By Eleanor Richards
Be prepared. That should be the motto of every horse owner expecting a mare to foal.
If you are one of the thousands expecting a foal this spring, are you prepared for the loss of the dam or the possibility she will have no milk?
Colostrum is the first fluid a mare secretes from her udder after foaling. It contains the antibodies which protect the foal from infection. Colostrum also creates a mild laxative effect that helps the foal pass the meconium. The meconium is the first stool and is a thick tarry substance which can be hard to expel.
Peak absorption time for the nutrients and antibodies in colostrum is between two and four hours of birth. The protective immunoglobulins in the colostrum are more concentrated in the early hours of lactation. As time goes by milk production will dilute the colostrum and the foal's ability to absorb the protective immunoglobulins decreases as the foal's digestive tract matures.
An average horse foal should receive 250 milliliters of colostrum every hour for the first 6 hours of life.
Between 12 and 36 hours of age, your veterinarian should test the foal's blood. The blood sample is checked for IgG concentrations. The test will show if the foal has received the proper levels of antibodies. If the foal has not, a blood transfusion of equine plasma should be done to insure the foal is protected.
A normal IgG count is 800mg/dl or higher. Below 200mg/dl and the foal's life is in danger. Most veterinarians will recommend a plasma transfusion at 400mg/dl or lower….consult your veterinarian.
But what if the mare dies, has no colostrum, or won't let the foal nurse?
If the mare dies or won't let the foal nurse, try to milk her. Let the foal suck from a bottle (use a lamb nipple). Save any extra colostrum you collect for later feedings.
If there is no colostrum you should have a backup plan. This is where being prepared pays off.
Colostrum products available at feed or farm supply stores are bovine (cow) based. They will not provide the antibodies needed by a foal, but can supply some nutrients. The foal will not be protected from infection when fed a commercial colostrum product. A transfusion of equine plasma will be needed. Make sure your veterinarian has some in stock or it is quickly available.
Months before the foaling date contact large horse breeding farms or a local dairy farm. Bovine colostrum is better than nothing - equine plasma can be given to provide the immunoglobulin. Ask for some colostrum and then freeze it.
Colostrum can be frozen for about two years. Frozen colostrum should be stored at -4F (-20C). I have found the best way to freeze it is in ice cube trays. Each cube is about one ounce or 30 milliliters (ml.). You would need about nine cubes every feeding for an average horse foal.
Do not thaw colostrum in the microwave! Microwaves kill the antibodies present in the colostrum.
If you have a successful foaling with no problems - milk the mare and freeze the colostrum. A healthy mare produces more colostrum than a foal needs. You can collect up to 250 milliliters (8.5 ounces) from a horse mare after the foal has sucked several times. Collect the colostrum within six hours of foaling in order to get the most concentrated amount. Do not collect the colostrum until after the foal has nursed several times. Freeze and save the collected colostrum for future use. Make sure you write a date on the package and what the package contains.
The plasma transfusions are not as good as colostrum from the dam. The levels of immunoglobulin are not as high. Plus the plasma transfusions are very expensive.
There are colostrum banks throughout the country. Donations of colostrum are welcome, and in some cases if you donate, and then need some at a future date there is no charge.