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Be mindful of mare and foal nutrition at weaning time

"If we keep the mare in a good condition throughout gestation and lactation instead of getting a “yo-yo” effect, her body systems will be better equipped to deal with trying to conceive the next foal."

By Daniel H. Grove, DVM - October 6th, 2016 - Ask the Vet

AskTheVetQuestion: For mares and their 2016 foals who’ve been weaned or will soon start, nutrition and stress management is very important — especially for the newly weaned foals. We want the mares to be able to get back into condition for the upcoming breeding season next year, and we want the foals to adapt to their new living and nutrition situation. Do you have a recommended nutrition program for both the mares and the newly weaned foals?

Answer: First, let’s start with the mare.  Maintaining her body condition is probably a better way to look at it than to “get her back into condition.”  If we keep her in a good condition throughout gestation and lactation instead of getting a “yo-yo” effect, her body systems will be better equipped to deal with trying to conceive the next foal.  With that being said, let me give you a few ideas how to get your mare back into shape if she is not already.

First off, make sure her teeth are in good condition.  I see many broodmares that their teeth get neglected either to save money, or they just get forgotten.  Second, make sure your parasites are under control.  Third, if you have any suspicion of ulcers, get them healed.  Now she can breakdown her food and she can absorb her food, it is time to choose what to feed her.

The first thing to increase would be your roughage.  This is your hay or pellets or cubes.  Make sure it is of a good quality.  If you are scouring the market for the least expensive hay, it is usually cheap for a reason.  I personally prefer a mixture of roughages.  In my area, alfalfa is common, so I usually feed around half-alfalfa and half-orchard or timothy.  Another combination I use, if I can find it, is half-alfalfa and half of a four-way mix.   I feel the variety helps to balance out the ration.  If the roughages alone do not keep up with the caloric demands, I will add in a low starch senior product or rice bran.  Rice bran is nice, as it is high in fat.  With every pound of fat, you get twice as many calories as a pound of protein or carbohydrate.

For newly weaned foals, the first thing to keep in mind is you should not be feeding to make the horse grow as fast as possible.  Developmental diseases, such as OCD and Physitis, are complex diseases that nutrition and growth rate play a large role in.  Just like with the mares, the weanlings need mostly roughages.  Alfalfa provides plenty of protein, but its calcium to phosphorous ratio is off.  It can vary, but is usually around 6:1.  Ideally, the ratio should be somewhere around 1:1 up to 3:1.  This can be balanced out with feeding some grass hays.  Also, younger horses are not as good as adults at breaking down the roughages, so some concentrates are often used.  There are some good commercially produced products that have been balanced to meet the needs of growing horses.  An added benefit of using them is they also usually have all of the major vitamins and minerals added to give your horse optimal nutrition.

When feeding both the mares and the foals, you need to watch their body condition to judge whether to change the amounts of feed products.  You want your animals to be in good flesh, but not too fat.  Fertility rates decrease in overweight mares.  Developmental diseases are worse in overweight young, growing animals.  If you need a customized opinion, discuss it with your veterinarian.

Question: For those who want to start trying to breed their mares early in the coming year (like February), we will want to start keeping our mares under lights during fall through winter to keep their mares coming into estrus through the early breeding season. Do you have any insight into the reasons people may want to do this — and sound suggestions about how?

Answer: People often want to have their foals born as early in the year as possible for competition reasons.  Horses are considered a “yearling” on Jan. 1 after they are born.  Let’s use a racehorse as an example.  If you are going to run your 2-year-old horse in a race in May of its 2-year-old year in 2017, if it was born in January of 2015, it will be approximately 28 months old.  If it was born in June of 2015, it will only be 23 months old.  Those 5 months, in that young of an animal make a big difference in maturity.  Your animal is more likely to be more competitive than the younger animal based off of that extra time.  This goes for many disciplines, not just horse racing.  In warmer climates, such as Southern California, I have experienced that the foals born earlier are less likely to get some of the diseases that seem to spike in May, June and July due to increased temperature.

Now, how to go about it?  Starting around Thanksgiving or Dec. 1, you want to increase the amount of daylight the horse experiences to around 16 hours a day.  There is a tiny gland called the pineal gland that picks up on this increase in light and suppresses melatonin release for a longer period of the day.  It is suspected that this sets off a cascade of events that will hopefully get your mares to start cycling by the time mid-February comes around.  When this does not work, there are some different protocols that can be tried to encourage a mare to start cycling faster.
A quick note on the lighting: When I learned about it long ago, we still had incandescent lights.  The rule of thumb was that you should be able to easily read a newspaper in every corner of the stall.  These types of lights are no longer available.  Fluorescent lights were said to not be effective.  Sodium and metal halide lights would work well, but they get a little expensive. I have not heard of any research on LED lights.   Make sure to discuss with your veterinarian before making a choice on lighting.


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