Creep Feeding for Horses – Henry & Associates
Creep Feeding for Horses
Vaughn W. Henry
There has been controversy with most of the management techniques used by horse owners over the years, and the topic of creep feeding continues to generate heated debate in many circles. In horses and other livestock, birth and weaning weights are only somewhat to moderately heritable. However, environment plays a major role in raising healthy foals, and breeders like those big foals. So what can we do to enhance the production of larger foals? First off, the products of a typical pregnancy (fetus, fluids and placental membranes) account for about 10% of a healthy mare’s weight, or for a 1,200 pound mare, about 120 pounds. Any foal weighing a lot less than this 10% estimate is likely to have problems with survival and performance. While we can’t do too much about the foaling weights, except select for larger sires and dams, we can enhance the foal’s weaning weight through the judicious use of a creep feeder.
The purpose of the creep feeder is to provide for increased energy (calorie) consumption by the foal, while still nursing on its dam. The important point to remember is – it is the energy which must be initially provided, as mare’s milk contains a good source of digestible protein, which the creep is not likely to replace. Additionally a creep feeder will provide for some increased management aids for most farms:
- As the foal is consuming more of its requirements from the creep, the mare will cut back on her milk production in order to match consumption of the foal. This will provide for lessened stress on the lactating mare and may allow her to begin to show estrous cycle activity earlier. Many mares will go into a lactational diestrus and will not show any signs of heat or may not settle (become pregnant) if bred. This often is seen in “every other year breeders”, as they may lack the nutritional resources or the hormonal stimulation to attempt to start another pregnancy while they are having such trouble maintaining their own body weight with a demanding foal at side.
- The lactation curve for most females is an interesting study. Peak milk production in mares occurs between three and eight weeks after foaling. It should be obvious that as the growing foal’s requirements continue to increase, the mare’s ability to produce the nutritional support for that growth becomes more limited. The creep feeder encourages the foal to increase consumption as its dam loses the ability to nourish it properly. Too many horse owners provide the mare huge quantities of feed during pregnancy with the ill conceived notion that they are feeding two animals at that time. This is further complicated by the fact that they then turn the new foal and mare out to a “natural environment”, in a poorly managed pasture at a time when the nutritional stresses are greatest on the mare. Generally most pastures can not provide for proper supplementation of the mare’s requirements during peak lactation and the mare and foal suffer in this circumstance. As a result, we stress the mare unnecessarily.
- By encouraging the foal to consume solid feed as early as possible, it makes the transition during the weaning process much less traumatic. Foals get used to eating on their own and eventually become more independent, and this makes separation from the mare easier and less fretful.
- Many mares are a little marginal in their maternal instinct or ability to provide adequate milk for their foal, and if this was to occur early in the foal’s development it might permanently stunt its growth. By providing a creep ration, the risk of this malnutrition is minimized. Sometimes it’s better to feed the foals directly, rather than to feed the mare and hope that she will produce enough milk to maintain normal growth. Remember that the mare takes her “cut” of the feed as a “handling charge” in order to manufacture that milk. By removing her as an unneeded “middle man” we may be more efficient at providing the foal with the nutrients needed for proper growth.
- Early weaning provides for increased efficiency and may prevent some foals from acquiring the bad habits of their mothers. Numerous horse owners have noticed that their early weaned foals didn’t have enough time to learn to bully their peers as their mothers did. (much of an animal’s behavior is learned) This makes for a more uniform group of foals to train and condition.
Don’t count on the foal being able to steal enough feed from its dam to make much of an impact on its growth rate. Some mares are defensive about their feed and may not let a foal near the feeder, even if it could reach it. Other mares in a group setting are prone to chase foals away from their feed. This expression of a “pecking order” may result in the foal being hurt by one of these overly aggressive mares and that’s not usually worth the risk. There’s nothing wrong with feeding mares and foals in a group, provided you match the condition, temperament and status carefully. Since the foal learns to eat by watching others do the same, it provides good stimulus to consume the grain ration. This competitive nature of foals can be exploited to get foals to eat earlier, provided that the foals are about the same size and background so that the “pecking” order does not create further problems for us. Foals which are raised in a box stall may utilize a feeder with spacer bars designed to keep the mare out of the foal’s feed, provided the mare does not mind the foal eating while she can not.
