The critical importance of colostrum for your foal, plus how to use a Brix Refractometer.
Did you know that, hands down, the single most important thing you can do for your foal is to ensure it gets colostrum from its mother (or another mare)?
The importance of colostrum to the foal's health and its ability to fight disease can't be understated. Newborn foals, like calves and lambs, get all their immunity from colostrum, which tides them through until they are able to produce their own antibodies at around six months of age.
Timing is everything
Timing for colostrum ingestion is vital. A foal's intestine is specially developed to be able to absorb these important immune proteins from colostrum, however, the ability to absorb these proteins is time limited.
Absorption only occurs in the first day of life. After this time, the uptake mechanism closes and colostrum cannot be absorbed.
Colostrum also needs to be of a good quality. Good colostrum is thick, yellow to honey-like in colour and sticky.
Some mares don't make enough colostrum, or it may have a low concentration of immune proteins. To ensure the colostrum you give to the foal is good enough quality, it is wise to test it soon after foaling. That way, if needed, the foal can be given an alternative source before its ability to absorb immune proteins is lost.
You can check the quality of colostrum using a Brix Refractomer (or colostrometer). This simple device uses light to gauge the thickness.
A reading of ≥ 20% is good quality colostrum and has good quality antibodies.
We have Brix Refractometers available at all our clinics, so if you don’t have one as part of your foaling kit, we recommend trying it this year and see your results!
Click here to see our guide on how to use the refractometer.
There are a number of scenarios that can result in a foal not getting enough colostrum, including:
Mares that run milk before foaling can lose colostrum,
Some mares don't produce quality colostrum;
Foals that are weak may not suckle well, or soon enough.
We can check a foals antibody levels/colostrum absorption via a simple blood test, which can be done from 8 hours of age. Doing this test before the foal is 24 hours of age means that supplemental colostrum can be given if their levels come back as low.
If the test is done later and shows poor colostral antibody levels, giving additional colostrum wont bring these up, as the absorption mechanism has closed. In these instances, antibodies from another horse can be given through plasma.
Plasma is, however, an expensive biological product produced from other horses, so early detection and correction with quality colostrum, within the uptake period, is by far the best means to boost immunity.
Foals without colostral immunity are open to getting infections that they normally should be able to fight off.
High antibody levels confer protection from blood borne bacteria, while low colostral antibody levels predispose foals to infections from these bacteria. Of particular concern are joint infections, wounds and diarrhoea.
The immune proteins in colostrum can survive being frozen. Many studs and veterinary clinics have a bank of colostrum to give to foals that may not have had sufficient levels/quality.
Thawed colostrum can be bottle fed to foals or given by stomach tube. Due to the critical value of colostrum to the foals' wellbeing, we would advise giving supplemental colostrum if there is any doubt about adequate colostral transfer.
Extra colostrum by bottle or stomach tube is a very simple, inexpensive procedure compared to giving plasma IV at a later date.