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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 vitamins.

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 appropriate nutrients.

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.

Since 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 fed?
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.


ADM Alliance Nutrition, Inc. , a wholly owned subsidiary of the Archer Daniels Midland Company