Nutritional Management Throughout Weaning

Preparation before weaning your foals will make the process much easier. A key aspect of this preparation includes considering the changing nutritional needs of both the mare and foal.

Weaning has been described as one of the most stressful times in any horse’s life.  Stress can manifest itself in a multitude of behaviours including increased frequency of vocalisations, movement, altered feeding and sleeping patterns, irritability, anxiety, aggressiveness and a reduction in play behaviours.  This catalogue of effects is due to the many ways that stress affects behaviour both mentally and physiologically.  The psychological, physical and nutritional effects of the weaning process can rapidly become a welfare concern if not managed appropriately.  Depending on your numbers, facilities and preferred method of weaning, every stud will have its own way of managing this particularly stressful period.  The nutritional management of both the mare and foal should always be top of the priority list.

Methods of weaning:

Most stud managers, grooms and individual horse owners have their own preferred method of weaning, these are usually based on personal preferences and past experience.  A level of flexibility based on the individual characteristics of the mares and foals involved, as well as the facilities available, is crucial. Welfare of the mare and foal and the long-term effects of weaning on such things as trainability and later maternal behaviour must be considered when deciding on a preferred weaning methodology. 
A recent review of the effects of weaning on the horse concluded that there is no one ideal method of weaning but that the following factors should be considered;
  • The availability of resources and facilities at your location
  • Individual stage of the foals development
  • The strength of the mare and foal bond
  • Foal’s ability to cope with changes to the social environment
  • The ability of the horse handler to implement the chosen method effectively
Many larger studs choose the pasture group weaning method.  This involves the removal of an individual mare from the group, leaving the foal with its ‘friends’ and in familiar surroundings. The remaining mares are then gradually removed over a period of weeks until all foals are weaned. This method of weaning is often the least stressful on the foal. 

If group weaning isn't possible then the immediate or gradual weaning methods can be used. Immediate separation involves bringing the mare and foal into a stable and then removing the mare.  After a period of days or weeks, once the foal has settled down and is eating well, they can be turned out with other weanlings. Some people choose to wean the foals in pairs.  However, the foals may form a close bond, which may be counterproductive if they are then separated. Gradual weaning is often preferred by breeders with only one or two mares. This method involves the separation of the mare and foal for gradually increasing lengths of time. Often the mare and foal remain in close proximity and can even see, hear, smell and touch each other, but the foal is unable to suckle. This method has been shown to reduce stress at weaning but it may prolong the weaning ordeal and increase the risk of mastitis if the mare is a heavy milker.

Each weaning method has its pros and cons and the most appropriate separation technique will depend on the individual situation.

Managing the foal:

When approaching the weaning event the foal should become accustomed to the diet you intend for it to be managed on post-weaning. If you haven’t already introduced your foal to a suitable hard feed (e.g. Connolly’s RED MILLS Foal Pellets) then make sure you do this in plenty of time prior to weaning, in order to limit potential gastrointestinal disturbances at what is already a stressful time.

The stress endured by the weanling effects different areas of the neurological system and this results in the release of substances in the body called catecholamines and glucocorticoids, commonly known as stress hormones.  These can have a multitude of physiological effects and recent research even shows that the gastrointestinal tract responds to stress hormones by synthesizing substances that have been shown to alter the gut microflora.  Changes to the gut microflora are highly undesirable and can lead to life-threatening conditions such as colic and severe diarrhoea.

Correct management of the foal pre and post-weaning is crucial. It is not uncommon for foals to lose weight, experience inappetance and/ or develop mild diarrhoea. The foal will also be vulnerable to infection due to a suppressed immune system in the post-weaning period. Stress can also increase the risk of gastric ulcers during the weaning period and the long-term consequences of gastric ulcers at such a young age is significant to both growth and future performance.  The likelihood of developmental orthopaedic disease (DOD) such as osteochondrosis dessicans also increases significantly in weanlings, especially when nutritional management has been poor.  The skeletal system in these critical months of development is very vulnerable to even the most subtle of changes to the diet and DOD’s are a real risk at this time.

The foal continues to grow rapidly after weaning; according to the NRC a Thoroughbred foal gains on average 0.8kg a day. This rapid weight gain needs to be supported by an appropriate diet that meets all nutritional requirements.  Feeding a forage only diet during and post-weaning, while excellent for supporting gastrointestinal health as well as keeping the foal occupied, will not meet the full nutritional requirements of the foal.   Even the best quality pasture will not contain optimal levels of all the essential minerals needed to support growth and development, whilst conserved forages (e.g. hay or haylage) will often fall short of the required calorie intake that the rapidly growing weanling needs.   Protein quality is also likely to be inadequate and the supply of essential amino acids such as lysine will be limited.  Therefore it is essential that your youngster receives an appropriate hard feed prior to, during and after weaning.
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The most suitable hard feed for your foal will depend on a number of factors including body condition and the presence of any developmental problems. The time of year that weaning is taking place should also be considered, for example, a Thoroughbred foal being weaned in the late autumn may require a very different ration to a Connemara foal being weaned in the spring.

