Feeding Program for Orphan Foals

By Karen E. Davison, Ph.D., Equine Nutritionist and Sales Support Manager, Purina Animal Nutrition LLC

A mare’s death is a tragedy that will be compounded if her foal isn’t quickly placed on an effective feeding and care program. However, with proper nutrition and veterinary support, orphaned foals can be managed and successfully developed into healthy adults. To help orphans through the tough early stages of life, an emergency feeding program was developed at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center.

Starting at birth, here are the steps in an orphan foal feeding program:

Day 1: The first and most important step is getting colostrum into newborn foals within the first 2 hours of life. This “first milk” gives foals the antibodies they need to temporarily build up their immune systems to fight disease, but after 18-24 hours they can no longer absorb these antibodies. Check with your veterinarian right away to see if foals should receive medication of any kind and if they have achieved proper immunoglobulin levels.

Days 2 – 7: After foals have consumed adequate colostrum, the next step is to encourage them to accept milk replacer, and then gradually increase daily intake. Mix Land O’Lakes Mare’s Match® Foal Milk Replacer according to directions. It is very important to mix exactly as instructed.  Mixing too dilute will not deliver the proper level of nutrients / mixing too concentrated could lead to digestive upsets and scours.  The dry matter delivered per unit of volume of the Mare’s Match® solution is designed to mimic mare’s milk. Start foals at 4 – 8 pints per day, and progressively increase intake up to 4 – 8 quarts a day. Feed 4 to 6 times daily with bottle feedings or teach them to drink from a bucket.

Days 7 – 28: Continue feeding Land O’Lakes Mare’s Match® Milk Replacer in 4 to 6 feedings daily. Foals this age will nibble dry feed, so provide Purina Omolene® 300, Strategy® GX or Ultium® Growth feed in small meals throughout the day. They should be eating a minimum of one pound of dry feed per month of age per day, and nibbling small amounts of grass or hay in addition to milk replacer.

Days 28 – 42: When foals reach one month of age, gradually reduce intake and feeding frequency of milk replacer while increasing the amount of dry feed. Offer dry feed in several small meals throughout the day.

Days 42 – 90: During this period, foals can gradually be weaned off milk replacer and fed Omolene® 300, Strategy® GX or Ultium® Growth feed according to directions.  Foals well adapted to dry feed at 1 lb/month of age per day can be very successfully weaned off liquid milk replacer at 3 months of age.  Ideally, foals at this age should be fed a minimum of 3 meals per day.  If available hay or pasture quality is poor, at 90 days of age you may transition to Purina Equine Junior which provides both grain and excellent quality fiber in a complete feed.  If hay or pasture quality is good, then continue increasing the amount of hay up to 1 – 1.5 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight.

Another option may be to put the orphaned foal with a nurse mare. If there is a gentle mare nursing a foal relatively close to the age of the orphan, she may be willing to raise the orphan foal. Introducing the orphan to the new mare requires careful attention because even gentle mares may not accept another foal, and some may object rather strongly. Tying the mare next to her feed and hay while both foals have an opportunity to nurse may help get the mare accustomed to the extra foal. Again, caution must be taken to make sure the orphan foal doesn’t get hurt during this introductory period, but if successful, this can be a very good option for the foal and a much easier option for the horse owner. A well-fed lactating mare can support two nursing foals, as long as the foals are offered Omolene® 300, Strategy® GX or Ultium® Growth feed at one pound per month of age per foal on a daily basis. The feed will help nutritionally support good steady growth and also have them accustomed to dry feed so that they may be weaned at 3 – 4 months of age to relieve the demand of lactation on the mare.

Throughout the first three months, keep a sharp eye out for health problems in orphan foals and follow your veterinarian’s recommendation for a health and immunization program.  Keep in mind, this program was developed under the assumption that mares are lost very early. Foals can be switched to this program at any time, but the switch will require considerably more effort and foals may be more stressed the longer they are with their dams.

An orphan feeding program cannot exactly mimic the feeding behavior and nutrition of a suckling foal nursing its mom, and some orphans may go through awkward growing periods.  But a well implemented feeding program can minimize any long term growth problems.  Many orphaned foals have been raised successfully on this feeding program, growing up to have very successful competitive careers.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Davison is an Equine Nutritionist and Sales Support Manager for the horse business group at Purina Animal Nutrition. Her expertise includes equine nutrition, reproduction, growth and exercise physiology. She received her M.S. and Ph.D. from Texas A&M University.