Foals aren’t born with antibodies inside them to help ward off disease. Actually, they have a functioning immune system in utero—but it’s one appropriate to an unborn foal in a sterile and protected environment. Once that baby hits the real world, it needs real-world immunity. Foals will get those important antibodies from their mother’s first milk, or colostrum. This is why it is critical your foal’s first suckle is before 24 hours old, while their digestive system is still able to absorb the colostrum. The rule of thumb is:
- Foal gets up within 1 hour
- Foal is nursing within 2 hours
- Mare passes the afterbirth within 3 hours.
As the foal gets older their stomach lining is less able to absorb critical colostrum, so you really want them nursing as soon as possible. 24 hours is the widely accepted limit at which the foal will no longer benefit from consuming colostrum and may need plasma antibodies instead.
Colostrum is the sticky, yellowish, first milk produced by the mare during the last few weeks of gestation and is stored in the udder until the foal suckles.
As your mare begins to produce milk, it will drip off the ends of her teats. This is commonly known as “waxing” as the dripping colostrum is thick and looks like 'wax' dripping from a burning candle.
Dripping of colostrum may occur 24 to 48 hours before foaling. Excessive loss of colostrum prior to foaling down may result in an inadequate supply for the foal. So keep an eye out and monitor closely - and if possible try to collect it! Collected colostrum can be stored in the fridge for a few days; or in a freezer for up to 12 months (remember to label it!).
Colostrum is full of antibodies (or immunoglobulins) that the mare’s mammary gland has concentrated from her bloodstream. These antibodies will give the foal protection from invading bacteria and will help keep the foal healthy until their own immune system is strong enough. Foals are only sensitive to IgG for the first 24 hours of their life. You can have a blood test done by your vet to check if they have received enough at 11 hours old. If they have not received enough there is still enough time to try giving fresh or frozen colostrum from another mare, or infuse with plasma... your vet will guide you in this decision. Foals with inadequate antibody levels, are very susceptible to often fatal diseases such as infected joints (joint-ill), pneumonia, diarrhoea etc.