For foals being weaned onto good grass or those carrying a little too much weight it is always advisable to reinforce the diet with a stud balancer, such as Connolly’s RED MILLS GROCARE Balancer. This highly concentrated supply of micronutrients and high quality protein will ensure the weanling’s nutritional requirements are met to allow for optimum growth, without resulting in overtopping.  GROCARE Balancer is also ideal for youngstock prone to DOD when growth rate and weight gain needs to be controlled. Foals prone to DOD may also benefit from the inclusion of a specific bone supplement in their ration such as Foran Equine Cal-Gro. This is a calcium and phosphorus supplement with added MSM, amino acids, copper and Vitamin E and is specifically formulated to help support optimum bone growth and development. A weak foal, or one that is being weaned onto less nutritious forage, may require a higher intake of hard feed and, in this case, Connolly’s RED MILLS Foal Pellets are ideal. Equally, Connolly’s RED MILLS Stud Cubes and Horse Care Feeds are also both excellent options for a complete feed for your growing youngster. 
As mentioned before, the development of gastric ulcers during the weaning period is a real risk for the foal.  Preparing for this risk will include:
  • Provision of a high quality forage
  • Avoiding periods of not eating
  • Providing gastrointestinal supplements such as Foran Equine Nutri-Gard
  • Using low starch feeds that contain Acidbuf such as Connolly’s Red Mills Horse Care feeds and GROCARE Balancer
To help reduce the anxiety that maternal separation can induce, a supplement such as Foran Equine Nutri-Calm can be provided.  When given to the foal leading up to, during and post-weaning the highly palatable calming syrup will provide an excellent source of B vitamins, known to help stimulate appetite and reduce nervousness.

Looking after your mare;

It is easy for all of the focus to be on the foal leading up to and during the weaning period.  However, it is important to consider and plan the mare’s nutritional management as well, after all, she may already be incubating your next superstar!  By minimising her stress and managing the necessary adjustments to her diet appropriately, you can help limit the negative effects of weaning.  

To reduce milk production, the protein and calorie (usually those provided through hard feed) content of the diet must be reduced significantly.  It is advisable to taper off the quantity of hard feed being provided over a one to two week period leading up to separation. This will mean that milk production reduces over time, mimicking a more natural weaning situation, and allows the hindgut microflora time to adjust, thereby limiting the chances of any gastrointestinal disturbances.  The foal’s concentrate ration will most likely be increasing at this time and it can be useful to use a creep feeding device to restrict the mare getting to the foal’s feed prior to separation. Once the foal is weaned the lack of suckling stimulus, coupled with a reduction in calories and protein provision, will mean that milk production should stop fairly quickly. 

Do not be tempted to milk your mare out even if she has an uncomfortably full bag as this will only prolong the problem.  It is quite rare but problems with the mammary system such as mastitis (caused by milk sitting in the udder becoming infected) can occur during and post-weaning.  Careful observation of the udder at this time will prevent problems going unseen and veterinary advice should be sought if there are any concerns.

Mares must have access to good quality forage and water at all times during weaning. The micronutrient portion of the mare’s diet must remain consistent throughout the weaning period especially if she is in-foal.  The best way to do this is by providing a high specification vitamin, mineral and amino acid supplement such as Foran Equine Chevinal or a nutrient-dense balancer such as Connolly’s RED MILLS GROCARE Balancer. GROCARE Balancer also contains a unique Care Package which includes yeast, two prebiotics and AcidBuf (a natural gastric buffer) to help to maintain normal stomach and gastrointestinal function during the stressful post-weaning period.  Alternatively, Foran Equine Nutri-Gard, a highly digestible fibre and prebiotic supplement, can be added to the ration to help protect the stomach lining and reduce the risk of gastric ulcers, as even the most experienced mares can suffer from the effects of stress.  Supplements that help to reduce anxiety levels such as Foran Equine Nutri-Calm can also be an effective addition to a mare’s daily routine at this time.
Following weaning the mare’s condition should dictate what quantity of hard feed she is maintained on.  If the mare has lost condition during lactation and weaning then she should be fed accordingly in order to boost her condition.  If the mare is already pregnant, feeding Connolly’s RED MILLS Stud Cubes or Stud Mix will help her to gain weight and condition.  However if the mare is a good-doer, or she has access to good quality autumn or spring grazing, she is unlikely to need large amounts of hard feed and  her protein and micronutrient requirements can be met by continuing to feed Connolly’s RED MILS GROCARE Balancer. 

Conclusion:

Whether using the group weaning, gradual or immediate methods of weaning, managing the nutrition of your mare and foal throughout is critical.  Good nutritional management and provision of the most appropriate feeds and supplements can help to ensure that your foal continues to grow and develop correctly and that your broodmare is healthy and in optimal condition for the next breeding season.

This article was written by Nichola Reynolds - Equine Nutritionist.