Stress-free weaning promotes better health and performance for foals
Weaning is one of the most stressful times in a horse’s life, according to a number of leading veterinarians. The combination of being separated from its mother, undergoing changes in the diet, receiving more handling by humans and possibly a change in environment can stress a young foal.
Most foals are weaned between four to six months, with some being weaned as early as three months. Because this stress can make the foal more susceptible to illness, equine scientists are looking at ways to reduce stress at weaning.
There are several methods to wean foals, but not everyone agrees on a single method that works best. Owners must consider their horses, the facilities they have available, the environment, nutrition and labor when selecting a method that will work best for them.
Research has shown two of the best methods to wean foals with as little stress as possible are fence-line weaning and nanny mare weaning.
Fence-line weaning a foal is accomplished by placing the foal on one side of the fence or in a separate pen, with the mother on the other side of the fence or in the next pen.
This type of weaning allows the mother and baby to have fence-line contact and results in less pacing, running and whinnying during the first week. The pair usually accepts this method with little protest and can be completely separated five to nine days later.
Another method with some proven success is adding some “nanny mares” to the herd. Nanny mares are adult mares unrelated to the mare or the foal that don’t have a foal of their own.
Typically, these mares are part of the herd from the time the foal is born and serve as babysitters, which has proven to be a less stressful method of weaning the foals once the mares are taken away. Research showed foals weaned with this method whinnied and paced less and ate and slept more.
Other ways to wean foals include abrupt weaning where the mares or foals are moved out of sight and out of hearing range of one another.
Owners who use this method recommend moving the mares for the best results. If the foal is left in familiar surroundings where it knows where its feed and water is and where it grew up, it will feel less stress. However, if the foal is moved to new surroundings, it has multiple stressors in not only losing its mother, but being exposed to a new environment and locating food and water.
Some owners also like to use a gradual method of weaning which involves removing a few mares or foals at a time until all the foals are weaned.
One owner that used this method commented that she would remove the mares a few at a time with her most gentle, nurturing mares that were good babysitters being the last to have their foals weaned.
Typically, a foal will start eating some of its mother’s concentrate diet within days of its birth. Carey Williams, Extension equine specialist and associate director of Extension at the Equine Science Center with Rutger’s University, said, “Many people don’t realize that foals will eat their mother’s feed, as well as their own.”
Because of this, Williams encourages owners to hold off creep feeding the foal until its about eight weeks old. By then, the mare’s milk quality and production will begin to decrease, so the foal won’t be able to meet its nutritional requirements through nursing alone.
By offering creep feed at that point, the foal may not only have a higher average daily weight gain but should experience less stress at weaning because it is used to eating a concentrate diet. As the foal grows older, it will also start to consume hay and pasture.
Before four months of age, it is recommended the foal be fed 0.5 to one kilogram of feed per 100 kilograms of body weight per day. The creep feed concentrate should be formulated for a growing horse with a correct balance of vitamins and minerals. It should contain 14 to 16 percent crude protein, 0.7 to 0.9 percent calcium, 0.5 to 0.6 percent phosphorus, 50 to 90 parts per million (ppm) copper and 120 to 240 ppm zinc.
Once the foal is weaned, free choice, good quality grass or mixed grass-legume hay can be added to the diet.
The concentrate portion of the diet can then be increased to one to 1.5 percent of the foal’s body weight, containing 14 to 16 percent crude protein, 0.8 percent calcium, 0.5 percent phosphorus, 50 to 80 ppm copper and 100 to 200 ppm zinc.