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Posts Tagged ‘Embryo transfer’

I like people to have opinions. But I don’t like irrational, dogmatic viewpoints that can hold back the development of our industry.

That’s why I was cheering to myself as I read the article in the Harness Racing Update newsletter of 28 March by Dean Hoffman “Embryo Transfer Foals Often Shunned”.

It confronted the belief that foals born via enbryo transfer are inferior to those born via their genetic dam.

Some years ago I was also against embryo transfer, thinking that going with nature is better in the long run. It was only when I forced myself to do some more research on the topic, to think it through logically, and to look at how “natural” and “unnatural” processes are applied unevenly across horse breeding, that I changed my mind.

What surprised me most in this journey is the absolute lack of reasonable arguments put up against embryo transfer by those who object to it. I struck this personally when I advocated that breeders should have the option of breeding two foals from one mare per season (with some clear parameters set). I found many breeders supported the idea strongly. Others said they were against it, but I could find not one person who could put up a logical reason why they were against it. The most I could get was “It isn’t natural.” Well, strictly, that’s correct. In the same way that artificial insemination and frozen semen being flown across hemispheres is not natural. And in the same way that many mares will have a twin foal artificially “popped” at a very early stage, for the good of the mare and remaining foal. And I guess the pacing gait itself is not truly natural. But “That’s not the same.” Isn’t it?

Mare and newborn foal

Nature and nuture – it’s not one or the other.

What is the influence of a surrogate mare?

Let’s have a look at the argument that the natural (genetic) dam gives more to her foal than just the genes. It is true that a foal receives very important nuturing through the embryo stage in terms of what the mare eats, and maybe through physical/chemical/hormonal responses of the mare to stress. Similarly when the foal is at foot, the behaviour of the mare can have a huge impact on a foal, from the risk of being kicked by a bad tempered or easily frightened mare, to a mare that doesn’t like being suckled or has milk quality issues, to following bad or good habits by imitating what mum does. (My mare Zenterfold has a habit of raising her front leg and “pawing” the air when she is anxious or fed up, and this is something that I have seen passed on to several of her foals including Destination Moon, The Blue Lotus and Thephantomtollbooth, and even the latest Rock N Roll Heaven weanling. But whether that is some hard-wired genetic trait or just copying an observed action during early formative months spent close to the mare, I have no idea.)

What seems to be important, then, is the quality of the mare that carries the foal. If there are good reasons why a well-performed, well-bred mare isn’t going to make a good “natural” mother in that breeding season – it might be temperament, age, the fact she is racing, illness or injury, a history of slipping foals or poor milk quality,  etc – then embryo transfer is a sensible (but not cheap and sometimes not easy) option. Surrogate mares are chosen because of the qualities they offer – good temperament, healthy, high quality milk and so on.

Combining good genes with a more reliable surrogate mare makes a lot of sense in those sorts of cases – which will always be a small percentage of breeding.

However those against embryo transfer often make wild generalisations about ET foals not performing well, or not selling well. The reason many have not sold well is to do with the prejudice, as well covered in the Harness Racing Update article. And there have been many very well performed ET foals. Ironically the expense of ET probably means that the foal comes from a good mare/family. How well ET foals have performed compared to “natural” foals is a piece of research waiting to be done, but the numbers in New Zealand would probably be too small to draw hard-and-fast conclusions. What we do know is that there have been many examples world wide of top pacers and trotters earning very good lifetime stakes – indeed millions – who were ET foals.

What is so scary about ET?

ET not so scary

ET – not so scary when used to improve our breeding industry and protect our mares.

It’s my guess that some people associate embryo transfer with creating “egg banks” where multiple embryos might be up for sale from top mares, or perhaps there is a confusion with cloning. Some mention the “weird” scenario of having same-aged half-siblings all from one mare racing against each other competitively in a race. Oh, sort of like we have with multiple half-siblings by Bettor’s Delight, Mach Three or Changeover etc right now…. Hmmm. Yet what’s good for the gander appears to be outrageous for the goose!

The downsides to multiple foals are easily catered for with common sense criteria and rules (see earlier link).

