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What Happens To Foals
That Don't Get Colostrum?

WRITTEN BY: RIRDC Equine Research News   [March 1996]

Nursing Foal
Photo © Cheryl Sutor

The mare's first milk, or "colostrum", is rich in antibodies and provides an important source of immunity for the newborn foal. There has been substantial research work done to help detect colostrum deprived foals because they appear to be at considerably greater risk of infectious diseases. A study from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine examined 14 mares and their foals (JA Robinson et al A Prospective Study of Septicaemia in Colostrum-deprived Foals Equine Veterinary Journal Vol. 25, 1993 pg. 214).

Eight of the foals were deprived of colostrum and given an alternative milk replacer for the first 24 hours of life. The control foals were allowed to suck from their mothers immediately following birth. Of the 8 foals that were deprived of colostrum, 7 showed signs of severe infection (septicaemia), despite management strategies taken to reduce the risk of infectious disease. In contrast, none of the foals given colostrum showed septicaemia.

This study shows the critical importance of ensuring that foals get adequate quantities of good quality colostrum to provide good immunity. Simple blood tests are now available to evaluate how good an immunity has been acquired and these tests can be performed in the first 24 hours after birth. It is one of the most important management practices on an equine stud farm.

Nothing Compares to Mare’s Milk

The healthy growth of the newborn foal requires a positive energy balance. That is, energy intake should exceed energy expenditure and energy losses. Recently, researchers from England tested the energy balance of 3 feeding regimens: 1) foals that sucked from their dams, 2) foals fed with milk supplement only, and 3) foals that received total parenteral (intravenous) nutrition. These regimens were studied during the first week after the foals’ birth.

The results showed that by day 2, foals that sucked from their dams had the greatest energy intake and had an overall positive balance. By contrast, foals that received the supplement had a 30% less energy intake and a zero energy balance while foals receiving parenteral nutrition had over 50% less energy intake and a negative energy balance. By day 4, foals that received the supplement also showed a positive energy balance as milk supplements are normally energy rich.

The authors concluded that, from an energy intake point of view, mare’s milk is the preferred diet for foals as it is highly digestible and provides an excess of energy for growth as early as day 2 after birth. However, when mare’s milk is unavailable, a milk supplement will provide an adequate energy balance. The authors advise that milk supplements should be diluted an extra 12-15% of that recommended by manufacturers as foals appear unable to digest supplements with high energy content during the first few days of their life. As for parenteral nutrition, this should be restricted to serious clinical conditions where foals are unable to suck or have milk via orally.

Ref: JC Ousey, S Prandi, J Zimmer, N Holdstock and PD Rossdale Effects of Various Feeding Regimens on the Energy Balance of Equine Neonates American Journal of Veterinary Research 1997 Vol. 58, No. 11, pg. 1243.

Reprinted from the RIRDC Equine Research News with the permission of the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Photo © Cheryl Sutor

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