Why is drinking sufficient high quality colostrum important for newborn foals?
Foals, especially newborns, are vulnerable animals and are susceptible to all kinds of diseases and infections. Unfortunately, the immune system of young foals is not yet fully developed at birth. In humans, antibodies are transferred from the mother to the baby through the placenta during pregnancy. However, because the placenta of the horse is constructed differently and consists of multiple layers compared to humans, antibodies from the mare are not transferred to the foal during pregnancy. Therefore, the foal is entirely dependent on the first milk after birth, also known as colostrum.
Colostrum contains the essential antibodies that the newborn foal needs to protect itself, making it crucial that the foal receives enough colostrum as soon as possible. If a foal drinks colostrum too late or too little, it has a greater chance of getting sick. The most common problems are diarrhea and various inflammations such as umbilical, lung, and joint infections. This can make the foal seriously ill and weaken rapidly, making it unable to drink, causing a fever, and even death.
If you only start preparing a few weeks before the birth, it is too late. You should actually start preparing from the moment your mare becomes pregnant. Has your foal not been born yet? Then read the blog: Make sure you are well prepared for the birth of your foal – 6 TIPS to prepare yourself as well as possible for the arrival of your foal.
Why does a newborn foal need to drink enough colostrum quickly?
The concentration of antibodies in the mare’s milk decreases as time goes on. Within the first 24 hours after foaling, the concentration of antibodies is at its highest and can effectively protect the foal. However, not only the quantity of antibodies in the milk plays a vital role, it is also essential that the foal can absorb the antibodies. When a foal drinks colostrum, the milk, and therefore the antibodies, end up in the intestines. Antibodies must be absorbed through the intestinal wall to enter the foal’s bloodstream to protect it against all kinds of diseases. The intestinal wall of the foal only allows antibodies to pass through during the first 24 hours of life, after which it “closes,” and the foal can no longer absorb large proteins such as antibodies from the milk. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that the foal drinks at least 2 liters of colostrum during the first 24 hours of its life. The intestinal wall is most easily able to absorb antibodies during the first few hours (6-8 hours) after birth.
Immune system and colostrum intake
The immune system of a healthy foal is not fully functional until they are about 6 months old. From that moment on, the foal can produce antibodies on its own. Until that time, the foal is partly dependent on the antibodies it has absorbed from the colostrum as a newborn. The defense against pathogens during the first few months of life is therefore largely determined by the colostrum intake immediately after birth. A normal foal is able to stand up on its own within 1-2 hours after being born and should have consumed milk within the first 2 hours after birth.
Attention equine breeders! As a breeder, you know that a successful foaling is critical to the health and well-being of your mare and foal. However, it can be a stressful and overwhelming experience. That’s why I am offering a FREE foaling checklist that covers all the parameters you need to check to ensure a safe and successful birth. Download the foaling checklist!
At what point is my foal in danger of not receiving enough colostrum?
There are various reasons why a foal may not absorb enough antibodies, and this is not solely determined by the foal; the mare and the environment also play crucial roles. It is crucial for you, as the owner, to be aware of the factors that can affect this process, so that you can take action promptly and avoid any potential problems. Remember, prevention is always better than cure!
Problems with the mare:
- If the mare is losing colostrum prior to foaling (mares “running milk”), this poses a risk to the foal. If a lot of colostrum is lost before the foal is delivered, the mare will only produce regular milk after birth, which does not contain antibodies.
- Poor quality of colostrum due to illness, weakness, or mastitis.
- The mare does not let the foal nurse. There are several reasons why a mare may not let her foal nurse, such as pain from a tight udder or a contracting uterus. Inexperienced mares, especially young mares, or mares with a sensitive temperament may also prevent the foal from nursing adequately because the mare does not stand still or follows the foal. If a young mare does not allow her foal to nurse, help the foal by holding the mare for a moment and guiding the foal to the udder.
- The size, location, and shape of the udder and teats.
- The mare has died shortly after giving birth, which also means that there is no colostrum available.
- Older mares: a mare that has her first foal often produces less colostrum than an older mare, but the colostrum contains a much higher concentration of antibodies than the colostrum of older mares.