Interestingly, the Harness Racing Update article highlights that opposition of trainers to ET foals makes them harder to sell. I’m not sure if that has been the case at New Zealand yearling sales – it used to be, but I will try to check back in terms of prices over the years and see what the story is. We all know how trainers often prefer one or two sires, and how some top trainers will not even look at stunning yearlings that are outside those favourites. It’s their prerogative of course. But when it comes to ET foals I doubt if future owners give a damn, so long as the foal grows into a winner.

So my plea is for all of us – trainers, breeders, and owners – to keep an open mind and debate with real arguments rather than gut feelings, lack of knowledge or simple prejudice. None of us can afford to put blinkers on.

It’s a good topic to talk about now, when breeding numbers are falling and our industry is needing to plan for the future. The future use of ET is no more scary than AI used to be. It’s just a matter of being proactive and setting rules that are good for all, including the mares.

And applying principles across male and female horses fairly, as covered in a previous blog.

 

 

 

 

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The answer is: YES. Stallions and mares have different rules.

What I am less sure about is the WHY. Sure, when it comes to racing I know it needs tougher and exceptional fillies and mares to step up to compete in the best classes – and it can be done.

But when it comes to breeding, I believe the only reasons for separate rules for the males and the females is for the health of the horse, the impact on the overall industry, and the ability for those investing ( the breeders) to get a fair go at a return.

That’s why I read with a lot of interest the American newsletter Harness Racing Update which talked about the mixing of siring duties with a horse that continues his racing career. As the article said (and it is a good article, well written and reasoned) there are many horses in Europe who have done this for years, and in North America the penny is just starting to drop. You can have a bet each way, if the stallion is able and willing and managed correctly. I really like that idea, as it keeps great male horses racing (with an added incentive to keep proving their worth) and it allows those slightly-less famous horses with great breeding and/or performance a chance to prove their worth in the breeding barn.

So…why is there the resistance to mares doing the same? The resistance to embryo transfer has been (still is?) enormous and bureaucratic compared to the freedom stallions now have to race and breed at the same time. It is regarded as something almost scandalous to take an egg off a racing mare. If our champion mare of today Adore Me used a surrogate mare to breed a foal while she raced on, how would you feel about that?

Now compare that to how you feel about a champion stallion having a go at siring in his off season with 20 or more mares.

male femaleIt’s about transferring sperm and eggs. It’s not rocket science.

The rules changed when AI was approved. And the rules need to be reviewed in the light of the current industry’s future. The focus needs to be more on industry needs and horse welfare, than the ideological resistance of some people based on – how do I say this politely? – prejudice that may be a remnant of our own human struggle with inequality among the sexes.

Another example is the ability of a sire, via artificial insemination (AI) to cover in theory many hundreds of mares across a range of countries. Whereas a mare (although accessing a number of sires potentially), must settle on one stallion – you hope – to get pregnant during one season.

Isn’t this a form of wastage, when compared to the stallion’s options?

A while back I floated the idea of a mare being able to get more than one foal per season via surrogate mares. It was greeted with a warm reception from many breeders who saw how, like stallion owners, you need to maximise you investment while you can.

But the effort to get things changed – particularly internationally – seems a long way off. I doubt if it has been more than “raised”, if that.

If that is the case, then I think breeders are being short-changed.

More than that, I think the old arguments about what is okay for the boy but wrong for the girl are lurking in a way that a future looking industry doesn’t need.

You can put good rules around anything. If you REALLY want to. It just takes effort and good will.

I’d go for just allowing a mare to breed twice in a season (hey, we know it is hard enough to get one positive strike, but it would be lovely to have two options).

And that would be enough to double the potential breeding of each mare in New Zealand, although reality is that the cost of providing for good surrogate mares has to be taken into account and only breeders with good quality mares would probably look at the option. But isn’t that the right signal?

The results for the industry would be more foals on the ground, from quality mares. And probably from more diverse sires, if the rules were set correctly.

We are so used to seeing top sires dominating the progeny in one race – Bettor’s Delight, Sundon, Mach Three, etc.

Why are we so adverse to seeing a mare’s name more than once on the ledger?

It makes you think, eh.

Anyone reading my blog will know how much I love the mares I have. This is not about “being greedy”. It is about opening our minds to think EQUALLY and FAIRLY about breeding. In the end, the choices are still (and should be) individual and personal and with some sound financial basis, and within the rules. But maybe it is time to change those rules to a more equitable situation between sires and mares.

What do you think? Responses welcome to this blog.

