Interviews with Thoroughbred Farm Managers

Dave McGlothlin, Harris Farms
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by WOODY ASBURY, CTBA Field Representative

This is the first in a series of discussions with successful farm managers. The objectives will include prioritizing the problems associated with managing a breeding farm in the state, and discussions will feature the manager’s approach to handling these problems. Since many ideas and experiences are involved in management strategies, we hope that comparison of opinions will be of value.

David E. McGlothlin grew up in the Pacific Northwest and Colorado.

He attended Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he was awarded the bachelor of science degree in animal science in 1978 and the master of science in reproductive physiology two years later.

After a year at a Quarter Horse farm in Idaho, he was recruited by Harris Farms to manage the horse division.

He has been involved in all of the major developments of the farm in the past 16 years.

Harris Farms’ horse division currently operates on 300 acres at the diversified farm’s headquarters near Coalinga, Calif., and on 140 acres northeast of Sanger, this being known as the Harris River Ranch. The latter location is primarily used as a nursery for weanlings and yearlings.

At the home farm, the usual resident population consists of about 130 mares with a total of 350 animals, including yearlings, lay-ups and horses in training. Currently there are nine stallions standing at the farm. Horse population at the peak of breeding season approaches 750 animals. Caring for these, and supporting the operation is a crew of 32-37 people, depending on the season. The team includes three assistant managers, a trainer, a manager of the River Ranch and administrative/office staff. A resident veterinarian has been added this year.

Recently, we discussed the Harris Farms operation with McGlothlin. Some answers have been paraphrased from the actual interview and reviewed by him.

Question: First of all, Dave, thanks for participating in this exercise. I am sure that the readers of the California Thoroughbred will benefit from your willingness to share your expertise.

The operation you manage is both large and diversified. Considering the entire scope of your responsibilities, what is your number one objective?

McGlothlin: The welfare of all of the animals on the farm is the top priority for every member of this staff. That includes appropriate feeding, monitoring health status, maximizing fertility, preventing injury and diseases and insuring that our clients’ horses are always in the best condition we can achieve

Q: Those are pretty broad objectives. Tell us how you achieve them, taking "monitoring health status" as an example.

McGlothlin: Every animal on both farms is inspected at least three times a day by one or more of our staff. One of those is a detailed observation which would include seeing how the horse moves, noting any changes in behavior or any abnormality that was not present the day before. This detailed observation is ideally made early in the day. The yearling manager will walk through those pastures by 7:30 a.m. to inspect each youngster.

At the same time, during the breeding season, the teasing crew is checking all mares, paddock by paddock. Each mare is caught and led to the teasing chute or rail starting at 7 a.m. If the mares have foals at side, the foals are haltered and schooled while the mares are teased. Each individual is examined, temperatures taken or treatments administered as needed.

The feeders will also observe each horse twice a day. In addition, staff members observe the pasture during the day and the night watchman may spot any serious problems as he closes down the farm at dusk.

Q: Are there any special techniques that may help you monitor the horses?

McGlothlin: We use the scale a lot. Our walk-on electronic scale is located at a central place by the foaling barn. We try to weigh every outside mare upon her arrival and departure so we can verify weight gain or loss. By having these weights recorded, we can identify an animal who is not doing as well as expected and also show that a mare leaving the farm is in as good, if not better condition than when she arrived. We have a rigid program for weighing foals, beginning at birth and then every month. These foal weights are especially useful in early identification of possible health and development problems.

Q: What sort of program of disease control, vaccination and deworming do you use, and how do you keep it organized with that many horses on the place?

McGlothlin: First of all, we are really concerned about contagious diseases with this concentration of horses. This is especially important in the spring when we have so many mares and foals arriving at the farm. We isolate every animal upon its arrival and follow a prescribed set of guidelines for its release. We require a record of vaccination and worming for each arriving animal, and if we can’t obtain reliable records, we will vaccinate and worm these horses.

Our program calls for vaccinating against tetanus, encephalitis, rhinopneumonitis (Herpes I), influenza, strangles and rotavirus. The schedule is tracked by our computer program, which can print out a list of vaccinations, dewormings and other medications to be done on a regular basis. Our veterinarian, Dr. Jeanne Bowers, oversees the implementation by our veterinary assistant who gets all of these treatments done and recorded in the daily log, as a backup to the computer’s list.

Q: Let’s move on to the bread-and-butter topic of getting the mares bred, the real key to a breeding farm’s success. Would you outline your general approach and any specific suggestions you might want to pass on?

