Thoroughbred owners and breeders in Central Kentucky are on high alert for signs or symptoms of mare reproductive loss syndrome, but, as of late January, they were preparing for the 2002 breeding season with a "business as usual" approach. The season traditionally begins Feb. 15.
Many farm personnel said they plan to attend a Feb. 4 MRLS discussion meeting in Lexington hosted by the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture. Speakers are scheduled to discuss plans to follow changes in weather and foaling patterns, tent caterpillar management, and a clinical synopsis of MRLS to date.
Thus far in 2002, no trends of foaling abnormalities have surfaced. Because of the 2001 losses registered in Kentucky (a University of Louisville economic impact study estimated 30% of the mares aborted their 2002 foals), fewer mares are carrying fetuses with early 2002 foaling dates. Foals that have hit the ground are healthy, officials said.
The University of Kentucky Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center reported it received 77 equine abortions for study from Dec. 30, 2001-Jan. 19, 2002. Over the same period in 2001 the center received 75 fetuses, and the mean number from 1996-2000 was 67.4. Last year, when approximately 500 foals of 2001 died from MRLS, the center received as many as 73 foals on one day.
"All indications are that we are having a normal foaling year in Kentucky," state veterinarian's office representative Rusty Ford said Jan. 23.
"I've purposely asked a lot of other farm managers how foaling is going," said Garrett O'Rourke, manager of Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farm near Lexington. "I would like to put minds at ease. We have six lovely foals, and they were all mares bred at the critical time."
Dr. Walter Zent, a reproductive veterinarian at Hagyard, Davidson, McGee equine clinic near Lexington, has closely monitored a group of 94 mares who conceived in February of 2001. Four have lost their foals, a number he said is "certainly within normal limits."
Mares who lost pregnancies within 60 days of breeding in 2001 seem to be on track to conceive and carry foals from 2002 covers. Both O'Rourke and Alfred Nuckols Jr., who owns Hurstland Farm near Midway, Ky., said even though they failed to get a number of mares in foal in 2001, those mares have cycled normally since September.
The downside is an expected glut of barren and maiden mares poised to enter breeding sheds in mid-February, when most expect to open.
"I will go out of my way to accommodate people so I can get them off the (appointment) books," said Nuckols, who stands six stallions. "I am set up for three breeding sessions (a day), but I prefer two."
Nuckols and Duncan Taylor of Taylor Made Farm near Nicholasville, Ky., said they hadn't programmed any of the mares on their farms, so they won't be competing with outside clients for breeding appointments. Programming, or giving hormones to manipulate a mare's cycle, can cause ovulation on a certain date. Mare owners across Kentucky could be aiming for ovulation around Feb. 10.
Nuckols, O'Rourke, and Taylor all said sales of stallion seasons have been slower than in past years.
O'Rourke said seasons to first-season sires are selling fast, while books to less popular stallions have been slower to fill due to MRLS. Nuckols attributed his slowdown in season sales to the economy. "For the past two years, with the recession, people are reluctant to commit," he said. "I think the people that breed to these horses aren't billionaires, and they have to plan more carefully."
Farm owners who rely on out-of-state boarders feared MRLS would scare off those clients, and in 2001, some did ship mares out of Kentucky earlier than usual. In most cases, mare populations are comparable to 2000 and 2001 numbers.
"There was a fair amount of anxiety among clients last year, and clients in Canada and Florida did take them home a little bit sooner," said Nick Lotz of Briarbrooke Farm near Paris, Ky. "But, some of those horses were going to go anyway. I do not anticipate a significant change over last year in total mare population or seasonal boarders."
Larry Smallwood, who manages Don and Dana Myers' Swifty Farms in Seymour, Ind., said mare movement will change in 2002. Seymour is about 130 miles from Lexington, and the farm breeds and foals a good percentage of its 70 mares in Kentucky.
"We're foaling twice as many mares in Indiana this year because we don't want to take a chance," Smallwood said. "We're being more attentive to what's going on in Kentucky. We'll breed a few more up here and see how things go."