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I’ve never been keen on embryo transfers except when the mare is unable (for whatever reason) to carry naturally.  I worried about us getting into a ‘factory farming’ situation where the complex mix of nature (genes) and nuture (early upbringing) was lost in the hurry to make money above all.

I’ve changed my mind. Not my principles, just my mind.

I believe the ability to breed two foals per season from one individual mare creates opportunities for the breeder and the industry overall which just cannot be discounted. And I believe two foals should be the limit.

Of course, the idea will be discounted. I am sure there is a piece of obscure government legislation, some racing industry committee or board, or just a clause in HRNZ rules that requires everyone to unanimously agree on changing from the status quo…well, I’m not interested at this stage about why we CAN’T do this. I am only interested in discussing whether it will help our breeding and overall harness racing industry, given the decreasing number of foals and breeders we have.

It’s not exactly going to open the floodgates – but it may help the flow.

So let’s tick off what the benefits could be:

For breeders

  1. It allows a potentially greater and more frequent return on investment (the broodmare) over her limited productive years. Therefore it makes a good broodmare a sounder financial investment (even allowing for the cost of embryonic transfer and an additional carrier mare), and gives the breeder more opportunity in a shorter period of time to discover the ability of the mare as a producer.
  2. It gives breeders the chance to spread their risk among a wider range of sires. For example, a breeder may go to a “tried and true” top commercial sire with one foal and a risky but exciting new sire with the other. Or perhaps a compatible but less commercial sire, and keep the foal to race. So newer or well priced sires may benefit from this proposal, and get access to better quality mares.
  3. It allows breeders more chance to get one healthy foal, and perhaps a foal of the sex they prefer. The high risk nature of breeding means that any significant conformation problem or injury, or even getting a filly rather than a colt, can prove a real disappointment to the breeder and impact hugely on the likely sales result or racing outcome. Double the chance does not double the risk – it may not half it, but it can reduce it significantly.
  4. More breeders using embryo transfer will bring down the costs of the process, and therefore cost will be less of a barrier.
  5. It creates a new ‘career option’ for mares who are not commercially bred but have the qualities to make really good carriers and ‘surrogate mums’ to their foals. Some mares may have a top record and carry great genes but are not the best at delivering and raising foals. And some mares may not have top (or desired) breeding, but have the good nature, physique and quality colostrum to add value to a foal. Rather than creating the ‘factory farming’ scenario I was worried about, embryo transfer can create a market (lease or sale) for mares who may otherwise be lost to us – and they could still be available to breed in their own right if required. Some breeders will already have mares more suitable to be surrogate mums than to continue as commercial broodmares.
  6. The limit of two foals per mare per season (and from different sires) means that the market will not be inundated with “doubles”. This is not a cloning exercise. It is likely that numbers will be a very small proportion of total foals initially. So breeders will not be ‘competing against themselves’ and the overall genetic pool will not be unduly affected. Much less affected, indeed, than it is by the tsunami of sperm coming from highly popular sires!

It is easy enough to note ET at registration of foals – an administrative hassle no doubt, but what isn’t. And in any subsequent notation a simple (E) after the name could provide the flag required for those who want to know and for the record the surrogate mare’s name should be recorded.

Who would take up an option like this? Not heaps of breeders, initially. But more as the merits sink in. Probably it would appeal to the biggest breeders, and also the smallest. The latter being people like me, who have a really good mare but rely on her results for any re-investment in breeding, which makes expanding a slow and fragile venture.

Of course some breeders may want to breed a mare twice every second year.  The mare is not exhausted from breeding and there are many who believe resting a mare can produce a quality foal.

So for the industry:

  1. It creates a way of increasing foal numbers without necessarily increasing the number of mares bred – it helps stop the downward spiral of breeding numbers.
  2. It creates opportunities for less proven “higher risk” sires to get progeny on the ground, and perhaps from a better class of mares. It may well be a requirement to breed a mare to two DIFFERENT sires in any one season, if embryo transfer is being used, to encourage this to happen.
  3. It creates more services/service fees for the studs and sire owners, both of whom are important for our industry’s success.
  4. It has the potential to raise the quality and (ironically) the diversity of our breed.
  5. It does not impact negatively on the product (race horses) as perceived by the investing punter.

What do you think?

And before you say: “it’ll never fly” just remember that pigs don’t, but bumble bees do!

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