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Mikkel Pates, Forum Communications, Published September 16 2012

ND man waits for horse market rebound

HARVEY, N.D. – Kent Opdahl is waiting for the rebound in the horse market, but he isn’t holding his breath.

Opdahl’s life in the world of horses was turned upside down when Congress in late 2006 passed legislation that ended federal inspection of horse slaughter facilities, and horse slaughter in general in 2007. In 2011, Congress reinstated funding for inspections, but bureaucratic obstacles and political opposition have prevented plants from opening.

Five years ago, Opdahl had 120 horses and a growing business. He made a good part of his family’s living from the sale of quarter horse foals. After the de facto ban, he’s seen his numbers drop and their value decline precipitously. He’s turned his prime focus from horses to truck gardening, and has doubts that the industry will ever return to the way it was.

The first blow to his operation came after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“People just weren’t spending on luxury items and – basically – a horse is a luxury item,” Opdahl says.

He had 110 animals, and increased the herd blood lines. Foal values declined by more than half, to an average of about $500 an animal. Gradually, value partly recovered. Foals came up to a $700 average.

Through the years, Opdahl would take salvage animals – old mares or those that were hurt or couldn’t be broken to ride – to Kist Livestock Auction at Mandan.

“Normally, you’d be able to sell an older mare for $800 to $1,000 – about a third of the price of a new, good mare,” he says. “The one you sell to the slaughter market brings enough to feed four or five other horses for the winter.”

In late 2006, Congress cut off funding for horse meat inspections, meaning the meat couldn’t be sold. The last U.S. slaughterhouse for horses closed in Illinois in 2007.

Opdahl felt the effect of plant closures.

“They kept holding the sales, but all of a sudden you were getting $50 a horse, or $5 – or no bid,” he says. He contacted members of Congress to complain about the horse slaughter issue, but didn’t think he was getting anywhere. So Opdahl slowed his breeding. Instead of taking all of his culls to Mandan, he was forced to shoot some of them. He estimates he dispatched 25 or more.

He has doubts about whether resumption of U.S. horse slaughter will come anytime soon, but he did start breeding more mares this year. Their horse herd is down to about 64 animals. Instead of selling 30 foals a year, they’ve been selling eight. Heavy culling has meant that what’s left are the best of the best.

“If (plants) get reopened, it’ll bring the price up all across the board,” Opdahl says. “If you can’t get rid of an old horse that’s worthless, you can’t afford a new horse, either.”

Mikkel Pates writes for Agweek