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Feeding management at weaning time

The later summer months of February and March are a common time for equine breeders to begin the process of separating foals from their dams – and correct nutrition is essential for what can be a stressful time.

Planning is required and strategies for weaning will differ according to facilities available, as well as procedures adopted to minimise stress and make the process as smooth as possible.

The herd nature of the horse means they are required to have constant company and while larger establishments will often wean foals so they are paddocked together, owners with single foals will require another equine companion for them.

To meet the increased energy and nutrient requirements of the lactating mare prior to weaning, in most cases a balanced broodmare feed such as NRM Evolve or McMillan Broodmare along with adequate forage in the form of pasture, hay or other fibre products is required. It is essential that the foal becomes accustomed to eating the hard feed before weaning, as this minimises complications associated with introducing a new feed at the same time as the stress of separation. This often occurs naturally by sharing the mare’s feed.

In most cases, broodmares are less affected by weaning and some will be more than ready to be separated from their young, energetic offspring. This is often the time when mares will gain weight, as lactation gradually ceases and energy is no longer required for milk production. Mare dietary alterations should therefore occur according to body condition and most mares will require less hard feed than when they had a foal at foot. Mares who gain weight easily can be transitioned onto a balancer pellet such as NRM Mare Balancer to ensure nutrients are still supplied in the diet without adding calories and contributing to weight gain.

Most foals are weaned from at least 5 to 6 months of age and by this stage they are independent and able to consume any forage or hard feed required. The time of growth between 6 and 12 months is crucial for skeletal development, as the risk of developmental orthopaedic diseases is high. Research has shown that to minimise the risk of conditions such as osteochondritis, physitis and wobblers developing, the most important considerations are to achieve steady growth and to provide a low glycaemic diet that is balanced with all essential vitamins and trace minerals.

Steady growth in weanlings is achieved by monitoring condition carefully and avoiding any rapid changes to energy intake. While many stud managers have a highly experienced eye and can spot changes in body condition quickly enough, weighing and measuring weanlings gives much more accurate readings, as well as the ability to compare values as they grow and to look for any significant changes.

Providing the best diet for the growing horse requires adequate forage and the selection of a breeding feed that has a low glycaemic index (to avoid peaks in blood glucose) and is balanced with all the nutrients essential for optimum growth and development.

For assistance with feeding plans for growing horses and broodmares at any stage of pregnancy, consult with an experienced equine nutritionist.

Article supplied by Luisa Wood, Equine Nutritionist.