Nutrition for Weanlings

It’s fall. Foals everywhere are being weaned. But how do you know your weanling is getting everything it needs in its diet? Dr. Eleanor Kellon, the staff veterinarian for Uckele Health & Nutrition, discusses the unique nutritional requirements of weanlings.

Photo by DeAnn Long Sloan

By Dr. Eleanor Kellon

The two life stages that have the most intensive nutritional needs are mares in early lactation and weanlings. Their requirements per pound of body weight are the highest.

Nutrient dense diets are those that have high levels of protein/amino acids and minerals per calorie. As you might expect, mineral requirements are extremely high during periods of rapid growth. At four months, the horse has higher daily total mineral needs than they do as a yearling despite having lower daily calorie needs and being roughly half the size. If you really think about this, it is immediately clear that trying to feed weanlings the same diet being fed adults is going to be severely inadequate.

Calories:  Calories are actually the easiest part of feeding weanlings. In fact, most are too heavy and this has been linked to developmental orthopedic disease. A six-month-old weanling requires 7% fewer calories than he will at maintenance at his full adult weight. If feeding him 93% of the adult diet, he will also only get 93% of the adult protein and minerals, much too low.

Minerals: The foal’s body can’t create the minerals it needs for growth and stores at birth are minimal to none. This is where the needs of the weanling and those of the adult show the greatest difference. For example, the six-month-old weanling needs almost twice as much calcium and phosphorus as he will when he’s a full grown adult. Obviously 93% of the adult diet won’t get the job done. The weanling may be falling short by as much as 20 grams of calcium. This has been linked to developmental orthopedic disease and may set the stage for joint disease and breakdowns when started in training.

Protein: While calorie requirements are lower than adults, protein needs are 7% higher and lysine 10% higher. If you are feeding the adult diet at the 7% reduction, the gap gets wider. For a horse that will mature to 50o kg (or roughly 1100 lbs)  this amounts to a deficit of 90 grams of protein overall and four grams of lysine if the adult diet was adequate for lysine in the first place (many are not).

Photo by DeAnn Long Sloan

The Solution:  What to do about this? You can scrap the idea of feeding your regular adult diet entirely and go with a specialty mare and foal feed according to directions. If you do that though, the diet can be 50 to 60% grain based with much of your protein and minerals tied to grain calories.

It is well known that overfeeding in general is linked to early orthopedic problems across the board and high grain feeding rates put some horses at higher risk for osteochondrosis. It also used to be believed that weanlings had to have a high percentage of grain in their diet because they couldn’t handle a high fiber diet as well as an adult. Recent research has proven that false.

Going back then to the adult diet with modest levels of grain/concentrates and heavily based on forages, how can it be fortified for the weanling? Assuming the adult diet meets minimum protein and mineral requirements, look for a supplement with about 25% protein, lysine minimum 1.5% and 5% calcium with a balanced mineral profile. Feed 1 pound per day of this.

Some diets have adequate trace minerals for the weanling but come up short in the critical nutrients for building bone. If that is your situation, a broad spectrum bone support supplement with calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and vitamins A and D will fill the gap.

Consult your veterinarian or nutritionist regarding dosing.

If you are already feeding enough supplemental minerals across the board and don’t need to add more, it’s very useful to have an unfortified high protein source. Look for 40+% protein, at least 2% lysine and a mixture of milk/whey protein with vegetable sources. Feed 1/2 lb/day. If total protein is adequate but all or most from hay with unknown lysine content, supplement with an amino acid supplement containing 10 grams lysine and 2 grams threonine per dose.

Finally, for fall and over the winter with no pasture available you need to think about essential fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are fragile and largely destroyed when hay cures and during storage.  Adequate supply is required by the eyes, heart and may even influence disposition.  Flax and Chia are good sources, 4 to 6 ounces/day.

Tweaking your diet to fill weanling needs is not terribly difficult or expensive but the pay back in terms of growth, health and soundness can be enormous.

About Dr. Kellon
Dr. Eleanor Kellon, staff veterinary specialist for Uckele Health & Nutrition, is an established authority in the field of equine nutrition for over 30 years, and a founding member and leader of the Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance (ECIR) group, whose mission is to improve the welfare of horses with metabolic disorders via integration of research and real-life clinical experience.  Prevention of laminitis is the ultimate goal.

Uckele Health & Nutrition, maker of CocoSoya, is an innovation-driven health company committed to making people and their animals healthier.  On the leading edge of nutritional science and technology for over 50 years, Uckele formulates and manufactures a full spectrum of quality nutritional supplements incorporating the latest nutritional advances.

Amino Fac supports the increased protein needs of growing horses, horses in training, and the pregnant mare to promote muscle integrity and definition.  Concentrated source of all the amino acids, including 4% Lysine. Supports lean muscle mass, bone and joint structure, vital organ development, immune system function, and hoof and connective tissue health.

Milk and Grow is formulated to meet the increased protein, vitamin and mineral demands of the pregnant and lactating mare and growing foal. Highly digestible protein supplement with favorable profiles for all the essential amino acids including the most often deficient amino acid, L-Lysine. Combined with a complete spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and Probiotics in an easy to feed, dust-free pellet.

Super Bones is for use when additional Calcium, Phosphorus, and Magnesium are imbalanced to support strong bones and structural integrity.  Also contains Vitamin A and D3 and for additional support in a palatable base.  Perfect for supplementing pregnant and lactating mares and developing foals that have significantly increased requirements.

CocoOmega is a non-GMO and soy free formula that supplies fatty acids in the ideal ratio that mimics the ratio of 4 to 1 Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids found in fresh forages. Promotes a glossy, healthy coat, and supports skin, hooves and joint function by retaining moisture in the cells and tissues to maintain healthy hydration.