Some horse and agriculture farms were asked to be test farms during and after the mare reproductive loss (MRLS) crisis in 2001. One of those farms is Glennwood Farm in Versailles, Ky., owned by John D. Gunther and operated by Leslie K. Miller, general manager. The test farms have provided a wealth of information during the past 2 1/2 years, on everything from caterpillars to grasses to tree inoculation. The horse industry is fortunate to have people who are willing to assist in gathering information in order to combat and hopefully defeat the problem of MRLS, and prevent its return in future years.


Following are answers to questions posed by the magazine to Miller.


Where is your farm, and how many/what types of horses do you have/raise?

We have two divisions for Thoroughbreds, with the main farm located on Rose Lane, which is off Steele Road between Clifton Road and McCracken Pike, within one mile of Ashford, Diamond A, and Brookdale Farms. The second division is Stonegate, which backs up to Labrot and Graham Distillery, and Glen's Creek separates it from our main farm. We have 350 acres and currently have just under 100 horses on the two farms.


Did you suffer from MRLS on your farm in 2001 or 2002, or did you have any fall fetal losses in 2002?

Yes, we got hit hard in 2001 by the MRLS crisis. We lost quite a few foals (late term abortion, LTA) born either dead, compromised, or removed due to dystocia at the clinic. We also lost many pregnancies (early fetal loss, EFL) in mares that had been bred in that season for foaling in 2002. We lost absolutely no foals or pregnancies to MRLS in 2002, in either the spring or the fall.


How and when did you become involved as a farm used to study the environment during MRLS?

We became involved in the research because of our early crisis in 2001. We lost our first foal on Feb. 7, 2001, a dystocia with a badly deformed foal. We lost the next foal to pulmonary edema and hemorrhage on Feb. 15 at 15 days old. Cause of these was undetermined. Our next foal was a dystocia on Feb. 26 and the mare died also.


These all seemed like bad luck until the next birth on April 22, when a foal was born apparently okay, then went quickly downhill, weakening, etc., and then dying. The following weekend of April 27 things went from bad to worse, when three mares aborted within 24 hours. Our vet, Dr. Jeff Pumphrey, recommended that I call Dr. Roberta Dwyer (at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center) and my call was returned by Dr. David Powell as Dr. Dwyer had just been called out to Taylor Made, who was apparently experiencing the same crisis. He came out and we walked through the pastures looking at them, discussing our practices, and talking about caterpillars. We had had a horrific infestation of the latter with masses of them climbing up the barn walls into the stalls. The pasture in which we experienced the greatest losses had the worst infestation--there were so many caterpillars on the gate alone you had to kick it to be able to even see metal or the chain with which to open it. The grass looked alive in some places. Dr. Powell told us he had had one or two calls from other farms that day concerned about mares and assured us he would bring it up at a meeting they would be having in-house the next morning. (All of this sounds so unbelievably calm now, but we were in a blind panic.)


I raced in on that Saturday morning, I believe it was April 28, to meet with our farm manager and try to address our situation. My daughter was with me, and we took one of the dead foals into the Diagnostic Lab, where we encountered an absolute mountain of dead foals--stacked at least 15 feet high on the loading dock!


The following weekend was the Derby, and our primary clients, John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, attended and reported back to us that this was THE topic of discussion--albeit hush hush--until people began to realize they were not alone in their losses. The industry began to react that following week, and the rest is history.


Dr. Powell asked if we could participate in their research because a) we were hit so hard, and b) we were the first farm on which he witnessed the mess. This was a true horror story, and one I won't likely forget for the rest of my life. Every day was an effort to get to sleep at night, knowing I might hear from the farm manager about another loss and every morning forcing myself to go to work to face another loss and another call to an owner--some of whom began to seriously panic and leave the state with their horses.


Who is working with you and what are they sampling/studying?

We began working with Jimmy Henning and Wayne Long with several students. He gradually turned us over to Wayne as he got more deeply involved in dealing with the public and his time was limited. We continue to work with Wayne, but any problems or concerns can also be addressed to Jimmy.


Are there any problems/inconveniences associated with being a sample farm? Did you or your neighbors have any concerns?

We have had no problems or inconveniences. Our most difficult decision was to agree to participate--feeling very much like an AIDS patient who goes public with the illness to help the cause. This can be a very unforgiving industry, and you can become a pariah very quickly. In 2002, we took daily temperature readings and precipitation levels on equipment set up by Jimmy and Wayne. They both came out every week, then every two weeks, to take pasture samples. In 2002 and 2003, we have focused on certain pastures for their research and have agreed to maintain certain pregnant and non-pregnant mares in those pastures for them. I also provided the health history and foaling background on the subject horses for the past years.


What have you learned about MRLS and environmental studying?

Through our involvement, I would say that I know more about pasture management and the affect on it from the environment than I ever could have gained through general reading. Our new farm manager, Barry Robinette, came on board in September of ’01, and he is a master at pasture management, which has been a huge benefit to us.


We heard about the tree injection process and called in Dave Leonard, an arborist, as our consultant. Through a lot of research and discussion, we decided that the tree injection process made so much more sense environmentally because the chemical used is not only just poisonous to the Eastern tent caterpillar, it also does not adversely affect the tree. We did not want to lose all our Black Cherry trees, a tree native to Kentucky a lot longer than the Thoroughbred. So in the fall of 2001, we removed only those that were otherwise unhealthy or ugly--about 50 trees in all. Dave was so certain of the success of the tree injection process that he asked to use our farm as a test location to prove its success to Jimmy Henning and the forage specialists at UK, in particular Lee Townsend, who was a non-believer. We realized we were going out on a limb (no pun there) because if it was unsuccessful, it left only a short window in which to scramble and spray the trees--many of which are 30-40 feet tall. Spraying was truly to be our last resort because of our concerns about drifting chemicals from the spray and the danger to our horses and staff, not to mention the environment. Townsend was so impressed that he declared we had gotten a higher ETC kill ratio than any farm he had been on, and they brought out a crew and videotaped our results--which was great because the six to eight days in which it took to kill the ETC were nerve-wracking.


Anyway, the bottom line is that we've all learned a lot about working with nature in our business.


Do you have any other comments?

I'll always wonder about the effect from the freeze and the grasses, especially clover which was in incredible abundance that year. Talking with a neighbor farmer, he noticed that his cattle, which usually eat the sweet clover first, bypassed the frosted clover that year entirely, eating the clumps of fescue and bluegrass first. A real rarity. We also stood together in a field and studied the pasture, and he commented on how he'd never seen grass develop seed heads in May (and he's no spring chicken). The clover in my yard the week of the high temperatures followed by deep frost was all covered with a black mold--had I only known what was coming I would have collected a Ziploc bag full. Which is something I do regularly now if I see something amiss (I'm an amateur gardener and spend a lot of time in my yard). I actually have a bag of frost-burned weeds on my desk now for Wayne to collect.


While I'm relieved that pastures have been eliminated from suspicion, I can’t help but feel they still may find a correlation down the road. At least horse owners seem reassured, which is critical for our continued success as the "center of the horse industry."


Fortunately, 2003 has gone very well for us as we enter the homestretch of breeding and foaling season. The ETC have not revisited the farm and as a monitoring test farm, we have access to environmental information to help better manage the horses.


We were also recently visited by a group of forage specialists at the request of Wayne Long. He selected Glennwood Farm as an excellent representation farm for good management and maintenance practices where the managing staff is closely involved in the actual day-to-day activities and decisions, rather than by directives from a corporate office.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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