Caring for your baby
Providing proper care and nutrition for your newborn foal will give him the best start at a long, healthy, productive life. The feeding needs of a foal change quickly in the first weeks, so being prepared in advance for each phase will help get your foal off to a strong nutritional start.
Feeding & nutrition in the first weeks
Day 1: Natural instinct will urge the foal to begin nursing within a couple hours of birth, where his immune system will begin to acquire passive immunity from the antibodies in the mare’s colostrum. However, if the foal is unable or unwilling to nurse from his mother or another mare in the herd, colostrum replacer or supplement is critical to ensure that your newborn foal is receiving adequate nutrition in the first, critical days of life. Start bottle feeding a colostrum supplement like Ultra Start® Multi Colostrum Supplement within 2 hours if possible and then 12x per day, when the newborn’s intestines are best equipped to absorb the formula’s critical nutrients into the bloodstream.
Days 2-7: Beginning on day 2, you should switch to milk replacer for a foal who is not nursing adequately. Milk or milk replacer will be the primary source of the foal’s nutrition for the first few months, until weaning. Always choose a milk replacer that is specifically formulated for feeding to foals, such as Grade A® Ultra 24 Multi-Purpose Milk Replacer to provide the optimal blend of energy (carbohydrates and fat), protein, vitamins and minerals for healthy foal development. As a general rule, it is best to feed him milk replacer by bottle in small amounts 8x per day, because smaller, more frequent feedings will increase digestibility and minimize digestive upset.
Weeks 2-3: Continue feeding milk replacer 6-8x per day or allowing your foal to nurse, while introducing a foal starter or creep feed concentrate and forage into the foal’s diet to get him used to consuming solid feed. Fine-stemmed hay or pasture are best at this age for optimal digestion.
Week 4 to Weaning: Continue feeding milk replacer 3-4x per day or allow your foal to nurse. Once your foal is eating 1-2 lb of feed, forage and water regularly, you can begin weaning him off of milk or milk replacer (usually at weeks 8 to 12). Gradually reduce the number of milk or milk replacer feedings, and monitor to ensure he is eating ample grain and forage.
Water is another important element of the foal’s nutrition. Keep clean, fresh water available at all times to encourage your foal to stay hydrated.
Special nutritional needs
Even the best-fed foals occasionally get ill, and your veterinarian will be the best source of information and advice for caring for sick foals. If a foal develops scours (diarrhea), it is important to make sure he is consuming enough nutrients and is staying hydrated. The additional calories provide extra energy to help fight off the infection or illness that is causing the scours. The most critical need is helping him reverse the fluid and electrolyte loss by feeding an electrolyte supplement such as Electrolytes Plus™. However, electrolyte supplements do not contain all the nutrients of milk replacer, so be sure to offer electrolytes in addition to the foal’s normal diet.
If the foal’s diarrhea does not clear up in a few days, or if it is accompanied by droopy ears, cough, nasal discharge or fever of over 101.5, it could be a sign of pneumonia or neonatal septicemia, a serious blood infection. Consult with your veterinarian immediately for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Mixing & feeding tips
Follow the mixing instructions listed on the package. Measuring the powder by weight with a hanging scale is more accurate than measuring by volume with a scoop or cup. Always mix until the powder is dissolved. When mixing large batches for multiple foals, add the powder before you’ve added all the warm water (115-120ºF), then add enough water to bring to volume. This is an important detail to achieve the intended nutrient content.
When bottle feeding, foals will consume milk replacer more readily if it is fed near its body temperature (~101ºF). Always follow the mixing and water temperature instructions on the package for the colostrum or milk replacer product you are feeding, as the recommended mixing temperature may vary by product formulation.
Proper sanitation and maintenance of the feeding equipment is also important for your foal’s health, because bacteria can grow very quickly on feeding equipment. Wash your bottles and nipples in hot soapy water and rinse well after every feeding, and never mix new colostrum or milk replacer with already-mixed product that has been left sitting out without refrigeration. Moisture creates an optimal breeding ground for bacteria, so allow your equipment to dry thoroughly between feedings. Check the nipples often for damage, because cracked or worn nipple holes can lead to over consumption or faster-than-usual feedings that can cause digestive upset.
In addition to a strong nutritional start, your foal needs a comfortable place to stay. Ideally, the foal and mare should have their own stall for the first two weeks. A large stall, about 14’ x 14’ will provide ample room for the two. Make sure to check the stall to ensure there are no sharp objects (nails, sharp corners) that could cut the foal, or items they could get their legs or heads caught in (halters, broken boards). Straw is the best bedding material to use in the birthing stall because it won’t stick to the wet foal like shavings will, but if you prefer to use shavings, you can start using them as bedding when the foal is a few days old.
Ensuring adequate ventilation without direct drafts will make your foal more comfortable, as well as reduce the moisture, animal odors and gasses that can cause respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia. If you can smell ammonia in the barn, or if you see condensation on the walls or ceiling, it may be a sign that the barn does not have adequate ventilation for your newborn foal. Windows, fans and inlets around the ceiling perimeter allow fresh, cold air from the outside to mix with warm air before coming into contact with the foal.
When turning out a newborn foal and his mother, turn them out alone or with another mare and foal. Geldings or mares without foals may show aggression toward the new foal. Walk the pasture and fenceline to ensure there are no sharp objects or spaces that foals could their legs caught up in, and remove any poisonous plants growing in the pasture, as foals will often nibble on plants that mature horses won’t.
Keeping your newborn foal safe and providing a strong nutritional start is relatively easy with a little advance preparation and knowledge!