.

The creep feeder was placed in such a manner that a mare on the outside could not reach over and nip the foal while he was eating.

The reason for that, says Coleman, is that some mares become agitated when denied access to feed and torment the foals so they are unable to eat. The mares and foals in all of the groups were maintained on pastures that were primarily of timothy, creeping red fescue, alsike clover, and native grasses. The pastures ranged in size from 30 to 75 acres.

Foals were weaned Sept. 12, when they were about four months old and sold at public auction the next day. From the time they were weaned until sale time, the foals were housed indoors in groups of four to six foals. The creep-fed foals were fed the same concentrate they received during the summer plus mixed alfalfa-grass hay. The foals which hadn't received creep feed during the summer received oats and alfalfa/ grass hay.

To monitor the effects of creep feeding versus non-creep feeding, the body weight and condition scores for mares and foals were determined along the way. All were weighed and evaluated at the beginning of the study, at Day 28 of the study, at weaning--Day 53 of the study--and again at 24 hours post-weaning. The average age, average weight, and body condition scores of the foals at the beginning of the feeding were not significantly different, Coleman said.

In addition, he said, general assessment scores were obtained 24 hours after weaning by two independent evaluators using a 1 to 5 system. Under the system, a score of 1 meant the foal had a poor, rough coat and dull appearance, while a 5 was applied to a foal which had a soft, smooth hair coat and a brighter appearance.

Coleman said that the general assessment evaluation was conducted by two people who had not been involved with the study. To make it virtually a double-blind effort, he says, a group of foals not involved in the study were also included in the general assessment phase.

The foals which received no creep feed finished with an overall general assessment score of 2.5, while those on 13% creep feed scored 3.7, and the ones on the 17% creep feed scored 3.8.

Although it had no scientific merit, Coleman said that the observation of one veteran horseman on sale day was particularly gratifying."He was standing in the middle of a pen of creep-fed foals and asked, 'What did you do different with these foals? They look a lot better than those over there,' and he pointed to a pen containing the foals which had not been on creep feed."

On the more scientific and definitive side, it was found that the creep-fed foals had a 10% improvement in daily gain and lost significantly less weight at weaning time.

There also was some significant information for the horse owner who wonders what percentage of protein is appropriate. The study, says Coleman, indicated that there was no significant advantage to protein concentration in the creep feed beyond 13%.

There were scientific results to indicate that creep feeding is beneficial, but there was another bottom line benefit that can be appreciated by anyone who attempts to raise horses for a profit--the creep fed foals sold for more money.

Creep-fed foals with a general assessment score of 3.8 and a body condition score of 5.8 sold in the $935 and up range, while the non-creep fed foals with a general assessment score of 2.5 and a body condition score of 5.5 sold in the $440 range. The cost of the creep feed, Coleman estimated, was 65-70 cents per day per foal for the 53 days. Thus, the creep feeding investment, at its highest, was less than $40 per foal for the trial period.

One of the important findings in the study, Coleman reiterated, is that creep feeding seems to have a positive impact at weaning time. "The effects of (weaning) stress include a decrease in feed intake, a decrease in growth rate, and an increase in susceptibility to disease."

The foals in the study that had been on creep feed lost significantly less weight at weaning than those not provided creep feed, he says.

In his paper on the study, Coleman offered the following succinct conclusion: "The use of creep feed with extensively managed foals was an effective means of supplementing nutrients and maintaining growth rates."

Percent of Ration
Soybean meal
Limestone, ground
Dicalcium phosphate
Vitamin premix, salt

Nutrients Provided

Energy 1.4 Mcal digestible energy per pound of feed
Protein 17% crude protein (CP), or 0.12 pound of CP per Mcal of digestible energy
Calcium 0.8%, or 2.6 grams per Mcal of digestible energy
Phosphorus 0.5%, or 1.8 grams per Mcal of digestible energy
Source: Freeman, D.; Slusher, S. Weaning Management Practices for Foals. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.


Foal body weight, average daily gain, daily feed intake, and the 24-hour post-weaning weight loss for stock horse foals in pounds.
Number of Foals
Initial Body Weight (lbs)
Final Body Weight (lbs)
Average Daily Gain (lbs/day)
Creep feed intake (lbs/head/day)
24-hour Post-Weaning Weight Loss (lbs)

Source: Coleman, R.J.; Mathison, G.M.; Burwash, L. Growth and condition at weaning of extensively managed creep-fed foals. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 19 (1), 45, 1999.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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