Environment and conditions:
- If there is a great deal of commotion in the environment and the mare and foal are excessively disturbed, there is a significant chance that the foal will not ingest sufficient colostrum.
- A foal that is born in an unclean environment is at a higher risk of becoming sick and requiring more antibodies.
- In the last month of pregnancy, the mare develops antibodies in her milk against diseases to which she has been exposed in the environment or through vaccination. The antibodies in the colostrum are therefore adapted to the risk factors of the future foal’s environment. If you move a mare just before delivery, the mare does not have enough time to produce antibodies against all the pathogens in the new environment. If the newborn foal comes into contact with a pathogen in the environment to which its mother has not developed immunity, the foal cannot defend itself.
- There are many different reasons why a foal may not be able to nurse from the mare, such as illness, weakness, being too large, being distracted by the environment or people, or not being able to stand independently. If the foal remains lying down for too long after birth or cannot find the udder, you should notice this as soon as possible and intervene.
Sometimes the foal can fool you by sucking on the teat, but no milk comes out. Always check if milk comes out of the udder and if the foal is actually swallowing milk.
How can you check the quality of colostrum?
With a colostrometer, you can determine the concentration of antibodies in the colostrum. The colostrum should be checked immediately after delivery so that other colostrum can be given to the foal if the quality of the colostrum is not good. It is recommended to have a supply of colostrum in the freezer. Colostrum can be stored in the freezer for a maximum of 1 year. With the colostrometer, you measure the Brix value, which is the measure of the amount of antibodies present in the colostrum. The minimum Brix value is 22, but the higher the value, the more antibodies, and the better protected the foal is against diseases.
Blood test to check if the foal has consumed sufficient colostrum.
It is advisable to measure the amount of antibodies in the foal’s blood 18 hours after birth. It is not useful to take blood earlier because it will not yet indicate if the foal has absorbed enough antibodies. If there are insufficient antibodies in the foal’s blood, there are 2 options to increase the amount of antibodies, depending on the foal’s age:
Feeding colostrum through a tube into the foal’s stomach:
- sIf it is known or highly likely that the foal has not consumed enough colostrum or poor quality colostrum less than 18 hours after birth, colostrum can be fed directly into the foal’s stomach via a tube by your veterinarian. This is only possible if the foal’s intestinal wall is still open and can absorb antibodies.
- There are different options: you can use colostrum from another mare with good quality and high levels of antibodies, artificial colostrum, or a commercially available product.
- If the foal is older than 18 hours, administering through the intestine has little to no benefit. The intestinal wall absorbs little to no antibodies. In this case, your vet gives the foal plasma directly into the bloodstream through an intravenous drip. For this, you can use plasma from a healthy horse or a commercial product.
- It is super important to administer this slowly and check if the foal has no allergic reactions.
It is therefore essential to check if your foal has consumed enough colostrum during the first hours of its life! The colostrum the foal drinks during the first hours of life will largely protect it during the coming months. It starts with a healthy mare that is well vaccinated and kept in a calm and clean environment. Check the mare’s udder and have the quality of the colostrum checked by a veterinarian. If the quality of the colostrum is okay, enough colostrum should be consumed. The following three factors are very important for this: consuming colostrum promptly, in large quantities, and frequently.
Do not hesitate to contact your veterinarian if you think the foal is not drinking enough colostrum or if there are other problems with the foal or the mare. Do not give a foal that does not want to drink from the mare a bottle! This increases the chance of aspiration pneumonia. Call your veterinarian!
Ensure that your foal is well-protected and does not get sick; this is what every breeder wants, right?
Blog in collaboration with Kim ter Bruggen
I would be happy to help you maximize the chances of having a healthy foal and mare!
In my work as an equine veterinarian, I receive many questions from owners regarding foals. Not only about the birth process, but also questions about a sick foal or deworming and vaccination of foals.
In my online foaling course, I answer many questions about the birth and first week of your foal’s life! In my online course, you will learn what you can do best before, during, and after birth. Almost 500 participants have already enrolled and rate the course with 5 stars! Experienced breeders also say they have learned a lot from the course!