COLOSTRUM FOR NEWBORN FOALS - it's more than "just milk"

Just like human babies, newborn foals are born with no immunity to disease. This puts foals at high risk of picking up organisms from other horses or the environment that could result in serious (sometimes even fatal) infections.

Colostrum is the first milk that a newborn foal consumes and is rich in antibodies from its mother. These antibodies help protect the foal during the critical early period of life until the foal's immune system is ready to take over and the foal can receive vaccinations.

In this section, learn more about protecting your newborn foal's health, including:

  • What is colostrum
  • Why colostrum needs to be consumed in the first 24 hours of life
  • The importance of high-quality colostrum.

What is Colostrum

Colostrum is the name of the special milk produced by a mare that is a foal's first meal after it is born. Although it comes from the mare's udder and is rich in nutrients, colostrum is much more than "just milk". Colostrum is also a source of important antibodies (called immunoglobulins) and other factors that help protect the foal from serious (or even fatal) infections picked up from other horses or the foal's environment.

Newborn foals are born with no immunity to disease. So by drinking colostrum, the foal receives immediate (but temporary) protection from its mother until it is old enough to receive vaccination and for its own immune system to take over. The process of acquiring protection in this way is called passive transfer of immunity, because the antibodies and other immune factors are passively transferred from the mother to the foal when the foal drinks the colostrum.

Colostrum is produced in the mare's udder during the final 2-4 weeks of pregnancy but is only present for about 12-24 hours after a mare foals. It is vital that foals nurse soon after birth so that they consume the antibody-rich colostrum, and not the "regular” mare’s milk that eventually replaces the colostrum after the first 24 hours or so.

What does colostrum looks like?

  • Colostrum looks quite different to the milk that a mare normally produces. Colostrum is thicker than regular milk and has a yellowish colour.
  • Like regular milk, it contains carbohydrates, fats, proteins and vitamins and minerals, but at different levels, to ensure that the newborn foal is well nourished immediately after birth.
  • Another way that colostrum is different to regular milk is that it contains concentrated levels of antibodies from the mare's body. These antibodies are special proteins that can help protect the foal against common infections like pneumonia, navel ill and septicaemia (blood poisoning).
  • Colostrum also contains important hormones, growth factors, enzymes and other proteins plus white blood cells that play important roles in providing immunity and protecting the foal.

Is colostrum all a foal needs?

  • Although colostrum is vital to help protect a foal during its early life, it doesn't provide total protection. So it's important to remember other aspects of foal and broodmare management including good hygiene in the stall or barn and other strategies to prevent disease, such as vaccination of all animals and regular worming.

Colostrum: The importance of timing

Ensuring that the newborn foal nurses soon after birth is critical. The foal needs to ingest colostrum within the first 24 hours of life – preferably as early as possible. This is because during the first 24 hours, the antibodies in colostrum consumed by the foal can be absorbed across the intestinal tract, directly into the foal's immune system. After the first 24 hours passes, the intestinal tract of the foal matures and any antibodies contained in the colostrum will be digested, just like any other protein.

Ensure foal gets colostrum within 2-4 hours

  • The best quality colostrum is thought to be present in the udder during the first 8 hours after foaling. So the aim should be to have the foal consume colostrum within the first 2-4 hours after birth.
  • Weak foals may need help to nurse, but be careful if bottle feeding because a newborn foal with a weak sucking reflex may accidentally breathe in some of the milk and develop a lung infection.
  • In some cases, it may be necessary to deliver colostrum through a tube from the nose directly into the stomach (called a nasogastric tube). This procedure should only be done by your vet.

What happens if a foal doesn't get enough colostrum?

  • It's not just the timing of colostrum that is important. The quality of colostrum and the quantity that the foal consumes can also influence how well the foal is protected from disease. A healthy, vibrant foal with a strong sucking reflex is likely to consume around 1-3 L of colostrum. So if the foal fails to get enough colostrum, gets it at the wrong time, or if the colostrum is of poor quality, the foal may remain susceptible to infections.
  • This is referred to as Failure of Passive Transfer (or FPT). FPT can be partial (the foal may only be partially protected) or complete (the foal has received no protection from its mother’s colostrum, and is at high risk of disease). If your vet suspects FPT, blood tests can be used to make a diagnosis and to guide treatment.

Colostrum: The importance of quality

The quality of colostrum is largely determined by the concentration of antibodies and other important components. Unfortunately, some mares produce poorer quality colostrum than others. Older mares and mares in poor body condition generally produce poorer quality colostrum.

Nutritional status of the mare can also affect the quality (and possibly the quantity) of colostrum. There is also considerable variation between mares in the amount of colostrum they produce.

Dripping colostrum before birth?

  • If you notice colostrum dripping from your mare's udder for a day or two prior to foaling, the remaining colostrum may be of poorer quality by the time the mare foals. If in doubt, your vet can test the quality of your mare's colostrum and give you advice.

Vaccinations during pregnancy

  • Vaccinating mares during the latter stages of pregnancy can help to promote high levels of protective antibodies in colostrum.
  • Some vaccines are specifically recommended for use during pregnancy, however, some vaccines have not undergone full testing in pregnant mares, so your vet will be able to make recommendations about your specific circumstances.

Don't Wait to Vaccinate