Feeding Program for Orphan Foals

Karen E. Davison , Ph.D.

Director, Nutritionist, Equine Technical Solutions

Newborn foals are precocious, active and grow at an incredible rate. They are capable of standing and galloping within a few hours of birth and grow at a rate of 1 – 2 kg/day over the first month. The death of a mare is a tragedy that will be compounded if her orphaned foal is not quickly placed on an effective feeding and care program that closely mimics that of the suckling foal. With proper nutrition and veterinary support, orphan foals can be managed and successfully developed into healthy adults. 

Foals are dependent on a milk‐based diet for the first 3 – 4 months of life. If orphaned during this period, appropriate nutritional and behavioral management is essential to support proper development. Usually managing these foals requires short‐term, emergency feeding of the foal while a long‐term option is sought.
Short-term emergency feeding is best served by a well-formulated mare milk replacer, such as LAND O LAKES® Mare’s Match® Foal Milk Replacer. If mare milk replacer is not immediately available, choose a non-medicated kid or multiple-specie milk replacer. Other suitable options in an emergency include unmodified goat milk or cow milk (2% fat) with 20g/L of dextrose added.  Sucrose should not be used as young foals lack enzymes to digest sucrose.

Long‐term options include use of a nurse mare, induction of lactation in a parous, barren mare or hand raising with an appropriate milk replacer. Securing a substitute nurse mare is the ideal solution to raising an orphan foal. A well-fed lactating mare can effectively support two nursing foals, as long as the foals are offered a high-quality mare and foal feed, such as Purina® Omolene® 300, Strategy® GX, Impact® Professional Mare & Foal, or Ultium® Growth. The recommended feeding rate is one pound per month of age per foal on a daily basis. The appropriate foal feed will help nutritionally support good steady growth and accustom foals to eating dry feed. With this program, they may successfully be weaned at 3 – 4 months of age to relieve the demand of lactation on the mare.

When a suitable nurse mare is unavailable, mare's milk replacer is necessary for orphan foals and possibly for foals whose dams have low milk production, or those susceptible to neonatal isoerythrolysis. Raising a foal on milk replacer requires intensive and vigilant management. Few studies have evaluated management of milk replacer-fed foals under farm conditions, although various medical conditions, such as poor growth rates and digestive disorders, may be directly related to management. Critics of mare's milk replacers suggest that they induce diarrhea and produce slower growth rates relative to mare-suckled foals. 

The gastric capacity of foals will likely limit meal size but hand feeding more often than every two hours is impractical for most owners. Consequently, reduced feed intakes and lower early weight gains may occur during early growth stages when milk replacement feeding recommendations are used. If high volume intakes are desired, an automated system or free-choice feeding should be considered. 

Foals orphaned from 12 – 24 hours postpartum reportedly grew slower in the first two weeks of life compared with mare-nursed peers, but both groups grew at similar rates from two weeks through 50 days1. Foals fed 26% higher than recommended intake ate less solid food, drank less water and experienced diarrhea earlier and for longer duration than those fed milk replacer as recommended or mare-nursed foals. High volume intakes of milk replacer appeared to prolong diarrhea. Foals fed milk replacer do not always develop diarrhea but can experience soft feces.

Diarrhea in replacer-fed foals at one to two weeks of age may or may not reflect feeding mismanagement. Maintaining accurate feed intake records on orphan foals and mixing the replacer accurately are important to success of the program. Water should be provided free choice, in addition to a high-quality, leafy alfalfa hay. If these recommendations are followed, orphaned foals are expected to grow and develop similar to mare-nursed foals. Normal growth rates occur when milk replacer and good-quality feeds are fed concurrently. It is important to monitor growth parameters of these foals to ensure that over the long term their nutritional needs are being met to allow normal growth and development.

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: Provide 1 – 2 L of colostrum within the first 2 hours of life. If foals are able to nurse the first day, they will consume approximately 15% BW (8 L/50 kg foal). Without consuming milk, exogenous energy reserves in a healthy newborn foal will be depleted by Day 2.
  • Days 2 – 7: If a nurse mare is not available, the next step is to encourage foals 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 while 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 2 – 4 L per day, and progressively increase intake up to 8 L a day (for a 50 kg foal). Feed 4 to 6 times daily with bottle feedings or teach them to drink from a bucket. More frequent, smaller meals is ideal. Target feeding frequency for foals under 2 days of age is hourly, then every 2 hours through day 12. Fresh, clean water should be available at all times.
  • 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, Impact® Professional Mare & Foal, 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 pasture grass or high-quality alfalfa hay in addition to milk replacer. Feeding frequency of Mare’s Match® Milk Replacer can be gradually reduced and meal volume increased such that by 8 weeks of age, the foal is receiving 4 feedings per day.
  • Days 28 – 42: When foals reach one month of age, gradually reduce intake and feeding frequency of Mare’s Match® Milk Replacer and increase the amount of dry feed appropriately for age. Offer dry feed in several mini meals throughout the day. 
  • Days 42 – 90: During this period, foals can gradually be weaned off milk replacer and fed Omolene® 300, Strategy® GX, Impact® Professional Mare & Foal 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® horse feed, 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. 
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 experience more stress during the transition the longer they are with their dams.

An additional consideration for managing orphaned foals is gastric health. Due to stress and reduced meal frequency, they can be at higher risk for developing gastric discomfort. Purina® Outlast® Gastric Support Supplement can be offered at 2 – 6 servings per day (0.5 grams/kg BW/serving) to help support gastric health. Proper diagnosis and treatment are recommended when gastric ulcers are suspected.

If high-quality hay or pasture is not available, Purina® Equine Junior® horse feed is a good option. Equine Junior® horse feed contains the proper amount and types of fibers to replace hay and be fed as the complete ration. Purina® Equine Junior® horse feed is recommended for weanlings through yearlings but can be utilized in an orphan foal feeding program to provide a high-quality forage replacement. 

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.
Cymbaluk, N.F., Smart, M.E., Bristol, F.M., Pouteaux, V.A. 1993.  Importance of milk replacer intake and composition in rearing orphan foals. Can Vet J Volume 34. p. 479.

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