Equine nutrition is both an art and a science, and we were lucky enough to pick the brain of the Director of Nutrition at Woody’s Horse Feed, Devan Catalano, Ph.D., on what to do and what not to do when figuring out the best approach to feeding your mare and foal.
The Wrangler: Tell me about Woody’s Horse Feed.
Dr. Devan Catalano: Woody’s Horse Feed is located in Dickinson, North Dakota. We started making feed over 40 years ago for high-performance horses including racehorses and barrel racers. Woody’s has fueled many champions, including Kentucky Derby winners Unbridled (1990), Charismatic (1999), Super Saver (2010), and Nyquist (2016), to name a few. We also produce livestock feed and are very proud to serve our local beef producers. Our feed is made with fresh, high-quality ingredients and we use the most bioavailable options at precise levels to help your horse look, feel, and perform its best.
TW: Let’s talk mare and foal nutrition- What are some key factors that Woody’s considers when preparing the perfect combination of feed for mare and foals.
DC: When we formulated our growth feeds, we took into careful consideration not just individual nutrients but how they all connect to each other. For example, the amount of protein and the energy density (aka calories per pound) are balanced so that we aren’t feeding an excess of either. To expand that a little more—we know about how many calories a typical nursing mare or growing horse will need at any given stage. We also know their protein and amino acid requirements. On my end, I am balancing the energy to protein ratio so that on your end, your mare is getting exactly what she needs without shortchanging her or making expensive urine (and a smelly stall). This is also true for micronutrients—we are making sure that the amount of feed your mare needs to maintain her weight will provide exactly the right number of vitamins and minerals needed for her own health as well as her foal’s health.
TW: Let’s talk about Woody’s mare and foal line- What are they and what sets them apart from the competition?
DC: We have a few products formulated for broodmares and growing horses that have been used by both small and large breeding operations for many years. The one I recommend for nearly all broodmares and growing horses is ‘Woody’s Growth’. It is available as both a textured and a pelleted feed. Both options are equally fortified for most nutrients including vitamins and minerals. The key difference between the two is that the textured version will have a slightly higher fat content and thus be slightly higher in calories. Beyond this, it becomes owner preference for which works better for their feeding program.
Both the pelleted and textured growth formulas contain 100% chelated minerals which are more bioavailable to your horse. They provide balanced energy from fiber, fat, and starch; however, they are both lower in starch than the majority of growth feeds on the market. This will help minimize the risk of growth problems down the road. Beyond that, we were very intentional about the amount of crude protein and specific amino acids, taking into account the hay in our area. Both formulas are made with alfalfa and beet pulp as the base to provide a natural, palatable, and easy-to-digest feed from the ground up.
TW: What minerals and vitamins are key components in mare and foal diets?
DC: Calcium and phosphorus are probably the two most well-known minerals essential for horse health, especially for growing horses. Although mature horses can tolerate a wide range in the calcium to phosphorous ratio, growing horses should be fed a diet that is between 1:1 and 3:1 Ca to P. If you are feeding a large proportion of alfalfa, you should have it tested to ensure you are not overfeeding calcium and impacting proper bone development. Two other minerals essential for bone health are copper and zinc. Both feeding adequate amounts of each and the ratio between the two are critical. The ideal ratio is between 3:1 and 4:1 zinc to copper. All nutrient requirements increase in the last trimester and during lactation, two notable examples are Vitamin A and Vitamin E.
TW: Besides fresh water and quality hay, what else can a horse owner provide for mare and foal?
DC: I may begin to sound like a broken record here, but proper nutrition during pregnancy and growth is essential for setting up your horse for a healthy life. I’ve yet to see a hay sample that provides enough vitamins and minerals in the correct ratios. Owners should pick a formula that matches their mare and foals’ nutritional needs and caloric needs. For most, that will be a growth/mare & foal formula. For some easy keepers, that will be a ration balancer. Either way, by optimizing nutrition, you can have peace of mind that you are doing everything right to support health and strong growth. Beyond that, you should also always provide free choice salt. It doesn’t need to be designer; plain white salt is perfect.
TW: Let’s talk about overfeeding and the chances of overfeeding affecting the foal down the road.
DC: There is a persistent myth that overfeeding protein can cause developmental orthopedic disorders, or DOD’s. This is not true. The problem with overfeeding is just that—too many calories. Excess energy, particularly in the form of starch, can cause young horses to grow more quickly than their body can handle. As I mentioned above, Woody’s Growth is one of the lowest starch growth feeds on the market (it may be the lowest, but nutritionists rarely speak in absolutes).
Ultimately, moderation is key. Underfeeding a horse to prevent too fast of a growth rate can still cause DOD’s because of nutrient deficiencies. Overfeeding for a fast growth rate can cause undue stress on underdeveloped bones. Aim for a moderate growth rate that is suitable for the breed. The goal is to keep growth even and steady. Creep feeding prior to weaning can help avoid the post-weaning slump. You may need to increase their grain by a pound or two during a growth spurt but watch to ensure they aren’t putting down too much fat. While a broodmare should be kept at a 5 to a 6-body condition score (BCS; on the 1 to 9 Henneke scale), growing horses should be kept between a 4 and a 5.
One question I often get is, “Is there anything I can feed to get my horse to grow bigger?”. Unfortunately, you cannot “out-feed” genetic potential. What I mean by that is that nutrition alone is not going to create a 16hh horse out of a mare and stud that are both 14.3hh. You can, however, maximize that genetic potential with good nutrition. This starts in utero with the mare—feed her a high-quality feed at the appropriate rate. Many mares don’t need significant portions of grain before they foal out. In this case I recommend our ration balancer which is fed at low amounts (about 1 to 2 pounds for a 1,100-pound horse). In the last trimester, you can transition her to the growth formula so that once the foal is born, you can quickly ramp up the amount of feed to support lactation.
Similarly, once the foal is weaned and eating grain, I generally recommend our growth formulas at about a 50/50 ratio of grain and hay. As they mature and their growth slows, and they begin to voluntarily consume more hay, 2 to 3 pounds of our ration balancer will support proper growth as the horse matures without a significant number of calories.
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