NZ’s Thoroughbred breeding industry becoming concentrated among the big studs, review finds

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An increasing proportion of New Zealand’s Thoroughbred breeding industry has become concentrated in a clutch of larger commercial farms over the last 20 years, a scientific review has found.

“Many of these farms manage their own mares, and the mares and foals of several clients,” the review team observed. This, in turn, has increased the similarities in the management of breeding and young stock within New Zealand.

The Massey University researchers set out to explore the growth and development of commercially bred horses in their review of nearly 70 published papers. It is the second in a three-part series exploring aspects of commercial horse breeding across the country.

The authors, writing in Animal Production Science, noted that, in contrast to most Thoroughbred racing nations, the majority of breeders in New Zealand focused on the large export market.

“This export focus and the contraction in the domestic market has seen increasing similarity in production processes across the commercial operators,” wrote Chris Rogers, Erica Gee, Charlotte Bolwell and Sarah Rosanowski.

The trend to sell Standardbreds as yearlings rather than the traditional base of owner-breeder-trainer has resulted in more intensive management of young stock in this industry, too, they noted.

The temperate New Zealand climate allowed a mostly pasture-based production system for breeding and growing horses. “This,” they wrote, “offers several advantages for the growth and development of the equine athlete, as this system permits free exercise during essential developmental periods.”

The predominant pasture is ryegrass-clover mix, which has been found to provide adequate nutrition for growth and development.

“The temperate climate also permits management of horses at pasture year round, which is proposed to stimulate development of the musculoskeletal system.”

Apart from a brief period during weaning, most young stock remained at pasture from birth until the start of yearling preparation. Free pasture access provided the chance to stimulate the musculoskeletal system for the future challenges as a racehorse, they said.

However, they noted: “Despite the availability of good-quality pasture post-weaning, many foals receive up to 50% of the daily dietary energy requirement as concentrates, possibly reflecting the emphasis on early sales as yearlings and the drive to optimise growth.”

One survey indicated that 87% of foals on 46 Thoroughbred studs were offered concentrate feed before weaning, and all weanlings were offered concentrate feed after weaning.

A large proportion of the Thoroughbred foal crop was exported as yearlings or ready to run two-year-olds, they noted.

The study team found that most commercial farms had designated foaling paddocks rather than a foaling box or stable. Foaling was overseen by attendants, who either monitored mares continuously or were alerted by foaling alarms attached to halters.

Birthweight and height data were not commonly recorded on commercial breeding farms.

They found there was limited data collected on the prevalence of limb deformities of foals on commercial breeding farms in New Zealand.

Management after weaning was largely dependent on whether the youngster would be entered in yearling sales, or held over for later sale.

The review team noted that, in the literature, there was only limited evidence of a link between feeding high levels of concentrate feed and an increased prevalence of problems in bone growth – developmental orthopaedic disease or osteochondrosis desicans .

Even so, commercial breeders have chosen to turn to greater use of “low-glycaemic feeds” and more fibre-based supplementary feed (generally lucerne), the authors noted.

“Despite this industry perception of associated risk (for what is a complex multifactorial problem), many farms will provide over 75% of the yearling digestible-energy requirement pre-yearling preparation as concentrate feed, despite maintaining the yearlings at pasture, which is capable of providing the majority of the young horse’s digestible energy and maintaining adequate growth rates.”

No data on the management or feeding of Standardbred yearlings during the yearling sale preparation was found in scientific literature.

“In contrast to the Thoroughbred, the proportion of the Standardbred foal crop offered for sale as yearlings is low and this has implications on the management of the yearling horses.

“The assumption is that feeding and management of the Standardbred as a yearling is generally more pasture based and less intensive.”

How many Thoroughbred and Standardbreds get to race? In some cases, as few as 50% of the foals born will enter in a race, the findings of studies suggest.

“A more accurate measure of wastage during the production phase is perhaps the percentage of foals that are never registered with a trainer.” Within New Zealand’s Standardbred industry, 32% of foals are never registered with a trainer, according to 2011 research.

There was a similar trend within the Thoroughbred industry, with 33% failing to be registered with a trainer, according to 2012 research.

Most sport horses, they noted, were not marketed as yearlings but as 3-4-year olds and were often started under saddle as riding prospects.

“This later age of sale, the perception of a slower-maturing horse and less commercial focus (60% of breeders breed as a hobby rather than as a commercial enterprise) translates to a pasture-based and less intensive management of the yearling and young horse.”

Rogers, Gee and Bolwell are affiliated with Massey University; Rosanowski with Britain’s Royal Veterinary College.

Commercial equine production in New Zealand. 2. Growth and development of the equine athlete Chris W. Rogers, Erica K. Gee, Charlotte F. Bolwell and Sarah M. Rosanowski.
Animal Production Science

The abstract can be read here

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