McGlothlin: Three important factors in managing a group of mares for breeding are teasing, palpation and evaluation of the stage of the cycle, and keeping good records. All three are necessary, and if you let up on any of them, the conception rate will suffer.

We tease on alternate days of the week. Teasing is done by the same crew every time, so that they get to learn the individual characteristics of the mares. As mentioned, we catch each mare and take her to the teasing chute or rail. Each mare is treated as an individual, some requiring restraint before they will show, while others break down across the pen. The responses are recorded on the daily teasing lists, as well as on the individual mare records.

Mares are then examined by our veterinarian and a determination of their reproductive status is made. This usually requires a rectal palpation, as well as an ultrasound scan. Mares coming into heat for the first time or coming back in heat following breeding in the previous cycle will be examined, which may include a uterine culture and a cytology, for suitability to breed. Abnormalities are quickly identified and appropriate treatment started.

Once a mare is covered, follow-up examinations are made as indicated to determine the time of ovulation. This is a critical point in the cycle that is used to time pregnancy determination or the beginning of the next cycle. All of this information is recorded and owners are notified. I can sit down each day and review the teasing, examination and breeding records for all of the mares and make a plan for the next few days to guide us to the appropriate follow-up. For example, if we have a foaling mare who is getting up around 28 days post foaling and has not yet shown to the teaser, she might be a candidate for a little extra time at the teasing chute, or even an examination to see if she is in silent estrus. Some mares, especially with their first foal at side, are protective to the point where they won’t show heat to the teaser.

Q: What is your routine for pregnancy determination?

McGlothlin: Mares are initially scanned at 16 days post-ovulation. We’ll determine if they are in foal and if there is more than one pregnancy. If we determine that there are twins, our veterinarian will try to terminate the less viable vesicle, while leaving the other. If we are not sure of twins, we will recheck the mare in 1-2 days to measure growth of the vesicles or movement in the uterus. Once a single pregnancy is determined, the next scan will be at 28 days post-ovulation, at which time we will be able to visualize an embryo with a heartbeat. Additional pregnancy checks are done at day 45, around day 100 and, finally, in September when all the mares on the farm are checked.

Q: Do you use any special programs to get mares cycling earlier in the spring?

McGlothlin: Day length, or photoperiod, is the primary factor in the start of ovulatory cycles in mares. Other factors such as nutrition and temperature are also involved. Our lighting program for barren and maiden mares begins in mid-November and ends May 1.

We use two large lighted paddocks. The mares are confined in the paddocks prior to dusk, and at 10:30 the lights go off and the mares are turned out to pasture. As a result, the mare’s reproductive system is fooled into behaving like it is springtime. In mid-February, when we want to start breeding, these mares think it’s mid-April. The system works well, as long as the light is adequate, and this is much less expensive in terms of labor and bedding than lighting the mares in stalls..

Q: We haven’t talked about the stallion part of this equation. How do you manage the stallions to yield best fertility?

McGlothlin: The best indicator of stallion fertility is a test breeding. We can do reproductive evaluations on stallions to determine sperm numbers, motility, etc., but the bottom line is whether or not they can get a mare in foal.

Once a stallion demonstrates his ability to settle a mare, we can use the information from the reproductive evaluation to determine the size of his book, how many mares he can cover per day and how close to ovulation he must cover his mares. There are some stallions that will achieve pregnancy with mares that ovulate 3, 4 or even 5 days after breeding. This can be determined by checking the mare records for the time of ovulation. This is important when scheduling your stallions’ covers, or whether you double up (second cover on the same cycle) on any given mare.

Usually the greatest limitation on a stallion is his enthusiasm for breeding, or libido. It sometimes wanes before his sperm numbers get depleted. So knowing which horses will consistently breed twice a day, or on rare occasion three times, is very helpful. Libido certainly is affected by general condition and attitude. A good feeding program, exercise and spending as much time outside as possible are all important in maintaining interest in breeding. Also, stallions have been shown to do better when they can see what’s going on, as opposed to keeping them up in a stall.

Of course, the new stallion is the biggest challenge. You start out the season without knowing how to best manage this horse. It’s a relief when the first pregnancy checks are positive and you know you are on the right track. You can then adjust his book and numbers of covers upward to determine his limits. We evaluate the semen on all stallions in the fall and at the beginning of the breeding season. In addition, we may re-evaluate during the season if we suspect a problem.

There are ways to get more mileage from a stallion if you know how many viable sperm he is producing, so the main approach is to tailor the number of breedings per day to his sperm production.

