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What Does My Weanling Need to Eat?

What Does My Weanling Need to Eat?

It's important to remember that, for their small stature, weanlings have huge nutritional needs due to the demands of growth.

Photo: iStock

Q. I just bought a colt, and he’ll arrive at my facility once he’s weaned in late September. What advice can you give me on how to feed him?


A. Congratulations on your exciting purchase! Taking on a recently weaned foal can be a lot of fun and gives you the opportunity to be a part of your horse’s life journey from almost the very beginning. However, it comes with substantial responsibility. While all the typical feeding rules that you’d use for an adult horse apply, there are also some unique points to remember when feeding a weanling.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that, for their small stature, weanlings have huge nutritional needs due to the demands of growth. According to the National Research Council's Nutrient Requirements of Horses, a 6-month-old weanling foal with an expected mature body weight of 500 kilograms (about 1,100 pounds) has a digestible energy (DE) requirement of 16.5 Mcals per day and a crude protein requirement of 676 grams. For some perspective, a 500-kilogram mature horse at maintenance needs 16.7 Mcals per day of DE and 630 grams of crude protein. So even though this weanling might not even weigh 225 kilograms (about 500 pounds), his calorie and protein needs are the same as a mature horse that is twice the size.

Most foals are typically weaned somewhere between 4 and 6 months of age. While they live almost exclusively on the mare’s milk for the first several months, by 4 months the foal starts to eat more forage, so milk production slows slightly. Often foals have been stealing concentrate feed from their dams, but many breeders opt to provide foals with their own dedicated concentrate feed source around this time.

By 6 months foals are eating far more independently and able to handle more forage. Foals are born with a hindgut that lacks a full complement of bacteria, so initially they’re not able to fully utilize complex forages the way older horses do. The functionality of the hindgut increases as the foal ages. Additionally, foals are born without teeth. Their first deciduous (“baby”) incisors come in within their first week with additional incisors erupting over the next several months and the deciduous premolars appearing in their first weeks. Molars don’t appear until the foal is 9 to 15 months of age. Due to the lack of molars and immature hindgut my personal preference is to not wean before 6 months of age. However, this isn’t always possible.

The lack of grinding molars and immature hindgut means that foals are not set up to handle mature, stemmy forages. So, one of the important things to consider for your foal is the quality of the forages you provide. They are designed to eat fresh grasses in these early months, so if you’re feeding hay, be sure that the hay is not overly mature. If you’ve had your hay tested, aim to feed a quality grass hay with an acid detergent fiber value of 32% or less on a dry matter basis. Further, some alfalfa in the ration is a good idea if pasture grazing is limited, because alfalfa provides a rich source of protein and calcium. Both vitally important for the growing foal. To maintain a preferable calcium-to-phosphorus ratio keep alfalfa intake to less than 50% of the forage intake, ideally closer to 25-30%.

As for concentrate feed intake, differing philosophies exist. A traditional rule of thumb is to feed 1 pound of commercial growth feed for every month of age—so, a 6-month-old weanling would consume about 6 pounds of a growth formula feed. However, in my experience, I find that when provided with ample good-quality forages, many sport-horse-breed weanlings do very well on less grain. What they do need, though, is a source of quality protein, ample lysine to support growth, and key trace minerals and vitamins. Mare’s milk provides relatively low zinc and copper quantities, so until foals can consume their own they survive on stores accumulated in utero. By about 4 months of age they need to be consuming these trace minerals in their diet. While quality forage will go a long way in achieving this, commercially fortified feeds help ensure no deficiencies exist and that the diet is well balanced.

If your foal can maintain his growth rate on good-quality forage and less commercial growth feed than is recommended, I suggest looking for a quality high-protein ration balancer. This can be fed alone or in conjunction with the growth feed and will help ensure all nutrient needs are being met. I have worked with a number of foals, especially foals of easy-keeping breed types, that do very well on quality grass hay and a ration balancer. However, other breed types or foals being produced for yearling sales might need the additional calories provided by the commercial growth feeds.

Quality pasture is a great source of nutrition for the growing foal and the ability to move freely in a large space is vital for healthy joint and feet development.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/TheHorse.com

Whichever strategy fits your foal best, strive to maintain a steady growth rate with no major slumps or spurts, as these could increase the risk of the foal developing physitis or other developmental orthopedic conditions. For this reason, I’m a big fan of introducing the foal to the post-weaning diet well before weaning occurs. Weaning is stressful no matter how well it is done, and it only adds to the stress of the situation if the foal has never consumed commercial feed until after weaning. Slowly training the foal to eat from a bucket and providing the same feed he’ll eat once weaned, starting several weeks before weaning starts, can go a long way to maintaining feed intake during weaning. This helps reduce the risk of a weaning growth slump.

As with buying any horse, find out from the breeder what the weanling has been eating and continue to feed the same commercial concentrate once at home at least until the foal is well-settled. If the weanling is eating hay, ask if you can take or purchase a bale of the breeder’s hay so you can also make this transition slowly. Discuss with your veterinarian measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of your foal developing gastric ulcers, which are diagnosed often in weanling foals.

Hopefully your foal will have pasture access, because not only is quality pasture a great source of nutrition for the growing foal but the ability to move freely in a large space is vital for healthy joint and feet development. Access to other young horses at pasture is a key component of a weanling’s behavioral development, and a well-behaved mature role model often goes a long way in a young horse’s education.

Taking these factors in to consideration when planning the management of your foal will help give him the best chance for a healthy happy life both now and for many years to come.

About the Author

Clair Thunes, PhD

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the United Kingdom Pony Club. Today, she serves as the regional supervisor for the Sierra Pacific region of the United States Pony Clubs. As a nutritionist she works with all horses, from WEG competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything in between.

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