Feeding Underweight Weanlings

Some foals cope with weaning better than others, even when every management strategy to defuse anxiety is employed. Those weanlings that worry ceaselessly after weaning often lose weight, usually from increased activity such as fence- or stall-walking or from loss of appetite.

What can owners do for these fretful weanlings?

In most circumstances, weanlings will settle into their new routine after only a day or two of uneasiness. An occasional weanling may remain apprehensive for a week or so, but as long as a reasonable routine is followed and a suitable companion is offered, it too will eventually become less and less concerned.

As weanlings become more comfortable, any inappetence associated with weaning is likely to fade away. If weight loss occurred during the weaning process, the young horses will likely regain weight quickly enough, especially when free-choice access to good-quality forage is offered.

“Weaning is just not a joyful time on any breeding farm, and because of the stresses involved, it’s not unusual to see foals lose a little condition over the course of several days,†said Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research (KER). “Weanlings will typically regain the weight swiftly once they are accustomed to their new normal.â€

Some breeders still worry about slumps in growth following weaning, but Crandell believes much of this can be avoided through proper feeding and management prior to separating mares and foals.

“Certain weanlings will show a slight deceleration in growth after weaning, but this problem isn’t as common as it once was because owners understand the importance of thoroughly acquainting foals with concentrates prior to weaning,†said Crandell. “Most foals dive into feed intended for their dams by the time they’re a few weeks old, and this is perfectly acceptable so long as they do not have unlimited access to concentrates.â€

Consumption of too much concentrate can predispose a foal to growth problems, usually characterized by swollen joints and lameness. Potential for growth problems is one reason why buffet-style creep feeding, in which foals consume as much concentrate as they choose, has fallen out of favor among breeders.

Weanlings that are underweight due to poor nutrition are far more challenging to manage. According to Crandell, the goal for these weanlings is to offer good-quality feedstuffs in appropriate amounts.

“Tempting as it might be to offer thin weanlings carte-blanche access to premium hay and feed to get a foothold on weight gain, owners might step back and reconsider,†advised Crandell. “A splurge of energy could actually do more harm than good, as a period of fast growth after a sustained slowdown might set the stage for developmental problems. Moderate, steady growth is best.â€

To upgrade the nutrition of these weanlings, start with good-quality forage in the form of pasture or grass hay. In these instances, grass hay is generally preferable to alfalfa (lucerne) or other legumes as grass hay is usually lower in energy and more can be fed.

Because weanlings cannot consume enough forage to achieve even moderate growth, a concentrate feed must be fed. Choose a concentrate formulated specifically for growing horses and follow the manufacturer’s feeding instructions. In general, approximately 0.5 to 1 b (0.3 to 0.5 kg) of concentrate per day per month of age is recommended for weanlings of light-horse breeds.

Begin feeding grain gradually and build up to the recommended amount over the course of about two weeks. By following this schedule, the gastrointestinal tract has ample time to adjust to the new feedstuffs. Feeding more than the recommended amount might oversupply energy, which can result in growth issues.

“With proper feeding, underweight weanlings should bounce back in time. The key is to not rush the process,†said Crandell.  “An overabundance of energy might cause an entirely new set of concerns, namely orthopedic. I suggest taking the slow road when it comes to rehabilitating underfed weanlings, as it over and over again proves the safest way.â€

Working with an equine nutritionist is one way to ensure weanlings are properly nourished. Start the conversation now.

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