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Axe Falls On 38 PMU Ranches

“It was a steady income… You knew what you were going to get a year or two in advance. There’s not too many commodities in agriculture you can do that with.”

– GORDON MASON

On a cloudy afternoon, Gordon Mason asks his wife Gladys for help finding his cowboy hat.

“Going out in style,” she says with a faint smile.

He drops it onto his head, grabs a pretty halter and leather shank, and heads out the door to fetch his favourite saddle horse.

With a broad valley of hardwoods in the background, and a pen full of Double G Ranch’s fine quarter-horses filling out the background, Mason, 67, stands for a picture.

The land around these parts was settled by his ancestors, who first arrived in the 1880s. They even left a written account of their early struggles hauling hay with a team of oxen and making trips on foot to Brandon for supplies.

GOOD LIVING

In 1966, he started out with 17 mares on the line, as one of the first producers of pregnant mare’s urine, from which the hormone replacement drug premarin is derived.

Over the years, they added more mares as their contracts grew. Last winter, they had 66 mares in the barn.

“If you don’t overspend, it’s a good living,” said Mason. “It was a steady income. You knew what you were going to get a year or two in advance. On the contract, you knew right to the nickel. There’s not too many commodities in agriculture you can do that with.”

The Masons were among 38 PMU ranches that received notice last week from Pfizer, the company that bought out Wyeth last fall, that their contract wouldn’t be renewed.

They and other producers are to receive compensation worth 75 per cent of their last year’s production, and assistance with marketing and trucking costs in selling their animals.

DOWNSIZING

He plans to keep at least 10 horses around the place. The rest of the horses will have to be sold, because there’s not enough income from selling foals to make a go of it, he said.

Even if the owner breaks them himself, the training process takes a lot of time.

“If you get $3,000 for a horse, you’ve got that much in him by the time he’s three (or) four years old. It costs about $700 a year to keep a horse,” he said. “You’d make about five cents an hour. It takes a lot of riding to make a horse good.”

In recent decades, the PMU industry came under fire from animal rights activists. The industry responded with ever-tighter rules and regulations enforced by field managers who verified that the horses were being given proper feed, access to water, sufficient bedding straw, and regular exercise outside the barn during the winter collection season that ran from late October to March.

WELFARE CONCERNS

Also, in response to criticism that too many of the foals produced were going to the slaughter market, the North American Equine Ranching Information Council (NAERIC) created cash incentives to encourage PMU producers to raise top quality animals for a wide variety of work, recreation and sport uses.

“As far as those mares in the barn, they were all treated pretty good,” he said. “I’d rather be a PMU mare standing in a warm barn than one standing out in the bush somewhere.”

But a 2002 study by the Women’s Health Initiative which uncovered adverse health effects from premarinbased hormone replacement therapy (HRT) sparked a steep decline for the PMU industry, and a switch to lower doses reduced demand for estrogen used for treating post-menopausal symptoms.

Lisa Ross, a spokesperson for Pfizer-owned Wyeth Canada, said in an emailed statement that a recent review of inventory requirements found that a 60 per cent cut in the number of PMU producers was necessary.

The reduction will also affect 15 per cent of the 170 workers at Wyeth’s Brandon plant, as one of three production lines is shut down.

“The company is committed to treating employees and ranchers fairly and reasonably and to helping make this transition as smooth as possible,” she wrote.

SHARP DECLINE

Greg Little, a PMU rancher from Decker and president of NAERIC, said that the news May 12 was “sad.” After last year’s cutbacks, which saw seven ranches exit, many hoped that supply and demand would stabilize.

The plan to cut back by 60 per cent that was announced recently came as a shock to many, he added, given the reduction from the peak of over 400 ranches in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota in 2003. The latest round will leave 22 ranches in the province, and four in Saskatchewan.

His ranch, Little Valley Quarter Horses, was spared.

“Most of the ranchers have a lot invested in their operations and everybody feels for their horses,” he said. “I think we can find homes for them in productive markets. It’s going to take some work, but nothing comes easy in this world anymore.”

Some PMU ranchers who received bad news last week declined to comment.

Marylin Warkentin, 58, was one of the few who were willing to talk. She and husband Rob have run a 78-stall operation near Virden since 1992 with a mix of registered Belgian, Percheron and Spotted Draft horses.

Everyone in the industry has been “living on the edge” since the first big cuts in 2003, she said.

A day after being informed that their contract was being cancelled, she was undecided about what they might do, or how many horses they might keep.

“We’ve gotten used to having horses around all the time,” she said. “When we first got in, we bought seven heavy horses at a sale. Now, to go down to say 20 mares would seem like not too many horses. I guess we just have to take our time to figure it out.” [email protected]

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