Thursday, May 10, 2001

Foal deaths concern horse industry in Ky.

Stillbirths, miscarriages a mystery

By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Horse breeding season in central Kentucky normally is filled with unbridled optimism for the future, evoking images of foals frolicking over lush green pastures and colts thundering down the stretch at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby.

        This year, however, the staggering number of unexplained stillborn foals and spontaneously aborted pregnancies in the region's mares has sent an uncomfortable chill through those involved in the state's $1.2 billion horse industry.

        “It would be purely speculative to make any comment about the future of our industry right now because we really have no hard facts as to what we're dealing with,” Dan Rosenberg, farm manager at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, said Wednesday.

[photo] Kathy Shuck is senior lab technician at the University of Kentucky Equine Research Center, which is advising breeders to limit time mares spend in pastures.
(Associated Press photo)
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        Dr. Roger Augenstein, a Florence veterinarian who works with horses, said Wednesday he saw one case of a thoroughbred mare who lost a foal.

        “The only one I saw was (Tuesday),” Dr. Augenstein said. “That was one that was bred and boarded in Lexington and brought back (to Northern Kentucky) after she was pronounced to be with foal. It affects all breeds.”

        Dr. Augenstein said Northern Kentucky breeders are concerned and that he has visited 10 farms since Tuesday and expects to visit another six to eight today.

        Patrick Hale, the University of Kentucky agriculture and extension agent at the Kenton County office in Independence, had not heard of any stillborn foals in his county.

        Agents in Boone and Campbell counties could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

        A meeting to discuss the situation will be held at 5 p.m. today at the Keeneland Sales Pavilion in Lexington.

        The number of foal and fetus deaths is nearly seven times the normal rate in central Kentucky this spring.

        As of noon Wednesday, the University of Kentucky Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center had received 371 miscarried fetuses or stillborn foals for necropsy and other diagnostic testing.

        Some farms have reported miscarriage rates of 10 percent to 75 percent.

        Gus Koch, longtime farm manager at Claiborne Farm in Paris, said one of his mares gave birth to a stillborn foal last week. Over the weekend, he discovered that 10 more mares, which were early in their pregnancies, had aborted their fetuses.

        “I've never seen anything like this. Statewide and industry-wide, it could be devastating,” Mr. Koch said.

        Although a team of more than 24 scientists, veterinarians and farm managers have not yet pinpointed the cause of the problem, they have focused their work on several theories.

        The most logical hypothesis is that Kentucky's warm, dry spring followed by several hard freezes allowed a toxin to develop in grasses eaten by horses.

        A fescue endophyte, a grass fungus, can create toxic levels of chemicals known to cause similar symptoms, said UK pasture specialist Jimmy Henning.

        “The chemicals interfere with the natural foaling procedure and can cause some of these symptoms, but the fit is far from perfect,” Mr. Henning said.

        David Powell, a disease researcher with the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center, and others are advising farms to mow frequently and limit horses' time in pastures to reduce exposure.
       The Cincinnati Enquirer's Ray Schaefer contributed to this article.


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