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Feeding the Breeding Stallion
While often overshadowed by increased emphasis on broodmare nutrition, correct feeding of the breeding stallion remains a key part of the puzzle in the making of offspring.
Equine Nutritionist, 03/08/2020
The Keys to Success
• Careful management of body weight and condition is essential, both in the short and long term. Just as being too fat may impact his abilities, being too thin can also result in reduced desire and physical ability.
• Turnout opportunities can often be limited so a focus on forage quality and enrichment of his environment along with consideration for air quality is crucial.
Nutritional requirements for stallions range from 2-2.5% of their bodyweight in dry matter daily and they can easily have nutritional requirements comparable to that of the competition horse. Ultimate requirement depends on time of year, and during the breeding season, type (natural/assisted/AI) and frequency of covering and whether this is concurrent with other exercise. Just like all horses, the working stallion should be fit not fat, and achieving this balance will not only aid in facilitating the fundamentals like libido, but also his physical ability to cover mares. Furthermore, longer term implications regarding the longevity of his career may also be apparent; excessive weight increasing the risk of strain and wear on the musculoskeletal system.
For this reason, body condition scoring of stallions is essential. Just as being too fat may impact his abilities, being too thin can also result in reduced desire and physical ability. Ideally a stallion should enter the breeding season with a lean to moderate body condition score (4-6 on a 9-point scale) but just like any horse, the desired body condition should be influenced by knowledge of the individual including breeding history and age. For example, for a stallion who maintains his body weight and condition up to the start of the breeding season and then sharply declines, his management could be tailored so that he may enter the season at a score of 6 out of 9 to give more of a buffer and opportunity to maintain condition throughout. For shuttle stallions or those travelling long distances for natural coverings, keeping tabs on bodyweight and condition is crucial to maintaining performance across the season.
Many factors affect dietary decisions for the breeding stallion, from temperament and behaviour, to expected breeding workload as well as any additional commitments like competing. A stud specific feed is typically desirable, within this, the option of either a balancer, cube and/or mix. Note that when it comes to the basics, the same rules apply, balancers being the lowest in calories (energy) and starch, a combination of a balancer and mix or cube being the middle ground, with the full ration of stud cubes or mix being the highest calorie option. The main difference between stud specific feeds and those aimed at the general horse population is that these feeds typically provide a higher level (and often quality) of protein, along with slightly elevated quantities (or adjusted ratios) of some micronutrients implicated in growth and development. Ultimately, as for any horse, which product or combination of products is most suitable is largely dependent on individual factors (age, workload, temperament etc.) along with the quality of the forage ration. As always, basing the diet on good quality forage will reduce the reliance on hard feed and help reduce overall starch intake.
Commencement of breeding season and workload increases can impact appetite with stallions commonly ‘backing-off’ their feed. For this reason, palatability and quality of the ration are key. Selecting palatable hard feed rations designed to be fed in small volumes alongside high quality forage and employing methods such as steaming forage may all be beneficial in increasing palatability and therefore intake. Basing the diet on a good quality forage can help to reduce reliance on hard feed, essentially ‘spreading the risk’ and therefore moderating the impact for those exhibiting poor appetite.
When reviewing the feeding options of stallions, consideration of limited turnout opportunities is important. Subsequently, they may have increased reliance on conserved forage (hay or haylage) as their main fibre source and therefore maximising the quality and intake of this is key. Alongside careful selection and management of forage, enrichment of the ration through means such as offering a selection of forage sources (hay, haylage and alfalfa) as a ‘buffet’ or involving different forage presentations, for example slow feeders should be considered.
Various supplements are also available which purport to aid fertility in the stallion. While more research is required, fatty acid-based supplements may have a place in the management of the sub-fertile stallion as part of a holistic approach and should accompany assessment of the diet as a whole. Regardless of whether or not you decide to supplement, remember that for dietary changes to have the opportunity to impact fertility, changes need to be made at least two months ahead of the breeding season, the process of sperm development taking just under 60 days.
Management of the stallion should be approached just like any other performance horse, optimising management to help facilitate a longer and happier working life. Careful consideration of the feed ration should not only strive to meet nutritional requirements but also to offer opportunities for enrichment, longevity and health.
McDonnell, S.M. (2005) Techniques for extending the breeding career of aging and disabled stallions. Clinical Techniques in Equine Practice, 4 (3): 269-276
Freitas, M.L. et al., Quality of fresh, cooled, and frozen semen from stallions supplemented with antioxidants and fatty acids, Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 46: 1-6.