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  • Writer's pictureMatt Woolfolk

MRW Memo November '22: Look Across the Fence

One of Erika's breathtaking photos from our Kentucky trip. This stallion, named Hard Spun, was 2nd in the Kentucky Derby in his racing career!

Outside of the cattle business, perhaps my biggest interest since I was a little boy is the sport of horse racing. As an adult, the breeding and sales side of the industry moreso garners my attention. When Erika and I traveled to Kentucky in October, we experienced both the racing and breeding pieces. We spent a day at the races at Keeneland Racecourse and toured two of the leading breeding operations in the country. We got to meet two Kentucky Derby winners and several other leading stallions. For this post, I’m going to highlight some of the major differences we learned in breeding Thoroughbreds compared to breeding beef cattle.

- No advanced reproductive technology. To register a foal with The Jockey Club (the governing body for Thoroughbred racing), the mare must have been naturally bred by the stallion. With the need for natural mating, mares are closely monitored for when they are in season to be bred, being ultrasounded often to determine when the peak time for conception will be (and scheduling a breeding appointment at the stallion facility). These matings are not an “open the gate” type deal, either. Both stallion and mare are closely monitored and prepped for biosecurity and horse safety before entering specially designed breeding barns. With million-dollar creatures involved, no detail is left unattended.

- To get to the breeding barn is a different process as well, more like applying to college than planning cattle matings! Farms with a roster of stallions set the “stud fees” for the roster in the fall prior to spring breeding season. These fees range from $5,000 to $200,000 on the farms we toured. Mare owners submit their mares to consideration for stallions they feel would fit their mare and their budget. Then, the team at the stallion farm reviews applications to select which mares are accepted to visit each of their studs that spring, as most stallions have a set number of mares they will breed in a season. Mare owners do not have to pay the stud fee until the mare delivers a live foal that stands up and nurses the following year.

- Sales season is quite different. The pace and atmosphere at a Thoroughbred auction are more subdued, but the dollars being bid are serious money! You will see more coats and ties on the sales staff than cowboy hats. Catalog styling is different as well (no pictures, only production records printed). When sales results are reported, the Thoroughbred industry is more transparent with their “no sales”. The major sales report a percentage of horses that “RNA”, meaning Reserve Not Attained, and you can find individual animal results after the sale (including the horses who were RNA and what their reserve price was).

With those major differences, there are plenty of similarities. Marketing is very important to get the best mares bred to your stallion, and results at the yearling sales can make or break a stallion’s career, much like a new AI bull. There’s no guarantee that the hot young prospect will be the breed’s next great sire, either. While the criteria and information available may be different between our cow herd and a Thoroughbred operation, the goal remains the same: to breed the best animals possible with available resources. It would be cool if we as cattlemen got to delay the payment on semen until the live calves were on the ground, though!

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