Breeding against the odds: how the industry has coped and adapted during Covid-19 *H&H Plus*

  • The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world on its head. Alice Collins investigates how breeders have fared, and the impact Covid-19 has had on the market

    Life as we know it is on hold, at least for now. But when breeders make their decisions, they’re required to look to the following year. So how do they think the pandemic has shifted the landscape and what might come next?

    Many in the breeding world have been forced to adapt in this torrid time, exing to new ways of working or selling. One of those is Emma Blundell of Yorkshire-based dressage stud Mount St John. Covid-19 came knocking for Emma, who was laid low by the virus in March and had to postpone many 2020 plans.

    “We pivoted to an online auction for the first time,” she says. “Though it was later than we’d planned due to my illness.”

    With the onset of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, Emma’s clients could no longer travel to the stud to view horses.

    “We’d thought about an online sale before, but Covid was the final nudge,” says Emma, who has sold a total of 10 embryos this year. “We had to adjust fast and create a lot more video and pictures of all the horses for sale.

    “Luckily, as a commercial operation, we could continue safely scanning and breeding as normal during lockdown, whereas some people cut back or maybe vets couldn’t come out. That’s why we decided to put more in-foal mares into the auction than we’d normally sell.”

    Of the 13 lots, the price highlight of €24,000 (£21,300) was an embryo from Uusminka, the full sister of Totilas, by Foundation. National grand prix champion Mount St John Freestyle’s daughter MSJ Dance oor provided an embryo by Totilas, which sold for €23,000. The average price of the seven auction embryos was €18,927.

    Other online auctions also yielded robust money, with the Billy Stud’s elite 2020 sale leading to six ridden jumpers and eventers selling for £50,000 or more.

    The annual December Schockemöhle/Kasselmann PSI Auction of dressage and jumping horses took place without an audience for the first time in its 41-year history, but still produced a turnover of €14.5m. Top of the 42 lots, the six-year-old jumper Calourina PS – by Carembar De Muze – sold for €1.6m.

    Other fresh online tactics reaped dividends, not least for Tullis Matson of Stallion AI Services, who began offering webinars.

    Their popularity – spanning more than 70 countries – surprised him.

    “Like everyone, we’ve had to modify how we reach out to clients, so we decided to try webinars,” says Tullis. “Nobody even knew what Zoom was back then. The webinars absolutely flew and British Breeding wanted to be involved too, so we joined forces.”

    There was also an uptick in stallions coming to Stallion AI in 2020, and the 28 stallion boxes were full from the first lockdown.

    “Breeders had a lot more choice, as stallions who normally compete weren’t at shows and were available for breeding,” adds Tullis. “We also froze more; usually in the summer it’s just fresh and chilled, but lots of stallions came for freezing in 2020.”

    Like Tullis, Shirley Light of Brendon Stud found that breeders were eager to use the stallions they were offering.

    “We had a really good season,” she says. “A lot of people who’d been dithering about whether to breed put their horses in foal, as they realised the summer was a wipeout.”

    Shirley has seen price tags at the top end of the market holding up well.

    “Prices have gone up for good ones as there are fewer horses about, but that’s been brewing for a few years as prices for everything keep going up,” she adds. “Quality horses are holding on to more value, especially home-breds.”

    Lorna Wilson of Elite Stallions and Newton Stud has had more buyers interested in purchasing embryos from strong dam-lines.

    “Top mare lines will always sell, so we looked at new ways of getting people into quality bloodlines without having to spend six-figure sums on top mares. Elite Embryos was in the pipeline anyway, but we sped it up as we had so many enquiries.”

    The increasingly active online market puts sellers with good, transparent reputations at a major advantage.

    Brendon Stud and Mount St John both have clients who’ve been con dent to buy on recommendation, without seeing the horses in person. In 2020, Emma sold a foal for the highest price she’s ever achieved. She also dipped her toe into online buying.

    “I bought my first horse online during Covid – an embryo at auction,” she says. “For a lockdown Monday night, it was pretty exciting. I think the online marketplace will grow a lot, particularly for embryos.”

    Shirley’s reputation for honesty has also been a major boon in this new paradigm.

    “I sold four horses abroad – to the Bahamas, France and Ireland – from videos in the first lockdown,” she says. “The Ireland lady was shocked that the mare was precisely as I’d described. We’ve bred and produced these horses, so we know them inside out. And it helps that I’m fairly well known for telling it like it is. Transparency is key in every aspect and buyers aren’t going to get any surprises.”

    Sales of semen from the hundreds of European stallions that Lorna markets were up year on year.

    “A lot of people who’d debated breeding from sport mares decided to go ahead with it this year,” she says. “So we had more semen sales, and more sport mares coming to the stud for embryo transfer. We foaled 85 mares at the stud and had tons of interest from buyers via our YouTube channel. The big stallion stations we work with have also had a strong year: the stallions at Helgstrand covered 6,000 mares, and Schockemöhle had their busiest year ever.”

    Shirley observes that there have been fewer outlets for those with disposable incomes, keeping the market buoyant.

    “The trade for young horses has been very good,” she confirms. “People weren’t going out to eat or going on holiday, so they bought horses instead. And they had more time, so young ones were in demand.”

    But, at the other end of the spectrum, there has been tremendous nancial hardship. Many hobby breeders have lost jobs and income, and some smaller breeders simply found they could no longer make ends meet, so bred less.

    With so much economic uncertainty, Tullis was taken aback by the increased demand. And having braced for a dry 2020, Lorna was also pleasantly surprised by brisk business at Elite Dressage, the sister business run by Anna Ross that produces and sells stock from the stud.

    “As soon as the rst lockdown was over, Anna’s phone was ringing o the hook with people wanting to buy horses at all levels,” says Lorna. “Andreas [Helgstrand] said the same: nobody went to try and buy horses in the first half of 2020, but they made up for it in the second half with tremendous demand.”

    The confusing road ahead

    The future is paved with the dual uncertainties of the ongoing global pandemic and Brexit. Tullis has been feverishly trying to digest all the new post-Brexit regulations.

    “Initially I think semen imports and exports will be a nightmare and everyone will be confused, so those could take a battering,” he says. “There could well be an uptick in mare owners using British-based stallions while the kinks are ironed out.

    “Anyone using a stallion based abroad should consider whether using frozen semen would be possible – for the mare and the vet – instead, if there are issues with chilled,” he concludes.

    Ref: 18 February 2021

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