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An expectant hush lies over the barren winter landscape as foaling season prepares to kick into full gear in Shelby County.
A few foals are beginning to emerge to greet the world around the county, and so far, few problems have surfaced, those in the equine industry say.
“The mares have started to foal; we had one last night [Tuesday], a gorgeous filly,” said Linda Bennett of Equine Services in Simpsonville.
Jim Ellis, president of MORE (Maintain Our Rural Environment) said that approximately 700 foals are born in Shelby County each year. That figure encompasses all breeds, he said.
“I feel pretty comfortable with that number because I’m basing that off our last ag census,” he said.
Hoppy Bennett, owner of Undulata Farm, said that approximately 400 of those are Saddlebred foals.
“That includes the thirty that we are expecting here at Undulata,” he said.
Bennett said his first foal is scheduled to be born Feb. 2. “We will be foaling all the way through July,” he said.
Stout explained that the practice of breeding horses in the middle of February got started because the gestation period of 11 months will bring the birth up to January or early February.
“The older the foal, the more advantage it has as a yearling for sales purposes, and as a 2-year old as an athlete,” he said.
Weather is always an issue, but most foals are born inside anyway, because mares are stabled at night.”
Richard Griffin, a veterinarian at Equine Services, said it’s kind of early to tell if there will be any issues in that area this year.
“We haven’t had enough born yet to speculate if there’s anything abnormal,” he said. “So far, everything is looking good.”
Griffin said a few mares have shown signs of having nocardia-form, which has at times been an issue around the state.
“It’s a common bacteria that we see in central Kentucky that can affect the placenta,” he said. “I’ve seen a couple that we’ve had that might have had that, but all the foals are fine.”
Deborah Maples, a veterinarian and researcher at the University of Kentucky’s Livestock Disease Diagnostic Lab, said people have to be careful not to mistake other conditions with nocardia-form.
“There are some instances where the placenta has a strange look to it and think it could be noacardia-form, when in fact, you can’t be absolutely sure unless you test for it,” she said.
Maples said the lab has seen a couple of cases of it this year.
Kentucky State Veterinarian Robert Stout said that the condition always shows up a few times each year across the state, but he has not seen any indication that it is anymore predominate this year than usual.
“Certainly we have several January foals, but we’re very early yet,” he said. “The bulk of the foals will come later. I get a weekly report from the diagnostic lab, and I haven’t seen any increase in [norcardia-form] those.”
Labor of love
For Bob and Wendy Johnson, who have operated their breeding farm, Copper Coin, for 40 years, the foaling season is the culmination of their entire year.
“We keep a close eye on them, and we know when they are getting ready to foal, and we have cameras everywhere, so when they go into labor, we know it, because we want to be there,” Bob Johnson said. “We have not missed a birth in 40 years.”
The Johnsons watch for signs of labor, the mare starts to circle, and then she lies down. Twenty or 30 minutes later, the foal begins to emerge, feet first, Johnson said.
“They don’t usually have much trouble, but we grab the feet to help them out; when the shoulders are out, the worst is over,” he said. “Then the little guy is up in about an hour. He sticks his legs out kind of wide at first to get his balance, but before long, he is wobbling around, looking for the snack bar.”
Cooper Coin Farm expects 20 foals this year; the first is scheduled for Feb. 14.
“We moved our foaling season back just a little, because sometimes January weather can be a little rough,” Johnson said.
Their last mare, a blind horse that is an embryo recipient, will foal in June.
“Most farms around here get really busy in February, and they wrap things up by Memorial Day,” Johnson said.
Shelby County Veterinarian Jack Easley said he doesn’t know how many foals are scheduled to be born this season, but that the numbers of foals have been increasing steadily since 2008.
“They dropped dramatically when the economy dropped, but the numbers have been pretty steady for the past year or so,” he said. “I think now people are only breeding their good stock, where before if you had a mare, you just bred her. Now there’s really no outlet for an inferior horse, so people are being more selective about breeding, so they are breeding better quality horses.”
Easley said he wishes the breeder’s incentive program could get a boost in the state.
“Budget constraints have caused a lot of horses to leave the state and go to states that have better breeder’s programs, like New York and Maryland and Pennsylvania,” he said. “We’ve lost thousands of brood mares. and it will be a real challenge to re-establish them. We have mostly Saddlebreds here, as well as good feed companies, vets, and tack shops, but when the Thoroughbred industry starts taking a hit, a lot of those industries leave the state also, so that affects everybody.”
Watching for problems
The diagnostic lab lists a statewide animal health outlook on its Web site that Stout calls a bio-surveillance system. For Shelby County, two equine cases are listed, one equine sarcoid, which is growth on the horse’s skin, and also one case of equine modified transudate, neither of which is serious, he said. The latter is nothing more than a secretion issue, like a discharge, Stout said.
“I haven’t seen any issues yet,” he said. “We monitor a lot of diseases, and most of it is in the context of what is typical. We’re always going to see some abortions and some diseases, so we’ve come to expect that. But we haven’t seen anything yet this year, certainly not anything like we had with MRLS [Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome].
Stout said research has linked the Eastern Tent Caterpillar with outbreaks of mare reproductive loss syndrome, which can cause late-term foal losses, early-term fetal losses and weak foals, a situation that was very much a concern in Kentucky in 2001 and 2002.
“I remember very well when we had so many of them [caterpillars] that you couldn’t even see fence posts,” he said.
Easley said the foaling season is right on schedule and has been going well, but he said he has some concerns about another possible issue.
“The weather’s been decent, and if everybody will keep their mares off fescue grass, we’ll be doing great,” he said.
Easley said the only thing that has the potential to mar an otherwise great foaling season would be an issue with fescue, which is a winter grass that remains green during cold weather.
“Because we’ve had a milder than usual winter, the grass has continued to grow, and the cool season grasses, especially Fescue, is very toxic to pregnant mares,” he said. “ In Fescue grass and Fescue hay as well, there is a fungus that contains an alkaloid toxin called ergot and causes them to develop a placental thickening and the foals don’t develop right. Sometimes they have weak foals, or they don’t have enough milk, and it causes all kinds of problems.”