Processing aside, horse numbers ‘need to decrease’
Douglas – According to Billings Livestock Commission owner and operator Bill Parker, the U.S. horse industry continues to face a huge dilemma with the closing of U.S. horse processing facilities.
Billings Livestock Commission hosts the largest monthly horse sale in the U.S. and has been doing so since 1934 when it opened as a horse and mule market. The horse sales market an average of 10,000 horses per year.
“At one time, in the early 2000s, there were six horse processing plants operating in the U.S. – three in Texas, one in Nebraska, one in Oregon and one in Illinois,” said Parker at the mid-August Cattlemen’s Conference hosted by the Wyoming Livestock Roundup in conjunction with the Wyoming State Fair.
“Now we have no operating horse plants, but we still have a market for processing horses. They just have to go to Canada or Mexico,” he said.
Although the Montana legislature passed a bill legalizing the processing of horse meat for human consumption in their state, they can’t begin to move forward with facilities until the equine transportation bill is settled in Congress and until USDA inspectors are provided to the facilities.
“We are legal to open and operate a horse plant in the state of Montana,” said Parker. “We need support from horsemen, farmers, ranchers and cattlemen to oppose the bill banning transportation of horses for human consumption.”
Until USDA inspectors are provided, the plants can’t process meat for foreign distribution. “We could open the facilities and sell the meat in Montana, but we couldn’t send it to Europe for human consumption,” said Parker.
Besides the slaughter market, Parker said that horses with an occupation – such as broke geldings, rope horses, cutters and barrel racers – still have an “extremely strong” market. The market for all other horses has seen an adjustment because of the onset of the recession and the closing of the packing plants.
“There’s been an adjustment in the price of young, unbroken horses and breeding stock,” said Parker. “I think the days of raising huge numbers of horses are over, and I think until we see the horse numbers decline we’re in for problems even if we do see a packing plant open. Our numbers need to decline.”
Regarding the market for processing horses, Parker said in the early 2000s those animals topped out at $80 per hundredweight for those weighing in excess of 1,300 pounds, which Parker described as “straight-backed, straight-bellied hard-muscled hor-ses,” big northern range horses that are found in the West.
“Last month those horses brought $30 per hundredweight,” said Parker.
Lesser quality horses that used to bring around $60 per hundredweight have dropped from $18 to $25 since the plant closures.
“Horsemeat is still worth the same price in Europe, but due to the freight and paperwork here we’ve seen a huge decrease in the price of processing horses,” said Parker. “The freight and paperwork to get the horse from Billings to Mexico costs about $198. There’s been a $130 to $140 increase in the price of getting the horse to Texas.”
That increase in shipping cost includes a Coggins test, an international health inspection and freight.
“I think when we get the horse numbers down in the U.S., then we’ll see the price of horses increase again,” stated Parker. “I think horse people will have to police the numbers themselves, and I think it’ll adjust itself because of feed costs.”
He says right now there are large numbers of mares coming to town. “With feed costs and the price of horses, producers can’t make them pencil out,” he said, noting that putting costs to horses is something that isn’t generally done. “Horses are an emotional object, and not like a cow. A cowman will know the exact price per pound on a steer, but have no idea what it costs to feed the horse standing in the pasture. People are starting to figure out they’re better off to do something else with their time and money.”
Parker predicts horse numbers will decline noticeably in the next two or three years.
Although the using horse market has remained steady, Parker said the upper end of performance horses did see fewer mares bred this spring than in the last 15 years. “Some of the upper end stallions only bred a quarter of the mares they did a year ago,” he said.
Concerning horse abandonment, Parker said the problem isn’t seen in Montana and Wyoming on nearly the scale seen in other parts of the country. “People are padlocking their stockyards because horses are being dropped off, and many places end up with horses just wandering around.”
Parker referenced a business partner in Texas, who buys and ships horses to Mexico, who has four or five horses dropped in his yard per day. “People bring them in, drop them off and he ships them to Mexico.”
Of the Montana legislation awaiting a decision on the federal level, Parker said there are investors ready to build a state-of-the-art facility to lease to foreign packers should the opportunity arise.
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.