Covid shows the need to plan for Artificial Insemination

Despite the shut down of so many industries, the horse breeding season was able to continue in the UK, Ireland and France. It benefits from its classification as an agricultural activity. Agricultural activity is of course essential to ensure a stable food supply.  However, thoroughbred breeding isn’t about food production and in a possible future pandemic,  travelling thousands of mares to stallions in their own countries or overseas may not be allowed. They say you should never let a crisis go to waste and now is the time to agree on a set of rules to cover the use of Artificial Insemination in horses.  AI is by far the best option to ensure that breeding can proceed as normal in the event of a future disease outbreak (human or animal). The move to AI should also be linked to new stallion book quotas such as the upcoming US limit of 140 mares.

The Benefits of Artificial Insemination

Compared with live covers, artificial insemination offers the following benefits:

  1. Cost efficiencies
  2. Environmentally friendly (transport of a straw versus a mare)
  3. Improved disease control (reduction in animal and human movements)
  4. Improved choice for breeders

With a global pick of stallions, even for low value mares, we can reverse the narrowing of the equine gene pool. It is this narrowing of the gene pool which has prompted the proposed US cap of 140 mares per stallion. The ‘traditionalists’ chief concerns have been

a) the fear of huge crop sizes

b) a reduction in stallion diversity

c) the practical issue that foals conceived by AI are not eligible for inclusion in the stud book

d) danger that new stallions won’t get a chance as stallion semen is used after the death of a stallion

These fears can be overcome. Taking these issues in turn:

a) Huge crop sizes are already a reality (Soldier of Fortune covered 341 mares in 2017 and 261 in 2019). The marketplace will find a level at which demand (finite) will equal the new level of supply (almost infinite).  After an adjustment period, I do not envisage the top stallions greatly exceeding some of the current crop sizes. Better still, a cap can be put in place in terms of the maximum number of foals registered for each sire in a given year. The proposed US cap of 140 is a useful starting point- see my previous post http://www.montjeu.com/140-a-useful-restrictiona-straw-in-the-wind/ for a full discussion on that issue.

b) Available stallion options will increase. To take an example, Irish breeders will have ready access to sons and grandsons of Sunday Silence or AP Indy, without having to ship the mares to Japan or the US.

c) The rules around registrations are not unalterable and previously Kentucky considered allowing AI during a disease outbreak. Faced with the prospect of a dramatically curtailed or non-existent foal crop or a legislative change, what do you think will happen?

d) A rule can be introduced that straws can only be used for 2 months after the death of a stallion. This avoids a situation where Galileo is still champion sire in 2050 🙂

Conclusion

AI works successfully for other horse breeds such as quarter horses. The use of AI, linked to quotas can stop the narrowing of the gene pool. This is what the American Jockey Club is trying to achieve with its cap of 140 mares. Breeding needs to work on its green credentials and the reduction in road and air miles due to the elimination of mare transport will be significant.

Covid has changed everything. However there were previous disease outbreaks such as foot and mouth that also threatened the viability of the current breeding system. We should plan for a new system now before some future disease outbreak threatens the loss of an entire foal crop. Lenin once said “there are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen”. The last few weeks meet that description. AI is still unthinkable for many, but once it has happened, people will wonder what all the fuss was about. The benefits outweigh the costs. The world has changed. Breeding needs to change….

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