A creep may easily be built out of portable panels, fencing material etc. in a pasture near the waterer so that the foals will have the occasion to be near it and use it often. In a dry lot arrangement, the corner of the lot is as good a place as any to set up a temporary creep feeder. When building the creep feeder, remember that its purpose is to provide easy and safe access to the foal, while at the same time limiting the mare’s ability to get in and eat too. In that vein, make the creep strong and of substantial construction so as to prevent the mare from breaking into it. When I design a creep structure, it may be a permanent part of the pasture improvements or I build them on pipe skids for portability. Then they can be moved with the horses as pastures are rotated and horses shifted to accommodate breeding or weaning schedules. Whether temporary or permanent, provide at least two entrances, so the foal doesn’t feel trapped by other foals or mares and can get out without a major panic attack. There are a number of creeps which provide shade and shelter for the foals, this has advantages in that it will protect the feedstuffs from the elements and prevent spoilage. Additionally it seems that the average foal doesn’t mind being away from its dam for a short time. As a reflection of that comfort, they may even feel secure enough to take a nap in a well protected creep and that beats being under foot in a herd of milling mares. Since most foals have to be taught to use the creep, push a foal into the creep and handle it there daily, letting it in through one entrance and out another. Many farms take rectal temperatures and vitals daily, doing this in the creep offers a chance to acquaint the foal in a fairly non-threatening way to the advantages of being in that creep, while checking the health of the foal at the same time.
For convenience, horse owners often like to feed their horses by volume (quarts, scoops or gallons) while the directions found on most feed products and in nutrition texts measures feed by weight. I personally prefer to feed by weight, as my employees can be consistent in their ration mixing and feeding. The average owner will heap the coffee can full one time and take a quick swipe through the grain bin the next; also, your employees may define a scoop of feed differently (heaping or level). That does nothing for the horse except promote more opportunities for colics and misfeeding. Since most horses’ requirements are based on body weight and activity, I would suggest that the horses, both young and old, be weighed or measured around the girth with a weight tape to keep current on the rate of gain and changing feed requirements. After all, a pound is a pound and feeding by weight will prove to be a more cost effective way to control your expensive grain and hay consumption, as there will be less waste. Additionally, you will be more likely to spot changes with a scale or girth measurement than you would with your eye. When you see the horse every day, little changes aren’t very noticeable.
As a rule, I start my creep feed at no more than 0.5% of the foal’s body weight. This provides me with an easy introduction to the ration and won’t let the foal overeat. Small quantities of fresh feed should be available at all times if the creep is to function as intended. Avoid low quality, high fiber rations for the creep, as the foal lacks the adult’s more efficient cecal digestive function necessary to break down roughage. I have had good results with most grains (whole or rolled oats, cracked or flaked corn, rolled or whole barley) and I prefer to feed very little long stem grass hay to foals. Although they will pick at a flake of hay, most young foals wind up wasting a lot of it. To counter the high phosphorus content of the grain, I will use alfalfa pellets in the creep feed. It seems that the pellets are easier to consume, contain enough bulk to prevent overeating, control dust in the feed and presents foals with a well balanced ration. While pellets do not produce the “gutty” appearance seen on so many of the weanlings as they first start eating hay, a poor quality pellet is still a poor choice for foals. Once the foals are consuming between 2.2 and 2.5% of their body weight in creep feed, then I can wean them with very little stress anywhere between two and four months of age. If you do not want to wean quite as early, that’s acceptable provided you are willing to supplement any deficiencies found in your pastures.
A common developmental problem encountered in growing foals is getting them gaining weight faster than their legs can handle the strain. Fat foals, carrying a lot of weight, will be prone to bone development problems like epiphysitis, and this may require that excessive grain consumption be curtailed. Predisposing calcium-phosphorus imbalances are common in many areas, so the National Research Council recommends that rations with less than a 1.4:1 (Calcium:Phosphorus) ratio for most foals be a place to watch for problems. Since most grains and protein supplements are high in phosphorus and low in calcium, there exists a strong probability of mineral imbalances occurring if there is not a legume roughage (alfalfa, clover etc.) included. If it is determined that a calcium supplement should be added to the grain ration, calcium carbonate is commonly used as a primary source of this mineral.
As a diagnostic tool, unfortunately, blood tests on horses are not very effective as a means to determine whether mineral imbalances have occurred. Hormonal controls in the horse’s thyroid and parathyroids will attempt to balance the deficiencies, and may make these tests less reliable. Since the endocrine system is interfering with normal levels of minerals in the bloodstream, there exists no easy test to determine whether or not a horse is utilizing a well balanced ration. A number of private and university laboratories will analyze your feedstuffs to determine whether or not a problem is likely to exist, and corrections can then be made. Consult your state horse extension specialist at your state land-grant university for further information on these tests and recommendations.
As we approach weaning time, there are small changes made in the ration to increase the protein content of this feed. Some farms use dried skim milk as a protein source, but many commercial feed companies are turning to soybean meal (SBM) as the protein supplement of choice. It’s easily obtained and mixed into the feed, and SBM provides a good supply of the essential amino acids which make up the protein necessary for proper growth. Trace mineralized salt should also be provided free choice to the young foal, as there are minerals which are not found in adequate quantities in either the milk or many grain products. Unless the ration is of poor quality or imbalanced, there usually is not a vitamin deficiency which would require any significant supplementation. Proper care of your foals will result in a healthier and better developed mature horse, so the effort while they are young is worth the extra feed now.
Henry & Associates