I’ve just returned from the NZ Standardbred Breeders Conference in Christchurch on Friday 17 May. I applaud the organisers for gathering a great line up to get us thinking, and tip o’ the hat to Michael Guerin – his Q&A sessions with Karen Parsons and Cran Dalgety were a highlight, and his summing up at the end of the conference was a call to action that would have set the conference alight if it had come at lunchtime.
My only quibble with an otherwise very good conference: poor timing at the start meant the workshop/discussion session at the end was truncated and lacking focus. It was an ideal opportunity for John Mooney et al to get some support and direction from active and interested breeders through real workshopping of ideas. Having that number of well informed breeders from different parts of the country in the same room is rare. It creates an exchange of ideas that surveys and submissions can never achieve.
Perhaps a raft of workshops on specific ideas arising from the conference (and elsewhere) could be held around the country over the next 6 months to put some flesh on the bones and give some life to Mick Guerin’s apt comment that the breeding industry must settle on its priorities and get much more coordinated and clever about its tactics to push those into the wider harness racing (or general racing) agenda.
A quick note on two of the presentations:
Dr Jenny Cahill spoke on the importance of genetics. Her recap on the basic principle of “pairs” was an apt salute to the equal importance of sire and mare. It takes two to tango, right down to the chromosone level! She also placed a realistic perspective on the contribution of genetic making up to a performance horse, noting that complex inherited traits ( e.g. some performance measures, height, temperament, and a number of diseases) are affected by a number of genes and usually also modified by environmental factors (such as training and nutrition).
As equine genetic research moves into the field of complex traits, Dr Cahill said breeders need to feed into research programmes what they are most interested in finding out. For example, the dairy and beef industries are further down that path and have clear objectives of what research can help them produce better products for a changing market.
For some equine breeders, genetic research will be a step too far to contemplate, but it is going to happen. We must embrace and direct it, or we are just burying our heads in the sand. Dr Cahill says “the ultimate goal of this research is to be able to use the information gained for the good of the horse, owners, breeders and trainers and to be able to screen individual horses for these traits.” This would include testing for heritable conformation faults and diseases, and also good gaitedness and even the type of performance they are “wired” to achieve (speedy sprint, medium distance fast, stamina/slow).
All this has HUGE implications for breeders, buyers and sellers. Some thoroughbred markets are already using available information. How would we use it? What impact would it have on numbers bred and sold if we cut out all those horses in advance who will only make up the numbers in a race? How would it change our yearling sales, if overnight buyer-requested testing became available? Fascinating stuff to ponder!
Dr Clarissa Brown Douglas, speaking on nutrition of the mare and foal, gave a wealth of useful information, emphasising the importance of feeding correctly in those critical formative times. Her take-out messages were simple: Managing growth is a balancing act. The last trimester is a vital time to ensure the foal gets the minerals, trace elements and vitamins required. Get to know the nutritional value of what you are using – pasture and hay as well as commercial feeds and balancers.
Some of the facts that stood out for me:
- Mares milk lacks minerals so in that vital last trimester, the foal stores the minerals it needs in its liver for use during the first 90 days of its life.
- A foal is born with only 17% of mature bone mineral content, and maximum bone mineral content is not achieved until a horse is about 5 years old.
- The 6-12 month period of feeding a weanling is a “window of opportunity” and you need to monitor growth rate so you don’t overload the immature skeleton structure.
- Yearling preparation is best done gradually over 90 days.
- Be aware of the potential for high glucose/insulin response in young horses – low glycemic feeds are a good way to prevent this.
So it really makes you think about the pressure we put on such an undeveloped creature when we race horses as 2yos! And if we continue to do that, it places a big responsibility on breeders to lay the best foundation possible.
I am sure NZSBA will be publishing the papers presented by all speakers at the conference on their website. It’s great food for thought.
The industry analysis (both harness racing in general by Edward Renall, and breeding industry by John Mooney) provides some good basis for discussion.
But as Mick Guerin said, we need to pin down and agree on our priorities, and push our agenda forward in a united way. We will get nowhere by griping and sniping, riding the ocean like flotsam and jetsam, carried on currents that seem out of our control.
I grabbed a chance right at the end to raise my idea of increasing the breeding option to one foal and one ET per mare per season, outlined in other blogs. I got a strong positive response from several breeders to this suggestion – including a commitment from John Mooney to start following it up.
Likewise Brian West raised the need to get a monetary return into breeders’ hands via a % slice of stakes, as they do in France where breeders are recognised as the key investors in the industry’s product.
These ideas are not as “out of the box” as we might think. As I said, a series of workshops or think tanks around the country could pull together some recommendations.
Let’s get some fresh voices and fresh ideas in the mix.
Great conference, exciting times!