A mare’s first milk contains ingredients crucial to the health of her new foal. Colostrum serves as a gut stimulant to help the foal pass his first bowel movements and also contains a creamy fat–high in energy and easily digested. A foal that gets right up and nurses within an hour or two of birth is more vigorous, more able to keep warm on a cold night, than a foal that has not yet nursed.
Dr. Charles Briggs (Beckwith Veterinary Clinic, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) says the antibodies in colostrum are especially important. These antibodies have been produced by the mare (in her immune response to various disease organisms) and accumulated in the colostrum she produces just prior to the foal’s birth. A foal is born immune deficient and must acquire temporary protection from disease (a passive immunity) via immunoglobulins (antibodies) in the dam’s colostrum. The foal has a very short window of time in which to obtain that passive immunity, while the membrane lining of the intestinal wall is still thin enough to allow antibodies (which are very large molecules) to slip through.
After he’s born, the intestinal lining becomes less permeable, says Briggs. “Years ago it was thought we had 24 hours to get colostrum into the foal, but then we realized that as soon as he’s born, this window starts to close down. So it’s best to get colostrum into the foal within the first hour. Then you know the foal gets it all–whereas if he takes four hours before nursing, there are some immunoglobulins he didn’t get; ability to absorb them diminishes as time goes on.”
Some foals don’t get enough to protect them from disease. If a foal is a little premature, his digestive tract may not be quite developed enough to absorb adequate antibodies. If a foal had a difficult birth, stress or oxygen deprivation can also compromise the digestive tract’s ability to absorb antibodies. If a foal is slow to get up and nurse for any reason, he may not ingest colostrum soon enough. FEEDING THE FOAL - “It’s easy enough for mare owners, if you’re there when the mare foals, to milk the mare and give the foal two to four ounces (60 to 120 cc) of colostrum. Then you’ve got the bases covered and the foal can take all the time he needs to get up and nurse on his own," says Briggs. He also recommends giving an enema at the same time you’re giving the foal colostrum. He uses an enema consisting of two parts warm water and one part liquid dish soap (about 60 cc. of fluid, total).
If the foal is slow to get up, administering colostrum assures that the foal has the antibodies he needs. The colostrum will also give him strength to try to get up and find the udder. It’s not necessary to have the foal nurse (from a bottle) the colostrum you’ve milked. “Since the foal may still be lying down, I just milk the mare and use a 10 cc syringe to syringe the colostrum into the foal’s mouth after letting him nurse on my finger. Once he’s sucking my finger I stick the syringe into the side of his mouth and squirt it in. If the foal is lying down, I tilt him up (on his breastbone) so he’s not lying flat. A lamb nipple doesn’t always work well because it’s not very firm, and the milk may just dribble out the side of the foal's mouth,” he explains.
“With your finger, however, you can put pressure on the hard palate (roof of the mouth) and that stimulates him to suck. You can use your finger to get more sucking action as you squirt the milk in the side of the mouth.” Then the foal is swallowing the milk as you put it in, rather than having it ooze out the side of his mouth. "It’s frustrating to have it wasted after you’ve gone to the effort of milking the mare. Keep the foal’s head up as you are doing this, so the milk is not running down the side of the mouth and out again," says Briggs.
Milking a mare can be a challenge however. “A lot of people think that a mare has the same type of teats as a cow, but this is not the case.” Each teat of the mare draws milk from two quarters. If you are milking with your fingers, envision each teat as having a back half and a front half. If you stroke your thumb against the rest of your fingers, you tend to get more milk," he explains.
“I put my fingers behind the teat and use my thumb to pull the milk out of each of the cisterns (quarters). Mares’ udders are a little tender at this time; if you try to milk them the same way you would a cow–stripping the teat downward–this makes the teat sore and they tend to get cranky. It’s better to put your hand firmly against the udder, so the mare gets used to it being there, and then gently start moving the milk out of the gland,” he says.
INNOVATIVE NEW MARE MILKING DEVICE - The easiest way to quickly and safely milk a mare is with a new invention, the Udderly EZ milker–a hand-held trigger operated pump that snaps onto a flanged plastic cylinder that fits over the teat and screws onto a plastic bottle. After wiping the udder clean and squeezing the teat to make sure the “wax” plug is out of it, the soft flange is placed over the teat. A couple pulls of the trigger creates a vacuum in the bottle and milk flows from the teat, filling the bottle in seconds with just a few more pumps. You can get all the colostrum you need for that first feeding in less than a minute.
This is safer than milking by hand; you don’t have to bend down under the mare (at risk to be kicked). You just reach under to seat the pump on the teat and can keep one hand on the mare–and can stand out to the side, more out of the way of her hind feet. It’s also more comfortable for the mare’s teat because there’s no friction. It doesn’t make her teats sore like milking with your fingers. When milking a mare’s teats with thumb and fingers, it often irritates the tender skin.
