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Fads, folklore, and Gramp’s special mixes are as prevalent today as when I was a young fellow feeding weanlings.
Since those “good old days” our horse industry has made some reasonable progress. Balanced concentrate mixes have improved. There is better use of nontraditional feedstuffs such as fats and soluble fiber sources (ie. soybean hulls and beet pulp). Consumers have become informational sponges!
But the horse industry still has a tendency to drift toward the newest fads, swear by the anecdotes, and proclaim to have discovered the new magical formula. The result is that people lose sight of the scientifically proven fundamentals of feeding.
How do you feed a weanling? Let’s start with the fundamentals.
How much does a weanling weigh? I usually weaned foals by 4½ months and not later than 6 months of age. Four-month-old foals will be about 36% of their mature body weight (BW), compared to 46% for foals that are 6 months of age. For example, if the expected mature BW of a foal is 1,000 pounds, then the BW at 4 months would be about 360 lbs and at 6 months approximately 460 lbs. Weight tapes were designed for mature horses but are not very reliable for the foals and weanlings.
How fast should a weanling grow? The average daily gain (ADG) for a four-month-old is about 2.0 lbs/day compared to 1.4 lbs/day for a 6 month-old. Foals of similar age will also grow at different rates depending on the feeding level. For example, a 6 month old that weighs 473 lbs and is expected to mature to 1100 lb. The ADG for moderate growth would be about 1.4 lbs/day compared to 1.9 lbs/day for rapid growth.
The larger and taller youngsters that seem to be the higher price yearlings or futurity winners are often the ones that were fed for an accelerate growth. The domino effect on the industry is that more horse owners are trying to expedite the growth process by feeding for a faster rate, which may also increase the risk of growth problems.
Horse owners must realize that young animals fed for rapid growth do not grow taller or bigger than those foals fed for moderate growth, they only reach their mature size sooner. On the other side of the spectrum are weanlings may never reach their potential grown because they are fed mostly forages.
While the optimum growth rate to maximize a balance of production, health, and longevity has not clearly been established, there is good nutritional information that provides the opportunity for healthy, moderate growth. Horse owners need to decide their objectives and what risks are reasonable. Growing horses fed balanced rations for moderate growth will perform quite well, so why rush it?
How much should a weanling consume? You may have read that a weanling’s diet (4 – 6 months) should consist of 30% forage, 70% concentrates and the total feed intake ranges from 2.0 – 3.5% of BW. I do not agree with those recommendations.
At the time of weaning, the foal should be consuming some forage and a balanced formula of ½ – ¾ lb per 100 pounds of body weight. For example, a 450 lb foal creep fed Integrity Mare & Foal at the time of weaning should already be consuming about 2¼ – 3¼ lb/day. That amount will increase soon after the stress of weaning along with an increase in forage intake and the elimination of mother’s milk. The amount of feed that a weanling can handle depends on the individual and when and if the foal was creep fed.
Experiences indicate that weanlings will perform quite well on diets that consist of 45 to 60% forage. Total feed intake will usually range from 2.4 to 2.7% of BW.
For example, a 6 month old weighing 500 lbs should consume about 12 – 13½ lb/day. That translates to 7¼ – 8 lbs/day of forage and 4½ – 5½ lbs/day of Integrity Mare & Foal. Once the foal is 10-12 months, a lower protein and higher fiber balanced formula such as Integrity Growth is more suitable. Mare & Foal is a pellet form and Growth is a textured feed so a gradual changeover is recommended.
Feed weanlings as individuals! There are endless variables that influence feeding amounts, so use your experiences and observe body condition changes. When changes are needed, remember to make them gradually.
Lysine is the most important amino acid for all mammals and should represent 4.2% of the protein for horses up to two years old. Lysine is 5.5% of the protein in Integrity Mare & Foal and 4.8% of Integrity Growth.
What about forages? Most horse owners realize the importance of high quality fine-stem hay. Long-stem hay or pasture is preferred for the benefits of gut-integrity. Fine-stem hay can be a challenge for west coast horses, especially for those areas that depend on irrigated land to produce their hay. Alfalfa hay should not exceed 50% of forage intake. I do not recommend grain hays such as oat hay and 3-way hay for weanlings and yearlings because it is difficult to determine the starch contribution from the grain seeds.
I also encourage horse owners not to feed processed hay (pellets and cube form). Weanlings’ hindguts are not fully developed until they are 2½ years old. The smaller particle size of the hay pellet will influence the rate in which food passes through the gut as well as the microbial population and gut pH. If you need to feed processed forages, then it should not exceed 25% of total forage intake.
What makes up a balanced diet? A balanced diet supplies all of the required nutrients. It’s equally important to supply the correct amount of nutrients. Horse owners sometimes fall prey to the fallacy of, “if some is good, more is better.” Always feed a balanced formula. Homemade concoctions or adding supplements to a balanced formula is not recommended.