Feeding Milk Replacer When a Foal Needs Extra Nutrition

Sometimes mares don’t produce enough milk to support their foals’ demands. Here’s what you can do to help.
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Feeding Milk Replacer When a Foal Needs Extra Nutrition
Young foals nurse four to six times per hour, and this suckling action helps stimulate the mare’s milk production. The demands made on the mammary tissue early on help set the stage for how much milk the mare will produce later. | Photo: iStock

Q. My mare had her first foal last week—a beautiful filly! Everything started out very well. The filly nursed, and my mare accepted her without issue. However, now the foal isn’t gaining weight. I’ve heard that sometimes maiden mares don’t create enough milk. Should I supplement her with milk replacer?

A. Congratulations on the birth of your filly! Having a foal can be enchanting, although at the same time quite stressful because so many things can go wrong. If you haven’t done so already, I strongly recommend contacting your equine veterinarian, who might want to assess the foal and rule out any medical cause for the lack of growth.

Sometimes a mare doesn’t produce enough milk to support the foal’s demands. Foals of this age are nursing in the rage of four to six times per hour, and this suckling action helps stimulate milk production. The demands made on the mammary tissue early on help set the stage for how much milk the mare will produce later. Plenty of early suckling is important so the mare can support the foal’s needs as she grows. If the issue is that the foal does not have much drive to nurse, a veterinarian will need to determine the cause.

If given your vet’s “all clear” to supplement with milk replacer, you’ll find several good commercially produced ones designed specifically for foals. Use these and not replacers created for other species such as goats or cattle. Every species has a milk composition slightly different and unique to their needs.

Because of the need for frequent suckling, feed the foal ad lib milk replacer is best, making sure it’s constantly available. This is better than meal feeding her at times that are convenient for you but perhaps not in sync with when the foal wants to nurse. Also, presenting a foal with infrequent large replacer amounts at once risks overdrinking, and milk might end up in the hindgut where it can disrupt microbial population development.

Keep track of how much replacer the foal is consuming each day. A foal born to a 1,000-pound mare might consume up to 4 pounds of replacer a day, at which point you can transition to free feeding a milk-based pellet.

Make sure you’re creating the milk replacer with a dry matter content of 10%. Less than this level of dry matter might leave the foal hungry. From month one to four the foal might consume 1 pound of replacer per 100 pounds of her body weight. The amount of milk the mare is providing will dictate how much the foal needs to consume from the supplemental source, so don’t be alarmed if you see some variation in how much she consumes each day. Keep a journal so you can see the daily consumption level and be able to identify when you can transition to pellets or to record signs indicating she needs veterinary support.

With careful management and supplementation, you should be able to ensure your foal is receiving the correct plane of nutrition to fully meet her genetic potential and develop at an appropriate rate.

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. 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 U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

2 Responses

  1. When I raised my first foal on Foalac every two hours, no one told me to teach her to drink from a bucket. Altho she also nursed her dam, she never had appropriate boundaries with humans, and she grew to be 1250 lbs. She died at 25 yrs with her head pressed against my heart before she fell.

  2. All good information as usual from Clair, and as mentioned an exam of the baby should be obtained. But let’s not forget the mare. It is possible for even a maiden mare to have a medical issue decreasing milk production. Some mares are simply slow to come to their milk, but usually produce adequately within a few days. If the foal is constantly hungry I would supplement and look hard at the mare. If the foal seems mostly content then I would look harder at the foal. Lactation is the mare’s highest energy demands especially if she is young and still growing. Is the mare receiving enough energy and protein for maintenance, lactation, and growth if needed? This conversation really isn’t complete without discussing the mare. DocRod

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