The mare milker makes it much easier if you have to milk a nervous mare or do multiple milkings, as for a mare with mastitis (and very sore udder!) or a mare with a weak foal, or one that inherits incompatible blood type and must be fed milk from a different mare until his dam’s colostrum is gone. The dam must be milked out regularly for several days (as must the nurse mare, to feed the foal). Milking this often by hand always makes a mare’s teats sore, but with the pump you can do it quickly and easily with no irritation to the teats.
Dr. Glen Blodgett at the 6666 Ranch in Guthrie, Texas, has been using this new milker for a couple of foaling seasons and says it’s the best device he’s ever seen. “There’s been a tremendous need for something like this in our industry. We’ve either had to hand milk mares or use a 60 cc syringe (with the end cut off to fit over the teat) to aspirate the milk (and some people have used a human breast pump). But this Udderly EZ milker is a tremendous improvement over anything we’ve ever had, and it’s very easy to work with and use,” says Blodgett.
“If a mare is gentle enough for you to apply it to her teat, it will work,” he says. It’s actually less upsetting or irritating to a mare than trying to milk her by hand, because it takes so much less time and is more comfortable for her. The flange that fits over the teat comes in two sizes (for small teats and large ones) and does not create any friction.
“Some maiden mares with small teats are hard to get hold of with your fingers and this pump will work no matter what size the teats are,” says Blodgett. “It’s also much quicker, which can be a big factor when dealing with a nervous or cranky mare, and you’ve got the milk in a safe, clean receptacle,” he says. You are not trying to milk into a bottle or pan, or having to dump a 60 cc syringe several times into another container. With a syringe, you are limited on volume and have to dump it. The collection bottle under the pump has enough capacity to hold the milk you need (there are two sizes–a pint and a quart bottle) and keeps the milk clean–and without risk for spilling. Another advantage is being able to use it with one hand. It takes two hands to milk a mare any other way (to work a 60 cc syringe, or to hold a container under the teat while milking by hand) which leaves you shorthanded for holding or steadying the mare if you are working by yourself.
“The pump doesn’t make any noise that might spook the mare,” says Blodgett. When milking into a pan, bottle or pitcher, the noise of the milk stream hitting the container might alarm the mare. And if she moves around, you are at risk for spilling the milk. There’s no chance for spilled milk, using the pump.
“It’s very easy to clean when you are through. We rinse the whole thing in warm water, including the flanged part that fits over the teat, but the bottle snaps loose from the pump and can be thoroughly washed. It’s a great invention,” says Blodgett.
The foaling attendants at the 6666 ranch always milk a little colostrum from some of the mares, to have on hand for emergencies. If they have a mare that loses her foal, they milk out every drop she has. And if a mare has a problem that might be life threatening, they milk out all her colostrum, to feed her foal. FREEZING COLOSTRUM - Since it’s imperative to get colostrum into the foal soon after birth, many horsemen save some from a mare that has extra, to freeze and keep for emergencies–for when a mare may not have enough for her foal, or dies, or is difficult to milk. “If a mare has lots of milk and it appears to be good quality colostrum (thick and yellow), I advise people to put 60 cc in a self-sealing sandwich bag (or two if she has that much extra), label the bags (date), and freeze them,” says Briggs. “Research shows frozen colostrum is good for about a year. If you milk it in March, by April next year it may not be as good. If you have the opportunity, you can save some that’s fresher. Keep updating the emergency supply,” he says.
“Sandwich bags are nice because you can make them flat for freezing, and label them. They are also easy to thaw quickly. If I am expecting to have a problem with a mare, I start thawing a bag when she’s foaling or has just foaled. You can put the frozen bag in warm water and it thaws quickly because the flat bag has so much surface area. A lot of people microwave it but this can damage the antibodies. It thaws quickly enough in warm water, and you can make sure it’s proper temperature when you give it to the foal–nice and warm, just a little above body temperature,” says Briggs.
Another option is to use the plastic pint bottles that come with the Udderly EZ milker. You can order as many extra bottles as you wish. They are pre-labeled (you just fill in the date) and can be unsnapped from the pump, capped and put into the freezer–without the bother of having to pour into another container for freezing. LEAKING MILK BEFORE FOALING - Many people feel that if a mare leaks milk before foaling, her colostrum won’t be any good–that she will have lost important antibodies. “Mares can leak a lot of clear, white, watery fluid before foaling, however, without a problem, because the actual colostrum (with antibodies) is formed just prior to foaling. Mares with large teats may leak a lot of milk before they foal, but this isn’t a big problem if the fluid is clear and white rather than thick, sticky and yellow (colostrum),” he says.
“But if a mare is actually leaking colostrum, have your vet check the foal’s blood four to eight hours after he’s born, to make sure that he did absorb an adequate amount of colostrum during his first nursing to have some protection against disease,” says Briggs. Your vet can take a blood sample to check antibody levels.
Some mares drip or stream milk just before foaling or just after, losing valuable colostrum. This can be prevented, however, by using a special type of adhesive tape (for use on human skin) over the teats. This has proven to be a very effective way to prevent loss of colostrum, and the tape does not irritate the teat. It can be removed after the foal is born and you are ready to milk the mare or to have the foal nurse her.