From the Foaling Barn


How He Got This Way

This is Colin. At three months of age, he is big, well-muscled, straight-legged, and handsome. His eyes are bright; his coat shiney.  Colin is an orphan, fed from age three days on milk replacer. While many commercial milk replacer are quite good, we credit Colin's good health to these two products, Silky Coat Milk Replacer and Silky Coat Milk Pellets.

Perhaps the reason that it has proven to be such a good substitute for mother's milk is because it is made by a local company that specializes in making species specific milk replacer, Royal Milc, in Lakeville, MN, about 45 minutes from our farm. It is made up fresh every week right before our wonderful feed rep, Travis Lemke, picks it up and delivers it to our farm. Freshness is important in milk replacer because it contains a great deal of fat and can become rancid if it sits on a shelf too long.

I just started feeding the last bags of milk replacer and pellets tonight. We plan to wean the orphans next week and turn them out in pasture with other weanlings. I have absolutely no connections to Royal Milc, except as a customer, so this product endorsement is completely unsolicited and heartfelt. I truly believe this product gave my beautiful orphans the best start in life they could possibly get.

Orphan Foals on Milk Replacer

Colin Drinking His Morning Ration of Milk Replacer

This year we had to deal with two orphan foals and another foal whose mother foundered shortly after foaling. In all three cases, we were forced to use foal milk replacer. With the foal (Hermione) whose mother foundered, she was fed milk replacer to supplement her mother's reduced milk production. Hermione only needed supplements for about three weeks,and except for the first day or two, she drank from a bucket. Eventually as her mother's health improved, Hermione was weaned off the bucket and went back on her mother exclusively.

However, with the orphans, Viktor and Colin, they have been drinking milk replacer for two and half months. Fortunately, in both cases, the mother's lived long enough to supply each foal with sufficient colostrum (See my earlier post on low IGg in foals). Both dam's were euthanized at the vet clinic. The staff at the clinic kept the foals overnight in order to train them to the bucket. To feed a foal with a bottle would require super-human effort, or an employee devoted solely to feeding the foals every hour.

The first problem we faced was securing a supply of fresh milk replacer when we needed it. Milk replacer has a shorter shelf life than other feeds, and because it is so rarely needed, most feed stores carry very small amounts of the stuff. Many feed stores carry a generic, multi-species milk replacer, but this is not ideal. Only use milk replacer formulated specifically for horses. Most of the major feed companies make milk replacer. Milk replacer is quite expensive and foals go through a lot of it during a week.

We were lucky, because the Silky Coat company, which makes milk replacer for many species, is about 25 miles from us in Lakeville, MN. Our feed rep, Travis Lemke of Assurance Feed, set us up with Silky Coat. When we needed milk replacer, Travis would pick up a week's supply that had been made freshly that day and bring it out to us. After several weeks, we also began to offer the foals milk pellets made by Silky Coat.

Once we secured a steady supply,  the hardwork fell to us. During the first six weeks or their lives, the foals were fed on a four hour schedule, 6 AM, 10 AM, 2 PM, 6PM, 10 PM and 2 AM. My husband took the 10 PM and the 2 AM feedings, and I did all the other ones. It's pretty hard to have much of a social life, or even go out to dinner with this kind of schedule. We spread four gallons of formula over these six feedings. We thought it important to hang the bucket at approximately the same height as a mother's udder, rather than setting the bucket on the ground.

After six weeks, we began slowly to wean the foals off the formula, reducing the amount of formula by two quarts each week with fewer feedings. We first went to four feedings a day, and now we feed three times in twenty-four hours. However, as we reduced feedings, we discovered a new problem. The foals began to gulp down a gallon of milk in a matter of minutes, so we had to come up with ways to parcel out the milk so that the foals would eat more slowly. Drinking too much at one time, can cause foals to have loose stools, which in Viktor's case was exactly what happened. At Travis's suggestion, we began to freeze portions of the formula, so that it took the foals longer to get through a gallon. This worked well, and Viktor's diarhea disappeared. As we decreased the milk replacer, we increased the amount of milk pellets and began offering them the same grain and supplement the other foals eat. They are also now eating hay and pasture during turnout.

The foals will be on milk replacer for about three more weeks. Once they are weaned from the milk replacer, we will continue to add milk pellets to their grain rations for another month or so. At that time we will wean them completely and they will be turned out with the last three of our other foals to be weaned.

And my husband and I will let out  big sighs of relief.

Orphan Foals at Two Months

Colin at two months

Right after our two foals were orphaned within a week of each other, we were inundated with advice and offers of help from well-meaning folk. Some of the advice was helpful, but a great deal of it was discouraging and, frankly, incorrect. We were treated to so many nightmare stories of foals' physical developmental problems. And, even worse, many people assured us our foals would not know how to act like horses or would be spoiled by an excess of attention from humans. Some really tactless souls told us the foals were more or less doomed.

