USDA Forage Research Unit at UK has Equine Focus

The University of Kentucky (UK) is home to a unique on-campus U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research unit that focuses a significant portion of its research on horses. It is the only unit in the country to have an equine focus within its traditional forage-based national mandate. The USDA Forage-Animal Production Research Unit (FAPRU) works in collaboration with UK on key forage-equine research projects.

"Only this unit in Lexington has a significant equine emphasis. A few focus on disease, but this unit is the only one that focuses on forage-based production issues," said James Strickland, PhD, the unit's research leader. "The mission is to improve the sustainability and competitiveness of U.S. forage-based enterprises. The primary focus is on improving the efficiency of utilization of forage by cattle, horses, sheep, and goats while protecting the environment, including soil and water.

"Forage animals take a dietary product we can't use and convert it to something we can use. They are productive at converting a nonfood product (forage) to edible human food products and fiber (meat, milk, leather) on land that is marginal or even unsuited to grain crop production and provide for entertainment and leisure time activities in the case of the equine industry," he said.

"We appreciate having a federal lab located on UK's campus, and we are grateful to Senator Mitch McConnell for helping secure this valuable research facility," said Nancy Cox, PhD, associate dean for research in UK's College of Agriculture, Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station director, and administrative leader for UK's Equine Initiative.

Twenty-five scientists from Agricultural Research Service and UK conduct forage-based joint research projects that encompass issues of equine health, nutrition, and reproduction, plant and soil sciences, and more.

Some of the unit's areas of equine research include laminitis, bermudagrass suitability for horse pastures, and blood vessel response to tall fescue compounds called alkaloids.

Plant physiologist Isabelle Kagan, PhD, is determining the types and amounts of water-soluble carbohydrates (simple sugars and fructans) in forages sampled under various environmental conditions. Her research goal is to provide information to help manage grazing for horses at risk for pasture-associated laminitis.

"It's a very painful disease for horses, and it causes large financial losses in the horse industry," she said. "I would be delighted if some of the carbohydrate work that I'm doing could provide information that would help in understanding the relationship between pasture carbohydrates and laminitis."

In collaboration with David Williams, PhD, UK plant and soil sciences turfgrass science specialist, Glen Aiken, PhD, research animal scientist, evaluated the forage quality and digestible matter yield of bermudagrass turf types. Bermudagrass is a warm-season perennial used for horse grazing in the south. Bermudagrass cultivars have been bred and developed with the cold tolerance to persist in the upper transition zone.

"Turf types could be better suited than forage types in handling the heavy traffic and impaction in horse pastures, but no research has been done to determine the forage quality of these bermudagrasses," Aiken said.

Research animal scientist James Klotz, PhD, is involved in a project with reproductive biology specialist Karen McDowell, PhD, Gluck Equine Research Center, that examines effects on equine muscle contraction and blood circulation to different alkaloids that have been isolated from tall fescue. The team has also begun looking at the effects on reproductive blood vessels, such as the uterine and ovarian arteries and veins.

Klotz also is interested in better understanding how ergot alkaloids cause vasoconstriction, or narrowing of the blood vessels.

Karin Pekarchik is an editorial officer in UK's College of Agriculture.

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More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK's Equine Initiative.

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