Q: We sure don’t want to overlook management of the foaling mare and her foal. Could you give us an idea how you handle these important parts of the season?

McGlothlin: The foaling mares are my favorite. First it is helpful to group your pregnant mares by their expected foaling dates. If you do this several months ahead, you create social connections that will be helpful after the mares have produced their foals and are turned out in groups. Also, this type of grouping facilitates in giving pre-foaling boosters, observing for impending foaling and making changes to their diets, for example, adding grain in the last trimester. These annual boosters should be given in the last six weeks of pregnancy to insure that there will be ample antibody in the colostrum for the foal, which is a huge plus for that foal’s start in life.

Mares that are close to foaling, based primarily on udder development, waxing of teats or milking, and the position of the foal, are watched continuously. We are fortunate to have an experienced attendant to monitor these mares through the night. Our basic philosophy is to let nature take its course and only help if it’s clearly needed. As soon as the mare breaks water, the foaling attendant calls an assistant manager to alert him to the foaling and request assistance, if needed. All of our senior team is experienced, and if a big problem develops, we can deal with the situation until the veterinarian arrives. We have even performed c-sections in an extreme emergency.

Foals are monitored very closely after birth. The umbilical cord is first treated with gentamycin followed by two additional treatments with chlorhexadene. The foal gets no antibiotics or other injections, as we have already provided for its protection through the colostrum. Of course we have to be sure it gets adequate colostrum, and we do check to determine that there is sufficient IgG (antibody) level in the blood at about 12 hours of age. Mares and their foals are turned out into paddocks adjacent to the foaling barn as soon as the foal’s birth weight is recorded and both mare and foal pass a post-foaling exam. As mentioned, the foals are haltered and led from the beginning. Lots of attention is paid to those foals in the first weeks of their life.

Records are, again, a vital part of the foaling process. The time it takes for the foal to stand and nurse is recorded, as well as the weight and time the mare passes the placenta. Any other notable information is recorded, and, of course, the owner is notified by phone as soon as possible. Photos and a birth announcement are also mailed to the owner.

Q: Let’s jump ahead about 5-6 months and hear about your methods of weaning.

McGlothlin: The so-called Kentucky system, where mares and foals are grouped, and a mare at a time is removed has not worked well for us here. We still stick to the old-fashioned separation plan. Several mares and foals are brought into the barn at a time, one pair to a stall. The foals are sedated and the mares are then removed to a pasture at the far end of the ranch. The foals will be based in those same stalls for up to two weeks.

By the second day post-weaning, we begin an intensive handling period. Every day, two people come into the stall, handle, groom and lead the weanling, and establish a positive relationship. Within two weeks, the weanlings are moved outside to individual pens, where the handling continues. After some additional schooling the weanlings are turned out in pasture with others of similar size, sex and temperament. Our weanlings come out of this pretty well indoctrinated to humans and, for the most part, are well-behaved on the lead.

Q: We don’t want to get away without a few words about your feeding program. You are situated at the source of some of the best alfalfa available, as well as most of the principal grains. Tell us briefly how your feeding program is structured.

McGlothlin: Alfalfa is our principal roughage, as you might imagine. If horses are on pasture, the grass balances out the alfalfa. But in pens or the barn, we feed oat hay and alfalfa hay together. We have had no problems with intestinal stones (enteroliths) with this program. Our concentrate ration is formulated and prepared here at the farm’s feed mill. Corn and barley are the significant grains in the mix, which is blended with molasses and a custom vitamin-mineral pellet. We have three different grain mixes that are fed according to protein and energy requirements of the animal.

Q: One last concern. With all of those client horses moving in and out, and with foals being born and started on your farm, how do you handle identification of the individual horses?

McGlothlin: I’m glad you asked that one, as it represents a major effort by our staff to keep all of the horses straight and be sure we breed them to the right stallion.

We ask for a copy of the Jockey Club Certificate of each mare sent to the farm. We use this to verify the identity of the mare, and then do a complete I.D. on our records. Polaroid photos are taken, and the mare is given a leather neck strap with a nametag. We verify which stallion each mare is booked to and put a color-coded tag on that neck strap, as well. Then you have a good double-check in the breeding shed when the stallion is brought in.

Foals are identified at birth by recording their markings and by taking Polaroid pictures. Weanlings and yearlings that will remain in our care will get a neck strap, as described before.

Dave, this has been a great opportunity for us. There are a lot of things we haven’t touched. Your training program is an area we have skipped, only due to space considerations. Hopefully we can do this again, and expand the subject matter. Many thanks for your help.

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