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Mare Care: Improve Colostrum QualityBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · February 21, 2017

The first meals ingested by a healthy foal consist entirely of colostrum, the nutrient- and antibody-packed fluid produced by the mare during the first hours after birth. Thicker, yellower, and stickier than milk, colostrum quality sets the tone for foal health in the coming days and months. High-quality colostrum nourishes foals and protects them from disease-causing pathogens. Colostrum of lesser quality can leave a foal ill-equipped to handle pathogenic assaults.

How can owners ensure their mares produce top-of-the-line colostrum? Follow these three tips:

Provide proper nutrition year-round. Like all horses, mares should receive optimal nutrition every day of the year. "Pregnancy adds a new dimension to the nutritional schematic but does not change things as much as some mare owners believe," said Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

"Depending on the metabolic rate of the mare—some broodmares are easy keepers and some are hard doers—energy requirements likely won't rise until about the eighth or ninth month of the eleven-month pregnancy,” she said. “Until that time, mares should be fed a diet that maintains body condition at a moderate to moderately fleshy degree, with additional emphasis placed on appropriate vitamin and mineral nutrition."

Many mares will consume forage-only diets during much of their pregnancy, as their metabolism or level of forage intake does not warrant additional calories. These diets should be augmented with vitamins and minerals, usually in the form of a ration balancer pellet or a well-formulated supplement, such as Micro-Max, as this will ensure appropriate nutrient intake, according to Whitehouse. In Australia, horse owner should look for All-Phase or Gold Pellet.

“As mares enter the final months of pregnancy, they may require concentrated sources of energy to maintain body weight and, at that time, vitamin and mineral supplementation can be tweaked to avoid under- or oversupplementation,” Whitehouse explained. If mares are given at least the minimal amount of feed formulated specifically for broodmares, as recommended by the manufacturer, then there is no need for additional supplementation. By supplying all of the mare's nutritional needs, owners are contributing to antibody-rich colostrum, she said.

Use targeted supplementation. Once forage and concentrate requirements are met, mares owners may look into supplementation that will specifically help broodmares and potentially colostrum quality.

The use of omega-3 fatty acids yields benefits in some mares. In one study, a marine-derived omega-3 supplement, rich in both docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), caused an increase in DHA in the blood and milk of mares. Further, the foals of those mares had the same boost in blood levels.

“One product rich in marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids is EO•3, a palatable liquid supplement made from a cold-water fish species,” recommended Whitehouse. “EO•3 contains 35% omega-3 fatty acids, which far exceeds common oils fed to horses, like corn or soybean.”

Some horse owners choose to feed flaxseed for its omega-3 benefits. Flaxseed delivers omega-3 fatty acids as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which must then be converted to DHA and EPA. “The efficiency of the conversion process is not well understood in horses, so feeding direct sources of DHA and EPA may prove to be more advantageous,” Whitehouse added.

Vitamin E supplementation might also be appropriate, especially in mares that consume primarily forage. Once forage is mowed and harvested, vitamin E levels drop, so any horse on an all-forage diet benefits from the antioxidant properties of supplemental vitamin E.

Mares fed a grain mix containing 80 IU/kg vitamin E per day were supplemented with an additional 160 IU/kg of vitamin E. Within two weeks of foaling, the mare’s circulating levels of IgG, or antibody, were significantly increased. In addition, presuckled colostrum of vitamin E-supplemented mares also had significantly higher IgG levels than unsupplemented mares. Nursing foals had blood concentrations of IgG, IgM, and IgA, all different and important types of immunoglobulins that reflected those of the ingested colostrum.

Developed by KER, Nano•E is a nanodispersed liquid natural-source vitamin E, making it the most bioavailable vitamin E available to horse owners.

Remove all fescue from the diet. Though many mare owners are educated about the risks associated with feeding endophyte-infected fescue to pregnant mares, problems persist.

Fescue is a well-liked and oft-used pasture plant because it possesses several desirable qualities, foremost of which are drought resistance and grazing tolerance. Many horses graze fescue without any problem, but endophyte-infected fescue causes serious issues in pregnant mares, such as protracted gestation times, premature separation of the placenta (known commonly as a "red bag" delivery), and lack of milk production. Many foals born to mares pastured on endophyte-infected fescue have reduced immunity due to a lack of good-quality colostrum.

Mares should be removed from fescue pasture and hay 60-90 days before the predicted foaling date. If this is not possible, mare owners should alert their veterinarians that fescue toxicosis is a possibility. Veterinarians can use certain drugs to help with certain symptoms associated with fescue toxicosis.