Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/5/2010 (3367 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Bring up the subject of horses in this province and practically everyone has a story to tell — and not always pleasant.
For every passionate horse lover, there are a few just as averse to the creatures.
But like them or not, horses are a big part of Manitoba's story because of the unique role they have played in the rural and agricultural economy.
A 2009 study by Kelwin Management Consulting, The Economic Impact of the Equine Industry in Manitoba put the capital value of the estimated 81,000 horses, the associated equipment to haul them and the gear with which to ride them at nearly $1 billion in Manitoba.
Plus, people spend about $256 million annually looking after those horses, making the sector an important market for feed and bedding. That doesn't factor in the spending on training, gas, entry fees and concession-stand food while people use their horses recreationally.
Underpinning much of that activity has been a niche-market opportunity that opened up about 60 years ago to harvest pregnant mare's urine (PMU) for medicinal purposes.
For whatever reason, possibly because of the abundance of good forage, the PMU industry was centred in Manitoba, with a plant constructed in Brandon to process the pee into drugs to help women through menopause. It later expanded to include producers from Saskatchewan and North Dakota.
At its peak, the industry employed more than 400 producers with more than 40,000 mares "on the line" through the winter months. It was small, but a high-value livestock enterprise. These farmers received a good price and they knew what it would be well in advance of the production year. It was consistent revenue in addition to whatever value they could capture from the foals that were produced.
There is no denying the industry was controversial. Even before research emerged in 2002 questioning the long-term health effects of the drugs it produced, it was the target of animal-welfare groups concerned about how the mares were treated and the fact that up to 40 per cent of the foals born each year were eventually slaughtered for meat.
The contracting company, Wyeth Ayerst, now owned by Pfizer, responded to those concerns with minimum stall sizes and mandatory turnouts, backed up with spot inspections to ensure the mares were getting adequate feed and water.
However, many horse owners noted the horses didn't much appreciate their new freedoms; the mares would be turned out for their runs in the dead of winter and spend their time standing at the barn door waiting to get back to their warm stalls.
And in more recent times, the company introduced incentives designed to ensure the foals born on these operations had the quality to become recreational sport horses. It began promoting these animals through the North American Equine Ranchers Information Council.
Those efforts helped establish this province as a go-to place for good-quality draft and sport-horse stock at reasonable prices. Manitoba-born horses are helping pull the famous Budweiser Draft hitches while others have excelled in light-horse competitions across North America. Sales attract buyers from across Canada and the United States.
But it appears the "end of the line" is coming to PMU industry. The volumes required have declined due to reduced demand for post-menopausal drugs and technology that has improved the processor's efficiency.
The latest rounds of cuts announced a few weeks ago will leave just 26 ranches in operation.
But despite their disappointment over losing their contracts, you won't find many who will say they have been mistreated by the contractor.
In fact, the equine ranching industry is an all-too-rare case study of a supply chain that actually treated its farmer participants with dignity.
Farmers losing contracts will get compensation worth 75 per cent of last year's production as well as transportation and placement assistance for the horses they no longer need.
However, this downsizing does throw the Manitoba horse industry into a period of uncertainty.
The Kelwin study recommended an industry stakeholder group be formed that would work with the provincial government to further develop the sector through continued genetic improvement, competition incentives, training opportunities for coaches and an expansion of horse-friendly trails and facilities.
The equine industry is a powerful rural diversification strategy because it not only generates value, it helps bridge the urban-rural gap by giving farmers and non-farmers another way to connect.
It's a worthwhile investment.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email:
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.