Creep Feeding Foals
by Edgar A. Ott, Ph.D., Emeritus, Animal Science Department, University of
Florida, Gainesville, Florida
Although the term "creep feeding"
implies that one has provided a nursing animal with access to a
creep feeder, in reality one can creep feed foals many different
ways. As I use the term, it actually describes the providing of a
feed formulated specifically for the suckling foal, regardless of
the mechanism by which it is offered.
The newborn foal is a growing machine. A foal is born with a
voracious appetite and converts nutrients to body tissues with an
efficiency that will not be matched any other time in its life.
The foal's growth is highest during the first month of life and
gradually decreases as it matures. A foal will often double its
weight during the first month of life (gaining 3 lb/day or more),
but will gain less each subsequent month until it is mature. For
many horse owners faced with the desire to maximize the potential
of their foals, a number of questions arise.
Why creep feed?
This can be best explained by looking at the relationship between
the nutrient requirements of the suckling foal and the nutrients
provided to the foal via the mare's milk. During the first few
weeks after parturition, the mare provides adequate energy for the
foal. During this time, one can observe the foal nursing, playing,
and sleeping on some schedule, perhaps 45 to 60 minutes per cycle.
By 2.0 to 2.5 months of age, a sizable difference between the
foal's energy needs and the mare's production is evident. This is
verified by the foal's interest in consuming other feedstuffs,
including the mare's grain ration, pasture (if available), and/or
hay. Similar relationships exist for the other nutrients as well.
Therefore, the foal restricted to only its dam's milk would be
deficient in not only energy, but also protein, minerals, and
Unless one provides the foal with a feed designed to specifically
meet its nutrient needs, the foal may not consume adequate
nutrients to meet its growth and development potential, because
the other feedstuffs the foal can consume (the mare's grain,
pasture, or hay) will probably not provide a balance of the
What does the foal need?
The creep feed should be formulated to provide a high-quality
source of nutrients. Under most circumstances, the foal should be
fed the same concentrate that will be used as a weanling feed.
This will avoid a ration change at weaning. A 16% to 18% protein
concentrate with at least 0.80% lysine, 1.0% calcium, 0.75%
phosphorus, and appropriate concentrations of other minerals and
vitamins is preferred. This works quite well because the foal's
requirements are partially supplied by milk when it is nursing and
its requirements, as a percentage of the total diet, decrease as
growth rate slows following weaning.
the foal is very susceptible to nutrient imbalance at this age, it
is recommended that a commercial feed formulated specifically for
this purpose be used rather than a farm mixed feed, which may or
may not be properly mixed. Suggested nutrient specifications are
listed in Table 1. Check these specifications against the
guarantees on purchased products. All of these nutrients may not
be listed on the feed label, so some confidence in the company's
nutritional standards may be necessary.
How should creep feed be supplied?
Although most foals will start to explore edible materials, and
some that are not edible, in its environment within a few days
after birth, significant feed intake does not occur for most foals
until they are in their second month. At this time, a feeding
system that allows the foal to consume its feed and prevents the
mare from eating the creep feed is desirable. This is typically a
creep feeder located in the pasture. These structures can be
permanent or movable pens that allow the foal access while
excluding the mare. Openings 18 to 20 inches wide work well. The
pen should have more than one entrance if several mares and foals
are pastured together. Should foals become frightened, more than
one opening would be advantageous for escape.
The feed should be placed in a feeder that will allow the foals to
eat without presenting significant hazards to the foal. A tire
feeder or commercial plastic feeder on the ground works well. The
first foals born each year may need to be coaxed into the creep
area, but the older foals will show the younger foals the system.
Feed must be kept fresh, so feed only what the foals will consume
in a 24 hour time period. Location of the creep feeder is
critical. Foals will not stray far from their dam, so locate the
creep feeder near water, shade, or other areas where the mares
assemble each day.
Foals can also be creep fed in the stall. If the mare is stalled
for feeding or if the mare is stalled at night, foals can be
offered their creep feed in the stall in a separate feeder. Most
foals will learn to eat by eating from their dam's feed tub.
Therefore, it will be necessary to encourage the foal to eat from
a separate feeder. Commercial feeders with adjustable bars that
allow the foal to eat but keep the mare from eating are available.
The foal can also be fed via a bucket or other feeder by tying the
mare at her feeder or physically restricting the mare from leaving
her feed tub until she is finished eating. If the mare is allowed
to clean up the feed the foal does not eat, it will encourage the
foal to eat its feed while the dam is eating her feed.
What happens if the foal is not creep
In reality, the foal is going to eat something. The foal will eat
feed from its mother's feed tub, which is typically a grain ration
that is generally not adequately fortified to meet its needs. Or,
the foal will eat grass, hay, weeds, or whatever else is available
to satisfy its desire to meet energy requirements. None of these
alternatives will provide the foal with a nutrient intake and
balance that will support maximum growth or ensure quality
physical development. The foal that is not provided appropriate
supplementation is not likely to die and it may not even develop
at a perceivable lesser rate than the supplemented foal, but it
will grow slower than its genetic potential. The foal may also be
more prone to skeletal problems when it is weaned onto a program
that allows it to catch up to its growth potential.
Creep feeding is good management. Don't restrict a foal to an
inadequate diet while it is most capable of using those nutrients
to build a sound body. Creep feeding bridges the gap between the
nutrient composition of mare's milk and foal nutrient needs.