Many Kentucky Mares Now Holding Pregnancies at Normal Rate; Impact Seen at 21% of Crop

An informal survey of Central Kentucky farms on May 21 suggests the worst may be over as far as mare reproductive loss syndrome is concerned. While heavy losses already have been incurred, particularly involving maiden and barren mares bred in February, the good news is that mares bred from late March on appear to be holding their pregnancies at close to normal percentages.

Based on the surveys and on the normal distribution of Kentucky foals born between January and June, The Blood-Horse estimates the 2002 Kentucky foal crop will decrease by no more than 21%.

One large breeding operation provided statistics that showed the following:

Feb. 10-28 -- 87% of mares bred during this period lost their pregnancies; ultrasound examination indicates the remaining pregnancies "are not very promising."

March 1-14 -- 50% of mares bred during this period lost pregnancies; others "look pretty good."

March 15-March 31 -- 21% of mares bred during this period lost pregnancies.

April 1-14 -- 13% of mares bred during this period lost pregnancies; farm's normal loss range is between 5-10%.

April 15-30 -- 3% lost pregnancies.

Another major farm experienced losses with 61% of its pregnancies from February covers, 38% from March covers, and no losses from April covers. Yet another operation reported losing its first 21 pregnancies from February covers, then saw a steady decline in losses during March; from April 1 onward, only one of the mares reported pregnant has come up empty. Another farm hit hard by February cover losses reported its numbers improved significantly in early March and were quickly back in the "normal" range.

"That's very consistent with our experience," said one farm owner. "From our perspective we seem to have gotten past the worst of it."

"February was a complete disaster, it was the epicenter," another farm owner said. "After February (covers), we began seeing 50% fewer problems about every two weeks. We're back in the range now that's pretty much normal."

Using these anecdotal reports, The Blood-Horse projects a foal crop of approximately 7,900, a 21% reduction from the 10,000 that might have been expected next year. January foals (which account for less than 10% of the annual crop), will be hardest hit, since the percentage of mares bred in February sustained the most losses of pregnancies. February foals (approximately 19% of the annual crop) are projected to decline by an estimated 60%; March foals (approximately 28% of the crop) are projected to decline by an estimated 20%; April foals (approximately 27% of the crop) are projected to decline by 10%; May foals (approximately 18% of the crop) are projected to increase by 15% (due to mares that lost early pregnancies being re-bred); and June foals (less than 5% of the annual crop) are projected to increase by 25% (for the same reason). When these numbers are blended together, the 2002 Kentucky crop is projected to total 7,900, or 21%. Based on a previous story in The Blood-Horse, a 20% decline would have a negative economic impact in excess of $150 million.

Meanwhile, researchers continue to investigate the potential causes. One Central Kentucky horseman who believes that a "Perfect Storm" scenario created conditions that led to a toxic fungus in pasture grass (warm, dry spring, punctuated by a sudden frost, then followed by more dry, hot weather), said his losses are directly proportional to time spent on pasture. "Mares without foals that were on pasture 22 hours a day were the ones who lost their pregnancies. Those on a different schedule, with foals by their side and kept up in the morning so they were on pasture no more than 16 hours a day...most of them held their pregnancies."

The economic impact is immediate for farms that have lost boarding business after clients insisted on sending their mares out of state. Other losses will hit in stages: stud fees, sale commissions, feed, etc. These losses will be substantial.

Federal assistance is not out of the question, and is something the American Horse Council, Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, and National Thoroughbred Racing Association are exploring. Other agricultural industries hit by natural disasters (floods, drought, frosts) are eligible for relief, usually in the way of no-interest or low-interest loans. The horse industry is claiming it should be no different.