Every breeder will know that the most critical meal in any horse’s life is its very first one, due to the vital antibodies which are packed in the colostrum (the rich first milk).
Unlike humans, mares do not pass protective antibodies across the placenta to the foal in the uterus.
These life-saving proteins must be absorbed when the foal suckles the colostrum in the first few hours of life.
This milk is packed with antibodies to protect the foal against bacteria and viruses in the environment. Later, the foal will produce its own antibodies.
We have always thought of the protective value of colostrum purely in terms of antibody levels – in fact, vets routinely measure them.
But scientists at Cornell University in New York have recently shown that colostrum is high in more than just antibodies.
They measured the circulating levels of another group of proteins called cytokines, which are essential for combating infection in adult horses.
By taking samples from newborn foals before they suckled and then resampling them two days later, they showed conclusively that there was a significant rise in circulating cytokines, which had come from the colostrum.
Interestingly, the level of cytokines was not always proportional to the level of antibodies, which means that the two protective systems are in some way independent.
It seems that colostrum is even more valuable than we thought.
To read the full veterinary article on the latest foal researcha and developments see the current issue of H&H (8 March 2012)