Creep Feeding Foals: When and How

Solidify your foal’s nutritional foundation by creep feeding during his first year.

When was the last time you picked a mare out for breeding based solely on the fact that she was a good milker? If you are like most horse owners, that thought probably didn’t even cross your mind when it came to mare selection. Most of us look at things like conformation, color, attitude and athletic ability as traits to breed for before we ever consider things like milk production.

Why Does a Foal Need to be Creep Fed?

Mares need to provide milk – and a lot of it – to feed and nourish the foal at their side from birth to weaning. But even the best milking mare will start to decline in milk production a few months after the birth of her foal. By weeks 13-24, her milk production will shrink from 3 percent of her body weight to about 2 percent.

This is a peak time for growth in the foal and nutrient needs are increasing just as the nutrition provided by mom is decreasing. A good way to address this issue and make sure that your foal gets all the nutrition that it requires is to implement a creep feeding program. Creep feeding is simply a method of feeding foals so that they have access to feed that the mare doesn’t.

Creep feeders allow foals to become accustomed to eating solid feed before weaning time, reducing stress. To supplement growth in nursing foals, creep feed provides the nutrients that aren’t found in adequate amounts in mare’s milk, meaning:

  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Copper (trace mineral)
  • Manganese (trace mineral)
  • Zinc (trace mineral)
  • Iron (trace mineral)

When to Start Creep Feeding Foals

Foals become interested in solid feed at about 2 to 4 weeks of age. If you begin to creep feed at 8 weeks, you’ll generally see consistent weight gain.

A 3-month-old foal can consume about 3 pounds per day of a palatable feed, plus milk and pasture or hay. At this rate, a foal will consume about 3 percent of its body weight in dry matter, packing on at least 2.5 pounds each day.

How to Build a Creep Feeder

A simple creep feeder can be made of a small pen that allows the foal an entry that the mare can’t fit through. Height of the opening is a great way to keep mares out of the creep feeder. Keep your opening at least a couple of inches higher than the foal’s withers – this will be low enough to keep the mares out and still let the foals in. Remember, those foals are growing so you may have to periodically adjust the height of the entry.

If you feed the foal in a stall alongside his dam, there are small feeders on the market that have evenly spaced bars in place over the opening that prevent the mare’s larger muzzle from reaching in to snack on the creep feed.

Note: Putting out creep feed for large groups of foals can be counterproductive because dominant foals will consume too much creep feed, while less-dominant foals will be deprived of the feed.

Creep Feeding and Forage

Weanlings should be fed high-quality forage or pasture with a 14-16 percent protein creep feed at approximately 0.75-1.25 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight.

  • Weanlings require the best quality, most nutritious and palatable hay you have in storage. Ideally, this is a mixture of grasses and legumes.
  • Grasses increase the taste factor, while legumes improve energy, protein and mineral content of the hay.
  • Alfalfa and soybean meal are high in lysine, while cereal grains and linseed meal are low.
  • Most forage lacks trace minerals. These deficiencies should be compensated for with a trace mineral block.

What Makes a Good Creep Feed

The ration you provide as your creep feed should be designed specifically for growing foals with the primary intention of providing balance in the diet. It needs to have a few key features:

  • Good palatability to ensure it’s eaten.
  • High-quality protein.
  • Amino acids (particularly lysine) for sound growth.
  • Balanced levels of vitamins and minerals – having too much, too little or the wrong ratio of certain vitamins and minerals at this stage can be detrimental. Of particular importance is calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, selenium and vitamin E.

Creep Feeding and Weight Gain: Striking a Balance

Monitoring your foal’s body weight is a key element to designing a suitable feeding program. Weight can be estimated according to girth and length measurements.

For the following formula, length is measured from the point of the shoulder to the point of the buttock:

Weight (kilograms) = [girth (centimeters) squared x length (centimeters)]/8700

Developmental Orthopedic Disease

Managers of farms with a high incidence of developmental orthopedic disease (DOD) problems should closely monitor their weanlings’ grain consumption and exercise. Preventing accelerated, unnatural growth is vital to preventing DOD.

Grain consumption should be determined by the following:

  • The levels of protein, energy, calcium and phosphorus of the hay you’re feeding.
  • The total dietary protein and energy levels.
  • The proper ratios of calcium and phosphorus. Growing horses need a calcium:phosphorus ratio of at least 1.5:1.
  • The proper ratios of trace minerals.
  • The sulfur content of your water supply. An excessive amount of sulfur can affect the proper absorption of copper.

Courtesy of American Quarter Horse Association