Our foals are now two months old, and I'm happy to report none of the depressing prognostications have come true. We did not find a local nurse mare and rejected the rent-a-nurse-mare organizations on ethical grounds. Instead, we worked with our great feed rep, Travis Lemke of Assurance Feed, who linked us up with a local company, Silky Coat, who specializes in making milk replacer for many different breeds. Every week, Travis would bring us fresh bags of milk replacer and milk pellets right from Silky Coat. That meant that we were always feeding the foals fresh milk. Both foals have done very well on the replacer, although Viktor had loose stools for the first six weeks, which is not an unusual problem for foals on milk replacer. At six weeks we began to wean them off of the replacer and on to the milk pellets. Since then, Viktor's stools have become more solid. At two months both foals are plump and well-muscled. Our vet has routinely drawn blood to check on the foal's protein levels, and has monitored their growth.

Because we have had to feed the foals frequently (every four hours for the first six weeks), it has not been practical to put them outside with other horses. We do get them outside together, several times a day for two to three hours at a time. If there is any upside to having two orphan foals, it is that they are company for one another, and their horse instincts kicked in right away when we put them together. To see them playing their little colt games, you would never think they were any different than any other foals. They spend their nights in large, open-grill stalls across the aisle from one another. Tomorrow, we plan to put them out in a small pasture with our twenty-three year old mare, Pappita Sunrise, for most of the day since we are now on an eight hour feeding schedule.

Viktor at two months

During this whole process, we have been mindful of the need to treat Viktor and Colin as horses, not pets. We do not coddle them, and we correct aggressive behavior immediately and firmly, just as their own mothers would have. The only time we handle them is when we take them in and out of their stalls. They are both halter broke and lead fairly well. There are other horse in the barn with them, and when they are outside they are in a pasture adjacent to other pastures holding mares and foals.

At three months, we plan to wean Viktor and Colin from their milk replacer, and by then they should be able to be in pasture twenty-four hours a day, At that point we will introduce them to other foals.

Raising Orphan Foals

Colin and Viktor

After the death of our two mares in less than a week, we were left with the difficult task of raising two beautiful orphans, Colin (Jerry Lees Surprise X Jodies Jac Tari) and Viktor (Colonels Smoking Gun X BH Song and Dance). Colin lost his mother at three days, and Viktor lost his at less than 24 hours. Fortunately, both foals nursed long enough to get adequate levels of passive antibodies through their dams' colostrum.

But once we got them home we were left with many decisions about the best way to proceed. We certainly didn't have a shortage of advice. Many people urged us to use nurse mares, but that was easier said than done. There's no doubt that what is best for a foal is receiving nutrition from its dam or another lactating mare. That means we needed to find a mare that has recently lost its foal. We were given many leads, but most of these mares were too far away to make it practical. Or if I got a tip about a local mare, invariably when I called the mare owners they were reluctant to turn their mares over to me, and I completely understand their feelings.

I was also given the names of several people who provide nurse mares on demand. However, once I read about these services, I had ethical qualms about what happens to the foals of these mares. Also, many of these mares are draft horses, and my vet warned me that draft mares provide too much milk for a little quarter or arab foal, with the result that the foals grow too fast and may have issues with bone development. Similarly, I was contacted by people who told me how I could cause any mare who had foaled within the last year to begin lactating. Actually, sometimes if a mare will accept a foal, she will begin to lactate on her own. However, in these cases, the quality and richness of the milk usually does not match the needs of a growing foal.

While I was considering all these factors, I contacted Travis Lempke, who is my Assurance feed rep. He was invaluable in advising me and locating a good source of milk replacement. He had dealt with an orphan foal two years before, so he new from experience what we were facing.
Eventually, I decided to forget the idea of nurse mares and use milk replacement exclusively.

This meant that we would be slave to a rigid feeding schedule for the next three months. Fortunately the vets at Stillwater Equine had trained both foals to the bucket before we brought them home, so I didn't have to worry about hourly bottle feeding. Instead, we started with a four hour feeding schedule. We made three quarts of formula every four hours, poured it into two gallon buckets and hung them in each foal's stall. Within a week or two the foals were drinking four gallons of milk a day. After a month, we began to feed the foals a gallon of milk replacer every six hours, which gave us quite a bit more freedom.

Both foals are now healthy and growing rapidly. But how to feed them has been only one of the many factors we are dealing with. The most difficult part of feeding foals with milk replacement formula is how to socialize them as horses. I'll take this issue up in future posts.


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