Coronavirus Effects Ripple Across All Parts Of The Equine Industry

Mar 24, 2020 - 3:05 PM

As the coronavirus continues to spread, it seems like we are asked every day to make new adjustments to our personal and professional lives.

The Chronicle has reported on a wide variety of direct impacts in the equestrian community, from competition cancellations to how we’re observing social distancing at the barn to the financial stress on hourly workers and independent contractors.

The predicted time frame that we’ll have to sustain these changes now extends into weeks and possibly even months. As we’re still adjusting to the initial shock of the epidemic, another wave of challenges is starting to confront our industry.

Unlike The Grocery Store, The Feed Stores Are Stocked

Jim Campbell is CEO of New Country Organics Inc., which produces certified organic animal feeds at its mills in Waynesboro, Virginia, and Lubbock, Texas. They’ve adjusted some aspects of their supply chain and production models to avoid disruption.

“We started to increase our inventory level a few weeks ago, levels of raw materials,” said Campbell, a native of Scotland whose friends and family around the world raised his awareness of the coronavirus early on. “I was actually on a conference call not long ago with an American friend in China, who made me realize what was coming.

“We already used only North American-grown organic grains to mitigate risks in the supply chain,” he added. “We also began ramping up production just before demand shot through the roof,” which Campbell said happened last week.

“We feel fortunate we’ve been able to keep up with it with no disruption to supply chain,” he said.

While the grocery store shelves are sparse, grain production has ramped up to keep up with demand. Kat Netzler Photo

New Country Organics employs about 25 people at the two plants and its headquarters, which are also in Waynesboro. “We have enabled our employees that can to work from home, but those that operate our mills cannot,” Campbell said. “We are educating them about social distancing and looking at staggering shifts.

“We’re really examining every aspect of how we work to determine all possible ways to mitigate unnecessary contact,” he explained, “even down to which papers in the office truly need to be signed. We want to mitigate the risk to the best of our ability.”

Producing and distributing animal feed is considered essential work. The company relies on commercial delivery companies to transport goods, so Campbell also hopes those businesses’ employees will be able to remain on the job.

“I do think we’re looking at what’s immediately in front of us,” he said, “and then there are second- and third-order effects that we’re just beginning to get our heads around.”

A Rough Stretch For Rescues

Nina Lyman is president of Thoroughbred Retirement, Rehabilitation and Careers, a 501(c)(3) equine rescue and adoption center in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

“So far, our stores of feed, hay and other supplies are OK,” Lyman said. “So far, we’ve been able to put in our orders for feed and other supplies without trouble.

“We are seeking early sources for hay this season; we’d like to stock up,” she added. “Obviously, with the financial situation, we are worried about the future. We’re looking beyond the next two to three weeks.”

She sees a potential longer-term issue in the impact that curfews, travel and workforce restrictions may have on equine shippers and other trucking companies on which TRRAC relies for supplies.

The facility, which placed 51 horses in 2019, has also seen volunteer staff dwindle. “We have some volunteers who are moms, and now their kids are home, so they can’t come,” Lyman said. “Also, we have some teenagers who normally volunteer to ride or to fill water buckets, and a couple have been told they may have exposure and must isolate at home.

“Others have simply been kept home by their parents,” she added.

Some dedicated volunteers report to the farm solely to disinfect one building or to top off buckets in a specific barn, then leave without any cross-contact with other staffers. “We’ve got a certain volunteer who will work with a specific horse, so we’re taking all the safety measures,” Lyman said.

Nearly all competitions have been postponed or canceled this spring, and one domino effect on retraining rescue programs is the lost opportunity to school and market their horses.

“This is the time of year when we really would build our horses’ resumes with little shows and paper chases,” Lyman said. “With the cancellations, we’re unable to school the horses and show that they’re ready for an amateur rider.”

Thoroughbred aftercare programs are still actively searching for adopters. Kieran Paulsen Photo

Despite the lost opportunities to get the horses out in the public eye, TRRAC still has adoption interest at present. “We are actively trying to facilitate adoptions and fosters,” Lyman said. “If we can, we’ll lower fees. We’re hoping that with more people being home, they might be able to foster horses.”

Lyman suggested several ways people can help TRRAC—or any equine charity—at this time. “Any contribution, in any amount, is helpful and appreciated,” she said. “People can ask us what feed stores we have accounts at and make a payment in any amount there on our account.

“We have set up a drop-off station at the farm, so we can receive donations from the public without unnecessary contact,” she continued. “We have a charity listing on Amazon, so when people shop there, they can help us out, though I don’t know how long Amazon will be delivering.”

Lyman said their veterinary team from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center is still helping to facilitate Coggins and health certificates for horses that are adopted and heading out to new homes.

Veterinary Practices React To COVID-19

Like other veterinary schools, New Bolton, located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, is implementing new and rapidly evolving policies in response to the broadening epidemic. For example, according to the COVID-19 updates page on the school’s website, Coggins tests are being processed in batches every two weeks, and only “medically necessary” appointments will be seen.

Treatment in the clinic and ambulatory farm visits now follow specific guidance to observe social distancing between veterinary staff and the people responsible for the horses.

These modifications are mirrored north of the border, too, according to Martha Mellish, DVM, DACT, assistant professor at the University of Prince Edward Island’s Atlantic Veterinary College in Canada. “Our veterinary teaching hospital has gone to emergency and essential visits only for at least the next two weeks,” Mellish said. “It’s anticipated it will last until May 4th.

“This has dramatically changed how we practice,” she continued. “The equine reproduction season is approaching. As there would be an economic impact for breeders if veterinary services were restricted, this work has been deemed essential.”

While work continues, it’s increasingly difficult to provide necessary care to patients and simultaneously keep caregivers safe. An additional challenge in Mellish’s academic setting is that veterinary students are no longer available to assist.

“No students are on rotation, and staffing is restricted to a skeleton crew,” she said. “It will be a very different spring on equine theriogenology with only myself and my resident doing the work.”

Mellish, who also provides ambulatory services in the neighboring province of New Brunswick, reports that the provincial veterinary authority has restricted care to emergencies only and to a staggered schedule for practitioners, pathologists and pharmacists.

Veterinarian_Credit_ Brad M. Howell Photo
Veterinarians have put protocols in place to limit their contact with horse owners. Brad Howell/Allison Howell Images Photo

At this time, the teaching hospital expects to maintain their inventory of medications and supplies. “Specialty products very likely will be in short supply, which we have to deal with on a case-by-case basis,” Mellish said. “I should add that our pharmacy is limiting prescriptions to a one-month supply, and we are limiting pet food sales to one bag of dry food and one case of wet food.”

Horse owners in her maritime-island region shouldn’t have to worry about daily equine necessities. “I don’t anticipate the most important commodities for horse owners being in short supply,” she said. “By this I mean forage and bedding, as hay, haylage and bedding are grown here on PEI. Select products may not be available, especially in the short term.”

For now, veterinarians and institutions are voluntarily implementing these changes. The possibility of government intervention, though, has already become reality in some states.

On March 19, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued an executive order that bars veterinarians from performing any non-emergency procedures. Doctors, dentists and outpatient clinics are subject to the same restriction. That same day, Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order banning “any medical, dental or veterinary procedure that can be delayed for up to three months without undue risk to the health of the patient.”

These restrictions are intended to conserve supplies of personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals treating patients with COVID-19.

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